Muay Thai has gone global for many years. The proof of that is the number of foreigners that practice the art. It might be for fighting or fitness, or a way of life. The important thing is that it touched their lives enough for them to practice it.
One man has done more to promote and advance the art of Muay Thai than any other in recent memory. His trademark aggressive and exciting fighting style fused with his charisma and personality has made him a global fighting icon.
That man is none other than Buakaw – Muay Thai’s original global ambassador.
Just who is this Nak Muay known as Buakaw Banchamek (formerly Buakaw Por Pramuk, Thai: บัวขาว ป.ประมุข)? How was he able to captivate combat sports fans around the world? Enough for them to be curious about this unique fighting style and learn it. Many even become so curious that they go to the land of Muay Thai’s origin to learn it firsthand there.
Read on to learn about this fascinating and compelling fighter who has brought Muay Thai to the center stage of the global combat sports arena.
Everyone has to start somewhere right? Even legends like Buakaw had to start somewhere before they ascended to the highest level of the sport.
Buakaw was born as Sombat Banchamek (Thai: สมบัติ บัญชาเมฆ) on May 8, 1982, in Bangsongnong County, Samrong Thap district, Surin Province, in Thailand. Hence he is sometimes referred to as the “son of Surin”.
His love affair with Muay Thai started when he was around 7 or 8 years old. This was when he attended a local Muay Thai show which happened to be held near where he lived.
Buakaw saw how the crowd reacted to the fighters and it instantly hooked him to the sport of Muay Thai. He saw how they erupted in cheer and applause even when the fighters were just making their way to the ring and the fight hadn’t even begun yet. It was a sight to behold and left a deep impression on the young Buakaw.
When the show was over, he talked to his parents and discussed the possibility of him becoming a Muay Thai fighter. His parents gave him their permission and that started Buakaw on the road to becoming a professional fighter.
Early Muay Thai Career
Buakaw’s fighting career started when he was 8 years old. This is a typical age when Thai fighters start their Muay Thai career. His career started in his own home province of Surin, which is located in the Northeast part of Thailand.
After just a year of fighting in his home province, Buakaw moved to Chachoengsao (a province just east of Bangkok) and started training at the Por Pramuk Gym. This was when he was just 9 years of age. Once he started training there, he also changed his fight name to Damtamin Kiat-anan.
Buakaw would compete in Bangkok while under the fight name Buakaw Por Pramuk starting in 1997. He would remain and compete in the nation’s capital for the next few years, achieving some success but being denied the sport’s ultimate prize.
Accomplishments in Thailand
If there is one major accolade that is glaringly absent from Buakaw’s list of achievements, it’s his failure to win a major stadium title in Thailand. It’s perhaps the biggest reason why some experts do not rate him as highly as some of the other all-time greats of Muay Thai.
He competed in Lumpinee Stadium, which is regarded by many to be the most prestigious stadium in all of Thailand. Being a champion there is considered to be the highest honor in the sport as well as a sign that you’re the top dog in whatever division you happen to be the champion of.
This honor eluded him when he failed to capitalize on a Lumpinee champion title bout at the grand Lumpinee 45th Anniversary show.
However, Buakaw still managed to find some success in his native Thailand. This happened a few years before his international breakout and eventual global superstardom.
The first title that he won in Thailand was the Featherweight title of Omnoi Stadium. This is a highly-regarded stadium that’s located in the west of Bangkok, although it must be noted that it’s nowhere near the prestige of Lumpinee or even Rajadamnern Stadiums.
Buakaw would go on to win Thailand’s Featherweight title as well. He would then add another Omnoi title to his belt when he captured that stadium’s Lightweight championship.
In late 2002, Buakaw did win a title in Lumpinee Stadium, although it was the Toyota Marathon 140-pound Tournament (see image above). Still, the title was a prestigious one and winning it is a great achievement for any Muay Thai fighter.
K-1 and Superstardom
It was in K-1 where Buakaw would finally achieve true superstardom and become a global fighting icon. The year was 2004 and Buakaw decided to enter the Japanese-based K-1 Max tournament. K-1 was the premier international kickboxing promotion of the time.
