The man of the moment throws a few choreographed shapes then strides forward. Flames erupt from the runway and all around people are losing their heads. They can’t believe it. They are seeing Buakaw in the flesh. They are present to witness the comeback of the legendary Thai boxer- in a circus tent- in the car park at Leicester City.
Buakaw is the most famous fighter you’ve never heard of. The official programme lists the 30 year old’s record as 365 wins from 415 fights, but the numbers don’t tell half the story. Buakaw is a beast - an all action fighter who guarantees excitement. He made his name in the stadiums of his home country then took things to another level with his wins in the K-1 Max kickboxing tournaments. By repping the Thai art on the international stage- he became a superstar across Asia and a national hero in Thailand.
In March this year, the world of Muay Thai was shocked when Buakaw went missing from his training camp. The rumour mill went into overdrive- with the press speculating about fatigue and injuries and also airing some dark tales of mistreatment and disputes over money. His manager dismissed the reports and boosted the intrigue, telling the Bangkok Post: “He should not have financial problems because he has earned quite large sums. This might have something to do with women.” Buakaw emerged weeks later in his home province of Surin and said that he was single handedly going to build a boxing camp for himself and the children of his village. In April, Buakaw fought in Pattaya, knocking out Russian Rustem Zaripov then later announced his retirement due to ongoing disputes with the Por Pramuk Gym. Pictures surfaced showing the great man training in jiu jitsu and wrestling, suggesting that he was contemplating a switch to mixed martial arts.
Any MMA promotion would have been keen to sign the biggest name in Asian fight sports and Buakaw did nothing to dampen the speculation, stressing that he had retired only from Muay Thai rather than all combat sports. We may never know what negotiations went on behind the scenes. The fighter and his management met for an arbitration hearing in a civil court and came up with an agreement that enabled them to drop various lawsuits and move on with their lives. A nation rejoiced when Buakaw announced that he was returning to Muay Thai. The date was set. The king would return on Friday August 17th, the day before the start of the football season, in a big top in the East Midlands.
The King Power Stadium is named after the duty free empire that made the millions that enabled the current Thai owners to take over at Leicester City FC. The board decided they would like to stage an event to help develop understanding between the people of Leicestershire and Thailand and settled on the idea of hosting a night of fights featuring the very best Thai boxers. Muay Thai is at the heart of the national culture. The ferocious art helped to maintain the independence of Thailand and for generations everyone from the king to the lowliest field hand was taught the ‘science of the eight limbs’ in case they were called upon to defend against foreign attacks. In modern times, the sporting version has evolved into a phenomenon that fuses art and tradition- including bagpipe music and dance as well as the most devastating stand-up fighting techniques known to man.
Buakaw is a beast - an all action fighter who guarantees excitement. He made his name in the stadiums of his home country.
Plenty of big guns were in the tent for Thai Fight Extreme: the Thai ambassador, the Lord Mayor of Pattaya and coachloads of suits were on hand to give the event official endorsement. From the other side: the cream of the Leicestershire glitterati in the shape of Nigel Pearson, Steve Walsh and Gary Newbon (unfortunately, Roy Cropper was nowhere to be seen). Despite short notice and minimal publicity, the event was a 3,000 sell out. Tickets had been priced low but they began changing hands for many times the original asking price online once the identity of the main attraction became known.
Muay Thai fights traditionally take place over five rounds. In a convention that baffles newcomers, the boxers will take it easy over the first couple of rounds, feeling out their opponents, then wind up the pace to a thrilling finale. This format is comparable to the horses parading and cantering down to the post on the race course. Gamblers can get a look at the participants before the real action begins. The Thai Fight promotion have reduced fights to three rounds, to encourage the nak muay to bring the pain from the first bell. On the evidence of their UK debut, the new formula works.
In the opening fight of the night, you could spot the first-timers present by their gasps when Armin Pumpanmuangwindysport (a fighter’s ring name often incorporates the camp they represent) caught a kick then casually used his African opponent’s forward momentum to send him flying over the top rope. The card was stacked with talent, with the Thai imports in particular putting on a clinic in the use of elbows, knees and generally demonstrating the destructive potential of the human body. In the second feature, Sudsakorn straddled the line between showmanship and sadism with aplomb. To the delight of the crowd, he came out brandishing a Leicester City scarf before taking his adversary apart. Mixed in with the brutal punches and baseball bat shin kicks were hip wiggles, winks to the front row and an ever present smile. Not really showboating – more like the joyous vision of a master craftsman relishing the opportunity to share his gift.
