Photo Credits: Images in this article are taken from the book, 123 All-Time Greatest Muay Thai Fighters of Thailand.
The period from -roughly- the early-1980s to mid-1990s is considered by many to be the Muay Thai golden era.
Passionate Muay Thai fans flocked to the grand stadiums of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern to watch their favorite fighters compete. These arenas were always packed beyond capacity.
Muay Thai was already growing as a national sport in the 60s and 70s. An economic boom in Thailand in the 80s, triggered by an influx of foreign investments, welcomed the start of Muay Thai’s golden era.
The sport has transformed considerably from the golden era to the modern age. Back then, it was straight-up action right off the first bell. There was no feeling out the opponents during the golden era unlike the modern day fights where rounds 1 & 2 are typically slow-paced.
Training conditions were tougher, and the pool of competing talents was much bigger. Knockouts were thought to be far more common back in the days; bouts erupting into all-out wars were a common sight. Fighting styles were spectacularly diverse too.
By the late 90s, the Asian financial crisis crippled the region’s economy with Thailand being one of the countries that was most badly hit. This heralded a decline of the sport in many ways.
Fight purses reduced significantly over time. The top-tier fighters today receive about a quarter of what their golden era-counterparts received back in those days (with inflation adjusted).
There are far fewer people in Thailand turning to Muay Thai fighting as a career nowadays. The training is brutal, and the time in the ring, even more so. These days, with improved education, there are far more “easy jobs” available with a decent salary that are safe and less demanding.
Many aficionados and golden era legends are less impressed with today’s Muay Thai. Clinching is less fluid, fighting styles are less distinct, and there are less highly-technical fighters.
Modern and younger Muay Thai fans have started to discover the fighters of the golden age thanks to an increasing number of videos from the era surfacing on YouTube. We may never see a revival but at least enough video footage exist to remind us of the glorious golden age.
Best Muay Thai Golden Era Fighters
Here are 20 of my favorites and top Muay Thai fighters who have helped to shape the golden era of the sport:
The best of the best. This list would not be complete without Samart Payakaroon right at the top. Widely regarded as Muay Thai’s Greatest of All Time, Samart was a 3-time recipient of the “Best Fighter of the Year” award in 1981, 1983 and 1988 respectively.
Samart was rumored to have poor cardio due to having small lungs. He made up for it with unsurpassed mastery of every weapon of Muay Thai, most notably his teep and amazing movement.
Samart captured the Lumpinee title in 4 weight classes between 1980-1981. He also competed actively in boxing where he won the WBC Super Bantamweight world title, proving his place as a true master of stand-up striking.
Dieselnoi Chor Tanasukarn
A contemporary of Samart and a giant of the sport, Dieselnoi literally towered over his peers during the golden era.
Dieselnoi dominated the lightweight division between 1981 to 1985 at Lumpinee stadium with a pristine undefeated record during the period. He received the coveted “Best Fighter of the Year” award in 1982 during his peak.
The 6-foot-2 knee fighter obliterated every opponent, beating even the GOAT, Samart Payakaroon, in a legendary “fight of the year” in 1982. His reign and career ended prematurely when he was forced to retire due to lack of contest in his weight class.
Iconic Street Fighter villain and Muay Thai fighter, Sagat, was believed to be modeled after this golden era legend.
Sagat Petchyindee was a heavy punching KO specialist but also equally graceful in the Wai Kru Ram Muay dance. He won 2 Lumpinee titles and 3 Rajadamnern titles over the course of his illustrious career, as well as a “Best Ram Muay” award.
By the time he retired, Sagat attained a fight record of 266 wins in 317 fights – 151 by way of knockout.
Often overshadowed by his younger brother, Samart, Kongthoranee Payakaroon is a legend in his own right.
Kongthoranee is a 5-division Lumpinee stadium champion who outclassed competitors with his elite technical skills, superior defense and immense striking power. He received the “Fighter of the Year” award in 1978 and again in 1984.
Like Samart, Kongthoranee also competed in boxing albeit with less success.
Chamuakpetch Harpalang is one of Muay Thai’s most decorated champions of all time, winning the Lumpinee title 4 times and the Rajadamnern title 5 times across 7 weight classes!
Known as the “Computer Knee Striker” for his precise and powerful long-range knees, Chamuakpetch was also a master clincher and all-rounded technical fighter.