When Buakaw first joined K-1, fighters were allowed to clinch and knee their opponents. Eventually, though, that rule would become more restrictive. This was likely a consequence of Buakaw’s enormous success with the Thai clinch in his first year at K-1.
In his first K-1 tournament in 2004, Buakaw was able to capture the title after defeating Australian Muay Thai legend John Wayne Parr and eventually Japanese icon Masato Kobayashi in the finals.
The following tournament saw Buakaw almost repeating his initial success of the year before. However, he lost a heartbreaker to Dutch kickboxer Andy Souwer. The fight was decided in an extra round but the result was a disputed and controversial one.
As fate would have it, Buakaw got his revenge the following year. He again faced Andy Souwer in the final for the 2006 K-1 Max World Grand Prix. This time, no room was left for doubt as Buakaw defeated Souwer by TKO. He won the K-1 World Max title for the 2nd time and became the first fighter to win the title twice.
By then, Buakaw had achieved status as an international fighting star and cemented his place in kickboxing history. He proved the effectiveness of Muay Thai on a global stage and brought more international interest in Muay Thai than any other Muay Thai fighters ever had.
Here’s a little backstory. It’s been said in Muay Thai circles that Buakaw was actually not Por Pramuk Gym’s original pick to enter the K-1 World MAX tournament. He came in to replace the injured first choice, Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtom, the camp’s top fighter at the time. The stars aligned at that point in Buakaw’s life, changing the course of his life forever.
Buakaw’s K-1 triumphs made him a household name, at least for combat sports fans. But it was also inevitable for him to eventually leave the tournament, especially after the last couple of tournaments left him frustrated.
There was no question that he would continue fighting, of course. At that point, he was still young and in his prime so it only made sense to go on as a fighter. The same year that he stopped participating in the K-1 tournament saw him fighting in shoot boxing and he became the 2010 Shoot Boxing S-Cup World Champion.
Of course, Buakaw continued fighting in Muay Thai matches, particularly in Max Muay Thai and Top King World Series. In back to back years, 2011 and 2012, he was able to win the Thai Fight 70-kg Tournament Championship and the WMC junior middleweight world title.
During this time period, he was also signed as a sponsored fighter by Yokkao through the brand’s founder, Philip Villa. Yokkao was an emerging brand that grew to be a major one in the world of Muay Thai.
Becoming Buakaw Banchamek
In 2012, a major change happened for Buakaw. He expressed his frustration with the way Por Pramuk Gym was managing his finances and fights. According to him, the problems had plagued him since 2009.
Buakaw made his displeasure public by appearing on television and claimed that the gym has underpaid him for all the time that he fought for them. He also expressed that he wants to leave the gym.
The problem was that the gym still had Buakaw under contract at the time. In fact, they prevented him from participating in any events. He had no choice but to file a complaint with the Sports Authority of Thailand.
The case was taken to court when Buakaw appeared on Thai Fight in Pattaya without approval by Por Pramuk Gym. This resulted in a frustrated Buakaw announcing his retirement. Siding with Buakaw, Thai Fight retaliated with a countersuit case against Por Pramuk and all parties came to an agreement to withdraw all lawsuits.
Eventually, Buakaw was able to free himself from Por Pramuk Gym and start anew. He also renounced his old fighting name of Buakaw Por Pramuk and changed it to Buakaw Banchamek (Thai: บัวขาว บัญชาเมฆ) instead.
His departure from his old gym was actually a transition to a new one. With the help of his sponsor, Yokkao Boxing, he set up the Banchamek Gym. The name choice was easy enough as his real name is Sombat Banchamek.
Buakaw and the Yokkao team got the new gym up and running in a matter of 10 days at his hometown of Surin. The gym continues to exist until the present day as a proper training camp for kids in his hometown.
He had a second location built in Bangkok where he was based for many years. Also known as Banchamek Gym, it received many fans from all over the world who arrived to meet and train with the Muay Thai megastar.
