The Annual Wan Wai Nai Khanomtom festival takes place in Ayutthaya, amidst the beautiful ruins and chedis of the old capital of Siam. Nai Khanomtom is considered the “father of Muay Thai,” a legend who fought for his own freedom when he’d been captured by the invading Burmese army and defeated a number of their best fighters in Muay bouts for the Burmese king. He’s a historic hero and this event is a day to pay him respect and also just a huge cultural display of crafts, Yantra writing, Boran demonstrations, Wai Kru performances and, of course, Muay Thai fights. The legends among modern sport Muay Thai are always present at this event, usually walking around in their maroon, Boran outfits with Mongkol around their necks. It’s partly that they are paying respect to their art, but it’s also where they can be honored as well. So, the “who’s who” of Golden Age Muay Thai is there anyway, but this year was something quite special. Two of the greatest Golden Age legends were to step into the ring together for a show fight: Dieselnoi Chor. Thanaksukarn vs. Samart Payakaroon.
Dieselnoi vs Samart – voiceover
Above, Dieselnoi vs Samart show fight – with my voice over
Dieselnoi and Samart actually did fight back in the day – December 24, 1982 – Rajadamnern Stadium. Dieselnoi was undefeated during a deep stretch and held the Lumpinee title while everybody refused to fight him; this went on for so long that he eventually was stripped of the title and forced into early semi-retirement, becoming a “spinster fighter”. It’s kind of badass that he was so untouchable that nobody would fight him, but it’s mostly heartbreaking. He wanted to fight. He told me once that every time he had his hand raised, instead of celebrating the victory in his mind he was thinking it would be another year until he could fight again because a victory meant more people refusing to face him. As the most dominant fighter in that time, and no opponents to face, it must have been off-the-charts when he finally faced Samart in a catch weight fight. Samart is considered by many to be the best fighter ever. He was incredible in Muay Thai, the quintessential and poster-perfect Muay Femur technician, but he was also an accomplished western style boxer (WBC champion), and an actor/singer to boot. He’s a total package. That fight was a Marvel vs DC epic showdown. As Dieselnoi tells me, the fight came about because everyone said he was the Yodmuay, best fighter in Thailand, something Samart hoped to challenge (there was no dermpan, but a record 400,000 baht kadtua). Dieselnoi’s 1983 victory against Samart put him in very rare company of those who could best him, defending his place as the best fighter in Thailand. And in many ways this show fight was the honoring of that event, the King of Muay Khao versus the King of Muay Femur. These two are the dictionary definition of each style, the icons against which all other fighters in those categorical styles are compared. This was just a show fight, two friends having fun and giving the crowd a wonderful experience, but even in their aged bodies these two were awesome. And Dieselnoi in particular, who is such a stud, only has one level and that is to perform everything with the intensity of a fight. He won’t knee hard, but he puts a sincere “this could kill you” energy into it. I love him.
This show fight was part of a larger event, a televised show by the famous Petchyindee promotion. In the Golden Age, there were two main promotions: Petchyindee and Onesongchai. Any fighter you’ve ever heard of was under the guard of one promotion or the other. There was rare cross-over, but not often. One time, I asked Yodkhunpon “the Elbow Hunter of 100 Stitches,” if he’d ever fought Karuhat, another elite fighter, because they’re the same size. I’d never heard of a fight between them. Sometimes those fights exist – there wasn’t YouTube back then. Yodkhunpon acted like it was a completely silly question, saying that they never had because Yodkhunpon was Petchyindee but Karuhat was Onesongchai. Never cross streams. As a note: one reason why Onesongchai fighters are better known to the west is that Onesongchai put out a DVD series of it’s best fights, many of which have made their way to YouTube. In fact over 20 volumes of these are now on the Onesongchai YouTube page now. Petchyindee fighters never had this degree of video exposure in the West. But this was a chance for Petchyindee to bring together a bunch of huge names: Dieselnoi, Samart, Somrak Kamsing, Sagat Petchyindee, Khaosai Galaxy, Khaopong Sitchuchai (Dhawee Umponmaha), and more I didn’t see or know. All of the superstars came out for their demos prior to when the televised portion of the program started, which was star-studded as well with contemporary fighters. I was taken, as a witness to this whole event (and as someone who had made a point to make it to this event on the drive back from my fight in Chiang Mai the night before), that there were layers to the generations of folks watching these fights. There were older bookies standing on their chairs to take bets from the crowd during the pre-show fights (some really good fights from young boys and two very strong women, one from Samart’s camp), the families of the fighters on the card, vendors of food and festival wares, and the ubiquitous little kids running around. The old bookies and gamblers remember these guys from the Golden Age with first-hand memories. They knew them when they were young men, when they themselves were young men.
