The Legend of Buriram: The Scarlet Pimpernel of Muay Thai

Fightland Blog

By Alexander Reynolds

Photos courtesy of the author

They seek him here, they seek him there, those kickboxers seek him everywhere. Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell? That damned, elusive pimpernel of Muay Thai Buriram Suanmisakawan!

As a trainer, the hard-hitting 147lb champ from the 1970s has become a bit of an inside tip in the world of Muay Thai, with many big name nak muay farang (foreign kickboxers), and MMA strikers, going to Bangkok to track down the veteran ass kicker to learn a thing or two about the old one-two.

And when it comes to the Scarlet Pimpernel of Muay Thai, I must declare a vested interest in the subject matter. Last decade, quite by chance, I stumbled across this ring legend in the sweaty gyms of Bangkok’s notorious slaughterhouse district. There he was, with his trademark Charles Bronson moustache, stately and proud, solid as a mountain, strong as an ox, holding an aged set of Thai pads, and bashing some old time ring craft into the knuckleheads of a new generation of nak muay, both foreign and domestic.

I scratched my eyes, blinked twice and clicked my heels three times. Was it really Buriram, the steely welterweight who waged his own life in search of the great way? The man with four championship belts at 147lbs, including two from Lumpini stadium and one from Rajadamnern? Yes, it really was him strutting the ring with the proud arrogance of a lion, watching the comings and goings of the gym with the eye of a hawk. It was Buriram in the wild alright, not some black and white figure from a fuzzy old VHS tape back home in London town.

Not many men who climbed to the top and put their name in the clouds have the ego to make the downward transition to humble trainer. Then again, not many fighters have 300 wins out of 312 pro-bouts on their record, and got nothing to prove like this 65-year-old warhorse. Nevertheless, fate had leant a hand in this chance encounter. Here he was, a god of the arena, a throwback to an era of pride, guts and sweat. A champion nak muay who had seen and done it all. What could I learn about Thailand and the art of eight limbs from this Holy Grail of a fighter? Much proved the answer.

One night in Bangkok might make a hard man humble, but so does one round on the pads with an old pug like Buriram. You miss a shot, he fires a lightning jab to your face; you play the smart ass and shoulder roll a right hand, he shoots a round kick from the floor to connect with the side of your stupid head.

And then comes the ear bashing when you get shagged on the pads. “What’s the matter with you? Too much boom boom? Boom boom no good!”

“Boom Boom” is Thai slang for “sex” and “sex” is a bit of a no-no.

“What’s the matter with you now, too much whiskey? Whiskey no good. Give it to me instead!”

Buriram has no mercy on the pads. He’s a trainer of gladiator school vintage. He wants you sharp as a razor and as straight as a forest monk. After all, he’s branding you with his knowledge, and, what’s more, he only wants the best of you going back out there into this unforgiving world. No wonder old Buriram’s a closely guarded inside tip.

But in those hazy years up close and personal with the ex champ, there was one big question gnawing at me like a rat in the skull. Just what in the Hell happened to him? The career of a boxer usually ends in failure. Bad management. Bad investments. Best friends who went on to become deadly enemies. Buriram had shit in bulk and then some. Yet, like the mountain that weathers the seasons, Buriram stands proud and intact. Perhaps faith has something to do with it. A karma fearing Buddhist of the Theravada tradition (like 95% of the Thai population), he knows that happiness is brief, and suffering, in whatever shape or form it takes, is eternal and must be endured. After all, that is what made Buriram a champ in the ring, and, more importantly, a champ in his own life outside of it.

Or maybe it’s got something to do with where he comes from. For Buriram isn’t just a man, it’s a place, a salt of the earth province up in the northeast of the kingdom. Good humored, considerate and philosophical, the men and women of Buriram are the very backbone of Thailand. They are the bar girls, the cashiers, the chefs, the chambermaids, the taxi drivers, the cops and the soldiers—the unsung subjects who never really get that much of a mention when it comes to telling the story of Thailand.

And the boxers of Buriram? Well, come win, lose, draw or disqualification, those hillbilly boys don’t back down and are game for a fight with anyone, King Kong, Godzilla, Mike Tyson, Donald Trump, take your pick. So imagine the essence of this province distilled into one single figure, the noble spirit of Muay Thai into one boxer and you soon get a sense of Buriram the man.

Shooting the shit over Black Label Johnny Walker whiskey and a Krong Thip cigarette, the old timer is too modest to spin his own sagas. He lives in the now, not the past. “Life,” he once said, “is something that you gamble with.”

These days, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Muay Thai is less elusive than his fictional counterpart. You can find Buriram teaching posh Thai ladies at the FitFac Gym in Bangkok. It’s a far, but lucrative, cry from the spit and sawdust gyms where I had first spotted him in the wild. Thai people, particularly the middle class and “high-so” types, weren’t very keen on Muay Thai boxing in the old days. That’s changed a bit of late. More of them are taking it up to get fit and lose a bit of weight. Canny old Buriram has jumped into the fray to make a Baht or two on the side of his usual biz. After all, he’s 65, getting on a bit and only reacting to market forces.

The good book tells us to honor thy father and mother, but what about my Muay Thai trainer? With pride, you try to write down the unfinished poem of a man’s life. A nak muay, a humble Buddhist, an old-fashioned Thai patriot, a good guy in a universe of thugs and bums. As for the legend, it’s as simple as a one-two combo. If you seek him out, he will school you up. On the double and forward you go.


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