The gym closed after Buakaw and his entourage relocated to Chiang Mai in 2018 where he founded the Buakaw Village.
Success in China
Buakaw has also enjoyed immense success in China. His main success has come from the Kunlun Fight Promotion where he recorded several notable victories with the promotion between 2015 to 2018.
In fact, he was able to capture the 2016 Kunlun Fight Muay Thai Middleweight World Championship. He bested Dylan Salvador of France by decision to win the title.
However, it is likely that his most notable fights in China were against the “Shaolin Monk”, Yi Long. Buakaw and Long -who claims to be self-trained in Shaolin Kung-Fu– engaged in two memorable wars for Chinese promotion, Wu Lin Feng.
Muay Thai vs Kung Fu
Promoters marketed the two Muay Thai vs Kung Fu fights in 2015 and 2016, respectively, as “fight of the century”. The first one in June of 2015 headlined the Wu Lin Feng 2015 – Fight of The Century event.
It is an understatement to say that the two fights were exciting. In the first fight, the two warriors exchanged exciting strikes that had the crowd in a frenzy. Yi Long started off every round aggressively, trying to land hard strikes and combinations.
As each round wore on, his effectiveness waned. Buakaw weathered the storm and took over as the rounds came to a close. This was the case for all three rounds although the first two were the clearest ones in Buakaw’s favor. In the end, Buakaw won via an unanimous decision, and rightfully so.
The second fight, which was the Wu Lin Feng 2016 – Fight of The Century event, played out pretty much the same way but ended in a controversial fashion. It was evident from the get-go that nothing much has changed from their first bout. Buakaw was still the faster, stronger, and overall shaper fighter of the two.
Buakaw controlled the fight not just with his patented display of offensive superiority, but also with his underrated defense. He was able to effectively evade and block most of Long’s attack throughout the three-round battle.
In the end, it was clear to anyone who watched that Buakaw deserved another unanimous decision victory just like the first time. However, the judges decided to award Yi Long with the unanimous decision victory instead.
It was a controversial ending to what should have been a display of striking superiority for Buakaw. A third fight was discussed a couple of years later, although nothing came of it.
Buakaw’s Signature Style
Buakaw has reached his lofty status as a fighter due to several factors. Perhaps the primary reason is his exciting, fan-friendly fighting style. He possesses an aggressive, come-forward, take no prisoners style that appeals to fight fans everywhere.
As a result of his exciting fighting style, Buakaw is able to score a lot of highlight-reel worthy knockouts. Even if he’s unable to score the KO or even a victory, fans know they’ll be in for an entertaining match.
Lost in all of the excitement and beautiful savagery of Buakaw’s attacks is his high skill level. While his overall skills might be slightly below his elite peers such as Saenchai, or even Namsaknoi, his bag of tricks is still pretty deep.
Buakaw actually uses some very sound techniques that he pulls out of his arsenal in every match. He employs very effective boxing moves that he pairs with a deceptively quick left kick.
He was also adept at clinching due to his background and training in Muay Thai. But the rules in K-1 did not allow the combatants to clinch for an extended period of time. This meant that Buakaw needed to adapt in order to be competitive.
That is probably the best explanation of why he was able to excel using his boxing skills as his fast lead leg kicks. He improved his ability to box and used his hands to their full extent in the K-1 tournaments, backed by his speed and heavy kicks.
But what makes Buakaw a truly inspiring fighter is his dedication to the sport. This is evident in the intense training regime that we see in many motivation videos. Most of all, his “never give up” attitude that sees him getting up time and time again despite being knocked down in the ring and in his life.
Apart from his formidable achievements as a fighter, many consider Buakaw a “Renaissance Man” of sorts. He has also dabbled in acting (winning the best actor award), other sports such as soccer, and he even finished his studies and graduated from college!
These only serve to highlight the quality of the man not just as a fighter but also as a person who holds excellent values. It helps to emphasize the fact that inside the awesome and menacing facade of a warrior is a heart that has made him perfect as Muay Thai’s original global ambassador.