This golden age legend holds wins over a number of notable peers including Samart Payakaroon, Kongthoranee Payakaroon, and Sangtiennoi Sor Rungroj. Chamuakpetch was also the recipient of the 1985 “Fighter of the Year” award.
Chamuakpetch’s teammate, Panomtuanlek Harpalang joins him on the list as another of the golden era’s influential fighters.
Panomtuanlek was a two-time Rajadamnern champion and also a 1987 Lumpinee champion. He was awarded the prestigious “Fighter of the Year” accolade in 1986.
And like Chamuakpetch, Panomtuanlek was a clinch-and-knee specialist. He excelled in close-range exchanges and powered over his opponents with knees for days.
You can’t talk about the golden age without mentioning Langsuan Phanyuuthapoom – 3-time Lumpinee champion and the 1987 “Fighter of the Year” winner.
Langsuan was known as “Mr Mean” and the “Heartless Knee Striker” for his hard low kicks and even harder knee strikes. When the occasion called for it, Langsuan was also not afraid to throw hands. He was a badass through and through, who clinched not to score but to hurt.
His clinch-and-knee style represented the highest order of the style that not many ever come close to replicating today.
Paruehuslek Sittchunthong is a 5-time Lumpinee champion across 4 weight divisions. He is one of very few fighters to have beaten Samart Payarakoon in Muay Thai.
Not only that, Paruehuslek is recorded as the only one in history to have knocked out the GOAT. For that alone, the man deserves a spot on the list.
Not many recordings of his fights exist on the web, sadly. Paruehuslek was well-known for being a killer in the ring but also showed great sportsmanship whether he won or lost. A mark of a true Muay Thai legend.
Sangtiennoi Sor Rungroj
Famously known as the “Deadly Kisser”, Sangtiennoi Sor Rungroj would kiss his opponents when he wins his fights.
Sangtiennoi fought actively between 1986 to 1996, bagging one Rajadamnern title in 1986 and a Lumpinee title in 1996. He also captured the WMC world championship belt in 1996.
His aggressive style made him a fan-favorite both in and out of Thailand, gaining many western fans in the process due to his many bouts with Dany Bill and Ramon Dekkers.
Sangtiennoi retired in 2000 with over 200 fights to his name. He now runs his gym on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Kaensak Sor Ploenjit
An award reserved for the cream of the crop, Kaensak Sor Ploenjit received the “Fighter of the Year” twice in row, in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Kaensak fought out of the renowned Sor Ploenjit camp with 250 fights and over 200 wins. He was a classic Muay Fimeu with an exceptional fight IQ but also possessed strong hands.
After retiring as a fighter, Kaensak relocated to the United States in 2000 where he coaches at AMA Fight Club (Whippany, NJ).
Karuhat Sor Supawan
Karuhat Sor Supawan is a 3-time Rajadamnern champion and with a highly technical fighting style. He was a counter fighter who always reacted with explosive speed and surgical precision.
Karuhat often fought opponents taller and bigger, so he had to rely heavily on his skills and IQ to win fights. Some of his most notable victories include a 3-1 over Kaensak Sor Ploenjit in their four meets.
As he started competing only when he was 13 -which was late by Thai standards-, Karuhat retired with 190 fights and a stellar 165 wins.
Veerapol Sahaphrom is a three-time Rajadamnern stadium champion with a strong Muay Mat style. He was a rapid and heavy puncher and was also quick on his feet.
It was no surprise when Veerapol transitioned to boxing in 1994 following a brief but impactful period in Muay Thai from 1988 to 1994.
Veerapol gained the WBA and WBC Bantamweight world championship titles as a boxer. Between 1996 to 2005, he defended his WBC belt for a staggering 14 times, not including many other non-title bouts during this period.
Saengmuangnoi Loogjaopormahaesak, more commonly known as Samson Isaan or Samson Dutch Boy Gym, was one of Muay Thai golden era’s best heavy punchers.
Samson’s time in Muay Thai lasted from 1988 to 1994, after which he transitioned to boxing full-time. As a Muay Thai fighter, Samson won the Lumpinee Bantamweight title in ‘91 and the Rajadamnern Junior Bantamweight title in ‘92. He was also the 1991 “Fighter of the Year” winner.
Despite his credentials in Muay Thai, Samson is often remembered for his time as a boxer. For a decade between 1992 to 2002, Samson was undefeated at 43-0. He also won the World Boxing Federation World Super Flyweight Champion title in 1994.