The special show portion started out with a Ram Muay by Sagat Petchyindee, the fighter after whose image the Street Fighter character was named and visually based. Although, perhaps Sagat has embraced the video game image back into himself a bit as well. He came out and did a running, jumping somersault over the top rope into the ring to begin his performance. When I met him for our private session I was taken by what a showman he his – he’s clearly very aware of and meticulous about how he presents himself – and this Ram Muay was very expressive of that. The dude is nearly 60 years old, so his dexterity and athleticism is not to be unnoticed. Sagat too played a role back in history, making a challenge to Dieselnoi’s status as Yodmuay.
Sagat Petchyindee – Ram Muay
above, Sagat Petchyindee performing his Ram Muay, turning 60 this year
After Sagat’s Ram Muay this whole procession of head honchos and legends came out and assembled inside the ring for photos. This is classic Muay Thai here. Televised shows always have a super long intro of people reading off of papers inside fancy folders, a microphone being passed around to various VIP and local government officials – it can be upward of 30 minutes, with the first fight or even all the fighters standing in the ring looking like deer in headlights. For this one, though, it was pretty exciting for me because I was picking faces out of the group of legends I recognize, excited and star-struck to see them all together. And they were all laughing and poking each other, which isn’t appropriate for regular promotions where they call everyone into the ring like this. But these legends are basically having a reunion. They bow and wai deeply to the real officials, like the owners of Petchyindee and the men who ran things back when they were active fighters, but everyone else it’s like watching boys in a camp pinching, pushing and kneeing each other and having a blast.
The thing that was so special about this event for me was that, at its surface, it wasn’t that special. It was a pretty normal festival-style city fight, albeit promoted by one of the biggest and longest standing promoters in Thailand. Even having famous ex-fighters and superstars making a cameo isn’t terribly unusual, although having them get into the ring for any kind of demo is rare. A couple years ago Karuhat and Hippy had a show fight that would have made me faint if I’d been there to see it in person. But what made this event special – really, truly something not to be missed – is the men themselves. I’m drawn to Dieselnoi no matter what he’s doing and I was excited about the idea of seeing him get into the ring without regard at all to who he would be in there with; but then to have it be Samart made it really exciting. These two men are just superstars among stars. Samart is a bit more straight-faced, maybe a bit of an introvert; I don’t know him. But Dieselnoi is a pillar – almost literally with how he towers above everyone with his incredible height and larger-than-life persona – of the Muay Thai community. He knows everybody and connects to everyone.
When I told Thai men – all ex-fighters themselves as I was talking to trainers – that I was going to go to Ayutthaya just for this fight, every single one of them furrowed their brow and explained to me that it’s a show fight, as if they thought I thought it was a real fight because I was so excited about it. But it’s not like that. What they don’t understand is that to just watch these legends move is thrilling. I go do these private sessions with legends like Chatchai, Karuhat, Dieselnoi and I could just watch them for hours. I try to mimic the movements in order to learn the techniques and get a feeling for the rhythms, but often times I’m just struck into stillness by wanting to just marvel at their movements. One thing I love about working with ex-fighters is that there’s this inner fighter that never dies and sometimes you can awaken it. It’s in the eyes, like a flash. But when it’s ignited in Dieselnoi it’s something else, like nobody else I’ve ever seen or met. He had heart surgery a couple years back and when he’s ignited it actually puts his body at risk. He turns on his thresher to show you how to knee across the ring, his energy absolutely awesome as he shows me what he wants from me – someone nearly half his age and maybe a quarter of his intensity – whether it’s advice before a fight or in one of the two training sessions I’ve had with him. He goes so hard, kneeing the air with as much sincerity as he would to rip through an opponent in front of him, that his lips turn blue. He has to pause to catch his breath, lean against the ropes and he’ll cough and wretch a little bit, but then he’s right back to it. His heart cannot be tamed. Watching him move is like seeing a caged bird furiously beating its wings as it remembers free flight, or a the flash in a tiger’s eyes when its instinct to chase is ignited. The second round of this show fight was cut short because Dieselnoi’s lips were turning blue. Someone had to put the hood back on the falcon. So, the opportunity to go see this show fight, even though it’s just a performance, isn’t about “who will win?” or anything like that. It’s about going to watch two Rock Legends jamming on stage together, not giving a damn whether they forget the lyrics or their voices crack. It’s fuckin’ Rock & Roll!
above, my vlog me fan-girling out, totally pumped just having watched Dieselnoi and Samart face off in a show fight
Dieselnoi vs Sagat, rare footage
After Dieselnoi had beaten Samart in 1983, he then faced Sagat 18 months later, at a catch weight giving up some size. Dieselnoi told me that he faced Sagat 3x, so I’m not sure which fight this footage (above) is from, but it’s exciting to see in his context. Dieselnoi won that fight against Sagat in 1984, securing his place as the best fighter in Thailand, beating Samart (best at a lower weight) and Sagat (best at a higher weight) in a 6 month span, after a dearth of opponents had left him fightless. Dieselnoi would only fight a few more times after this in Thailand. He would face Sagat in Ubon, then twice against Krongsak, his last fight at Lumpinee (this is what Dieselnoi tells me). Abroad he also fought against a Karate Fighter (Peter Cunningham), Shogu Shimazo, and the American John Moncayo.
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