For all the quality on offer, there was no doubt we were watching the support acts. The change in atmosphere was palpable when fight six came around. It was time. A montage of the headliner’s exploits played out on the big screen. Everyone stood. Fevered chanting betrayed the number of Thais present, many of them young women exhibiting Beatlemania levels of anticipation. The extent of Buakaw’s celebrity had been apparent at the previous day’s press conference. His backstory puts him somewhere between David Beckham and Manny Pacquiao with a hint of George Best edge.
Four TV cameras from back home hung on his every word and the full show was to be broadcast live in Thailand. Even when he was on the periphery of affairs, everyone was slyly monitoring his reactions. When questioned, he gave the by the numbers answers you expect from anyone who deals with the media on a daily basis. “I'm very excited to be fighting again. It's been a while. I've been through a lot of problems. I'm ready to get back into action and it's an honour to be fighting at the King Power stadium here in Leicester.” He was asked in detail about something his opponent Abdoul Toure had said. The reporter recounted the Frenchman’s long statement about how he had been studying hours of fight footage and had formulated a game plan to capitalise on the flaws he had spotted. When asked for a response, Buakaw deadpanned: “I’m scared.” It brought the house down. It was funny, but not that funny- in the way that Ali’s poetry was good but not that good. It’s all down to natural charisma.
After the weigh in, when all the others had left to eat and relax- Buakaw was still on duty. Outside the Keith Weller Lounge under a dreary grey sky, he was required to strip to the waist and shadowbox on demand as a cameraman orbited him. Passers-by stopped and stared. They may not have known who this guy was or what he was doing, but they recognised awesomeness when they saw it.
After the hype, Buakaw’s entrance began modestly. He took a measured stroll across to the shrine dedicated to the Thai royal family and went down on his knees to show respect. After a quick boogie and a riot of smoke and fireballs, he marched to the ring purposefully. Before the hurt business, it was time for the ram muay. At the presser, Buakaw had advised the handful of farangjournos present what to expect. “As is the tradition before every fight, there will be a small ritual: a dance to pay respect to our teachers, our elders, our parents and to the sport. It should be quite a spectacle for those who have not seen it before.” Each fighter adds a personal twist to the ceremony. Buakaw rounds off by stomping the canvas in his adversary’s corner before theatrically walking away; halting every few steps to look back over his shoulder and nodding with knowing menace.
His backstory puts him somewhere between David Beckham and Manny Pacquiao with a hint of George Best edge.
The first round was cagey, with clinching and tit for tat pot-shots as Buakaw blew off some ring rust. In the second, he stalked his man with bad intentions, unleashing venomous kicks. The Buakaw legend spread further last January when a Youtube video of him chopping down a banana tree with kicks went viral. Toure was about to get a taste of the same medicine. He took a step forward at the exact moment Buakaw aimed a crushing knee to the body. Anyone with a layman’s knowledge of Thai boxing will tell you that the knee is the most damaging weapon in a boxer’s arsenal. Only unfortunates like Toure can recount how it feels when this strike is deployed with optimum power by one of the all-time greats. Understandably, the victim folded like a deck chair and dropped to the canvas.
Fireworks exploded and, wrapped in the Thai flag and raising a portrait of his king above his head, Buakaw took the acclaim of the adoring masses. The show climaxed with an even more outrageous display of pyrotechnics. With the fighters and dignitaries gathered on the stage, Buakaw was presented with a massive trophy in a scene that resembled a rocket attack on Blackpool illuminations. Flames and compressed air flew upwards as raining fire, ticker tape and possibly a kitchen sink dropped from the heavens. Cheesy it may have been, but the effect was overwhelming. Between wincing at the ear-splitting explosions, fight show veterans were left simply staring with their mouths agape.
Buakaw’s comeback was an event of huge significance and the Thai Fight Extreme show was top class in terms of content and production values. Amazingly, none of our domestic sport channels or newspapers thought it was worthy of coverage. In a way, the fact that it was ignored makes it more special for those of us who had the privilege of attending one of the most spectacular combat sport events staged on British soil in recent years. With the King Power connection, Thai Fight may well return and the Hearn/Matchroom dynasty have recognised that Muay Thai has the potential to go mainstream. We could be entering a breakthrough period for Thai boxing in the UK. Until then, we’ll always have Leicester.
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