The seventh of 9 children, Jaroenthong Kiatbaanchong came from a family of boxers.
Jaroenthong’s accomplishments include winning the Lumpinee champion in 3 weight classes and a WMC world championship belt after beating Dutch legend Ramon Dekkers.
Jaroenthong fought almost every legend of this time (many on this list) before retiring with a record of 120 victories in 151 fights. He now runs a chain of Jaroenthong Muay Thai gyms in Bangkok.
Wangchannoi Sor Palangchai
This 1993 “Fighter of the Year” holds many accolades including the Lumpinee champion titles in 3 weight divisions with multiple successful defenses.
Wangchannoi was a strong fighter with powerful punches who held wins over Karuhat Supawan, Kaensak Sor Ploenjit, Samart Payakaroon and a legendary round-1 KO of Namkabuan Nongkee Pahayuth (33 seconds!).
Wangchannoi holds an impressively high win rate of 267 victories in about 300 fight appearances.
Namphon Nongkee Pahuyuth
Namphon Nongkee Pahuyuth was a three-time Lumpinee stadium champion who fought at the highest level in the late-80s.
Many fight fans outside of Thailand were familiar with Namphon due to his bouts with Ramon Dekkers but the Thai was a big name in his home country. He headlined many of the fights at Lumpinee under OneSongChai promotion.
Namphon was a tough Nak Muay who never backed down, pushing forward for the win with his hard knees and right kicks. He is believed to have received nearly 300 stitches over his whole career.
Namphon met with an accident in 1993 and was forced to retire. He opened a chain of restaurants in Isaan which he ran for many years until his death in 2016 at the age of 47 (pneumonitis).
Namkabuan Nongkee Pahuyuth
The brothers Namphon and Namkabuan, hailing from Nongkee district of Buriram, were two of the best fighters of the golden era.
Namkabuan followed in the footsteps of his older brother by becoming a fighter. He got off to a slow start but would establish himself as one of the greats. Namkabuan was an elusive fighter who had amazing movement and an acute awareness of the ring space.
His go-to move was to counter a body kick by grabbing the leg and then pushing the opponent across the ring to throw them off-balance. He would then land a strike or throw them to the canvas. This move was later banned as fighters sometimes got toss over the top rope and sustained serious injuries.
Namkabuan held the Lumpinee Junior Lightweight (130 lbs) title for an incredible 6 years until he vacated the belt upon retirement.
Orono Por Muang Ubon
Orono Por Muang Ubon was a big name and a crowd-favorite when he competed in the 90s. He has won the Lumpinee belt three times and was crowned “Fighter of the Year” in 1994.
Orono was a classic Muay Bouk (aggressive fighter) who was always moving forward and throwing big, heavy strikes.
He is remembered for some wild, all-out wars with Kaolan Kaovichit, Sangtiennoi Sor Rungroj, Den Muangsurin, as well as western fighters like Ramon Dekkers and John Wayne Parr.
Sakmongkol Sittchuchoke was a regular at the Lumpinee stadium in the early nineties. He held only one Lumpinee belt during his career as well as a few less notable titles but Sakmongkol was a stadium favorite known for his aggressive style.
Nicknamed the “Jade Face Left Kicker”, Sakmongkol delivered what was considered to be one of the hardest left kicks in the biz.
Sakmongkol holds wins over many notable champions of his time like Orono Por Muang Ubon, Namkabuan Nongkee Pahayuth, Jongsanan Fairtex, and Sangtiennoi Sor Rungroj.
But he is also well-known outside of Thailand for fighting and winning against western fighters like Ramon Dekkers, Dany Bill, Mourad Sari and John Wayne Parr.
Even though he did not hold any of the belts from Lumpinee and Rajadamnern, there is no dispute about having Somluck Khamsing on this list.
Somluck fought for about 300 fights in his Muay Thai career, beating the champions of the golden age but was never given a title shot at the stadiums due to promoter politics at play.
Somluck is perhaps the most well-rounded fighter with a huge, diverse arsenal of moves at his disposal. He consistently ranked number one but that was as far as he got in the sport.
Somluck took his slick fighting style to boxing where he made his name internationally. He won the gold medal at the 1994 and ‘98 Asian games, the 1995 SEA (Southeast-Asian) games and became the first Thai to win an Olympic gold medal in 1996.
Editor’s Note: I can think of another 10 fighters from the Muay Thai golden era to add to the list. Who do you think I have left out and should be included here? Leave a comment!