By 1986, Samart Payakaroon could well have been the greatest combat sports athlete to ever live. While this was a time when the English speaking world cared little for the achievements of Nak Muay, Payakaroon was one of the most accomplished Muay Thai fighters of all time. Payakaroon had won the Lumpinee stadium title at four different weights in the course of two years. He had abandoned Muay Thai to take make the transition to boxing in order to seek bigger paydays and challenges. Making his professional boxing debut in 1982, Samart threw himself in at the deep end by relearning the game as a southpaw. This was especially strange as Samart's kickboxing style was often more side on than most. He made use of an almost side kick in place of the usual front legged push kicks to off balance opponents and he utilized head movement and footwork far more readily than many of his counterparts.
Perhaps this was a choice by Payakaroon, to keep his well-honed kickboxing habits separate from his new boxing habits in his own mind and muscle memory. Whatever the case, Samart rattled off eleven victories as a boxer and was soon in with the world super bantamweight champion, Lupe Pintor. As a boxer, Samart was smooth and mobile: he would go to the ropes and sway against them to avoid blows, and when he found an opening he would dance out of a corner and across the ring, back foot crossing behind his lead as Muhammad Ali used to do. Samart's lead hand would flick out fast and often come back low, but it was his left straight which did the damage. Dancing off to his left he would shoot in a left hand as his opponent pursued and snap their head back. In the fifth round of his bout with Pintor, Samart snuck through a left hand on the hard hitting Mexican and sent him to the canvas.
This is where Payakaroon's tale makes the shift in character from inspirational to cautionary. Samart had a famous indulgent streak and fell victim to that same gossip that came to surround so many other champions before their careers took a graceless nosedive into the muck. The champ had been reported to be out partying and was indulging himself and struggling to cut the weight for fights. After winning the title from Pintor in January, Payakaroon returned to the ring in June, this time in Paris. It was his first fight outside of Thailand and his promoter decided to put on a show by giving him an obvious tune up against the 8-13 Rafael Gandarilla who was coming in on a hot streak of three losses. But in December Samart was back on track as he took on Juan Meza—the man from whom Pintor had won the title and a very respectable 43-6 record. Side stepping Meza's lumbering charges, Samart showboated in the twelfth round, called Meza onto him and slipped a barage of punches along the ropes, only to come off of them and deck Meza for the TKO with one short straight left. Doing that so easily to a world-class opponent could understandably make a man complacent.
The karmic retribution for Samart's fighting sins came in the form of one Jeff Fenech. Fenech didn't have a chip on his shoulder so much as he had a little shoulder left underneath his chip. Fenech had represented Australia as the captain of their boxing team in the 1984 Olympics, beaten his quarter-final opponent on the scorecards, and then had his victory overturned for seemingly no reason. Disgusted with amateur boxing Fenech quickly turned professional and won the IBF world bantamweight title in just his seventh pro fight, an unparalleled accomplishment at the time. Fenech was a good puncher, and a good boxer, but more than anything he was a mauling infighter. If he could get head to head with his opponent, Fenech could begin his best work. Pounding the body and head with either hand, tripling up on punches until opponents adjusted, looking for the overhook and turning the opponent by the elbow if they denied it, taking small angles constantly with side steps. Fenech was one of the good old fashioned inside fighters and the pace that he put on opponents was withering.
Take for example this brilliant rally of blows, after which the two men fall into the clinch. Notice that as the clip ends Fenech has retracted his left arm to free it and moved his head below McCrory's in order to create space to throw shots. He has also overhooked McCrory's left arm to keep him in place.
Fenech saw out 1986 by defending his bantamweight belt against Steve McCrory of the legendary Kronk Gym. Rather than dance and exert himself in attempting to outbox Fenech, McCrory decided to take the centre of the ring and fight Fenech in a phone booth. In an entertaining bout Fenech wore McCrory down with his sheer variety of tactics from the inside and his unrelenting pace. In his first super bantamweight bout Fenech took a cautious decision over Tony Miller because his shot at Samart's belt had already been booked for the next month.
When Samart and Fenech met in the ring, the first round went exactly as many of Samart's fans would expect. Samart's smooth movement carried him out of the bad spots and he jogged around to the other side of the ring each time it looked like Fenech was close enough to impose his game. Samart would fire out that left straight whenever he broke the line of attack. The problem was that Fenech just kept cutting the ring in half again.
A quick right hand as Fenech chased Samart to the ropes saw Fenech on the canvas for the first time in his career.
The longer you follow fighting the more you will become convinced that there are 'long rounds' and 'short rounds' despite the time on the clock always being the same. A round can be done almost as soon as it started, or it can seem like a prolonged battle has reached a well earned break for the spectators to catch their breath as the round ends. By the second round it felt as if half the fight had played out as Samart was beginning to get trapped on the ropes for brief periods.
Notice that Samart pins Fenech's lead hand as he circles out, but Fenech's right is free to land a fierce blow into the solar plexus of Samart.
The third round was most certainly a different length though, as when Fenech had Samart reeling in the corner under fire, the Australian crowd was so riotous that neither the fighters nor the referee could hear the bell. We've written it before: pressure fighting isn't as much about the punches which are thrown as the ones which are threatened. A missed punch is a missed punch, but a punch that the opponent is waiting on tenses him up, forces him to move, and this can be used to herd him into corners and to make him exert himself in order to get out. More than Fenech's punches the first and second rounds were a story of motion and feinting. The third round was what happened when Fenech got to his preferred range and Samart was already tired.
Samart slumped to the mat under a barrage of right hands in the fourth round and that was pretty much the end of the legend. He reportedly went into hiding briefly on returning to Thailand because of the rumors of his playboy antics and the amount of money patriotic gamblers lost betting on him. He fought a couple of nobodies (the 6-1 Hogan Noguchi and the 41-29 Hector Cortez who hadn't won a fight in four years) and then he retired in 1988. He came back in 1993, fought a handful of soft opponents, and put in a losing effort in one last title fight.
But the lesson of this fight is in how it is remembered in two completely different lights. Every fight you ever watch will be the product of countless variables. For the man who wins it will be a gameplan coming off perfectly, or God's will, or a manifestation of his destiny. For the man who loses it will be the bad weight cut, the seafood he had two days out, the stress of changing management. While some of those factors will be more important than others we can't say that any of them make no difference.
Fight fans will either believe Samart fell off hard or that Fenech had his number and would have licked him even on a bad day. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. There is certainly no arguing that Samart just “wasn't that good”, and his decline following this fight was plain to see. But for the fast moving evasive fighter who didn't like covering up and didn't really wrestle much on the inside despite his Muay Thai roots, Fenech was a tough stylistic match up. It just so happened that for the fast living party animal whose motivation was waning, who was struggling to make weight, and whose personal life was a mess, Fenech was the right man at the worst time.
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