Muay Thai has produced a pantheon of great fighters.
With the sport’s long and rich history, that’s not a surprise. There are so many that have a right to being hailed as among the very best.
Arguably, one stands alone at the summit of Muay Thai greatness. The one fighter that many followers of the sport consider to be the G.O.A.T. – the greatest of all time.
That fighter is Samart Payakaroon.
Ask the same question to any Thai person and the answer will be the same. But are they correct? Is Samart Payakaroon the greatest Nak Muay of all time?
Let’s check out the background and the achievements of the “Muhammad Ali of Muay Thai” and see why he deserves the lofty status given to him in the sport.
The Legend Begins
Samart’s path to greatness was not an easy one. In fact, it was just as hard as those taken by the other Nak Muays of his time.
He was born in 1962 in the province of Chachoengsao in south-central Thailand, east of Bangkok. His training in the art of 8 limbs started when he was 7 years old.
His start wasn’t remarkable, though. Samart was seen as a kid who didn’t have any natural physical gives at all. It was said that he also had poor cardio due to his having small lungs.
However, he soon proved that he could overcome those shortcomings. What he lacked in natural abilities was more than made up for by his superb natural reflexes and instinct.
At the age of 10, he moved to the city of Pattaya and he came under the guidance of the late Yodtong Senanan, legendary trainer at Sityodtong Camp.
The Golden Age of Muay Thai
Samart Payakaroon’s career flourished in the period that’s known as the “Golden Age of Muay Thai”.
This era started from about the early ‘80s and lasted towards the mid ‘90s. Experts hail it as the era that produced the greatest fighters in the sport as well as some of the most memorable battles of all time.
The pool of competitive talent was extremely deep. Also notable was the fact that a diverse array of fighting styles thrived. Samart managed to dominate in such a competitive atmosphere.
The most prestigious titles and achievements that he won during this era were:
- Pinweight (102 lbs.) Championship of Lumpinee Stadium (1980)
- Junior Flyweight (108 lbs.) Championship of Lumpinee Stadium (1980)
- Junior Bantamweight (115 lbs.) Championship of Lumpinee Stadium (1981)
- Featherweight (126 lbs.) Championship of Lumpinee Stadium (1981)
- Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter of the Year (1981)
- Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter of the Year (1983)
- Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter of the Year (1988)
He took on and conquered some of the best at the time. Among those that he vanquished were Chamuakpetch Haphalung, Bangklanoi Sor Thanikul, Namphon Nongkee Pahayuth, and Jaroenthong Kiatbanchong.
One of his most notable battles was against fellow all-time great Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn. Dieselnoi, who was known as perhaps the greatest Muay Khao or knee fighter ever.
Their respective styles were a study in contrast. Samart, the master technician who used smarts and beautiful evasive movements. Dieselnoi, on the other hand, was the embodiment of a pure Muay Khao who continuously stalked his foe to get in close for the clinch or knee strikes.
Samart lost, but not after an epic battle in which he gave up a significant size advantage to Dieselnoi. It cemented both of their places in the highest echelons of the sport’s greats.
In his run as the top fighter of the era, Samart consistently displayed the qualities that made him untouchable.
And those are – his unmatched skill set and elite-level fight IQ. It enabled him to prove his mastery over his peers’ time and time again.
Unmatched Skill Set
Samart was a Muay Femur of the highest caliber. His skill set was virtually unmatched during his time and one can argue that no one has equaled it before or since.
As mentioned above, Samart did not possess the natural physical gifts that other fighters had. When he was just starting in the sport, he did not exhibit any natural athletic ability or power. His cardio was also suspect because it was said that he had small lungs.
Samart was able to overcome all of that, though. He mastered every skill in Muay Thai and added nuances that made his game unique and deadly at the same time.
His timing was impeccable. It was as if he had a sixth sense that was able to predict his opponent’s moves before they were made.
He also had superior movement and footwork. This made it very difficult to catch him cleanly and he used these skills to the hilt when he dabbled in Western boxing.
One of his best known weapons was the side teep. It seemed like a cross between a sidekick and a teep and allowed him to keep opponents at bay. It was believed that he wanted to protect his good looks and hence avoided close-range battle.
The fight IQ of Samart Payakaroon was also second to none. He had the ability to read his opponents and make adjustments on the fly.
He knew when to bait his foe and time the attack with a perfect counter. His sometimes nonchalant style lured the other fighters into thinking he’s hurt or unprepared.
Samart had a deep knowledge of the sport and understood the importance of timing and spacing. This also allowed him to have an immaculate defense that made it difficult for opponents to catch him with a clean strike.
Boxing and Other Fields
Already assured of his mythical status in Muay Thai, Samart yearned for a different challenge.
That came in the form of Western boxing. He tried his hand at it and he did show the boxing world that even in the sport that only uses two limbs, he is an absolute master.
In 1982, Samart made the transition. He has always been comfortable at switch-hitting, but for boxing, he adopted a southpaw stance.
He also ascended the summit of that sport when in 1986, he won the WBC Super Bantamweight world title. Samart achieved this by knocking out Lupe Pintor of Mexico in the 5th round of their match.
After making one defense, Samart lost the title via 4th round TKO at the hands of Jeff Fenech of Australia.
He would contend for a title again in 1994, challenging for Eloy Rojas’ WBA Featherweight title. Unfortunately, Samart would lose by 8th round KO and he would retire from boxing soon after.
The considerable star power that Samart had translated way beyond the fight ring. His popularity with fans allowed him to successfully cross over into the entertainment world.
He released a total of three albums and starred in several action movies. And he even tried his hand at modeling, for good measure.
So is Samart Payakaroon the greatest of all time? All indications do seem to point to yes as the answer.
Just look at all his achievements, which we discussed in detail above.
His fight record is also an indication. He finished his Muay Thai career with an overall record of 150 fights, winning 129 (30 KO’s), losing 19, with 2 draws.
As we said earlier, there have been a lot of great fighters in Muay Thai through the years. Too many to name each of them one by one here and each possessed spectacular skills, knowledge, and heart that made them true champions.
But what separates Samart from the rest is that he achieved a high level of mastery of every essential Muay Thai skill. Then he added ring smarts and an evasiveness seen in very few Nak Muays.
The result is a fighter like no other, the one who stands alone atop the Mount Olympus of Muay Thai.