(This is my companion piece to an article I wrote for -the now defunct- Rough Magazine originally published on 22nd March 2018. Namsaknoi is now a free-lance trainer at Attachai Muay Thai in Bangkok and occasionally does seminars around the world.)
By now, you may have heard the infamous story of the Emperor. The one where the mismanagement of his prize money led to a fallout and him leaving Por Pramuk Camp with nothing to his name. But Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn’s story did not begin at Por Pramuk, nor did it end with Por Pramuk. His myriad real-life tales, recounted in interviews and his social media account, are often as stirring as his fights in the ring.
Prologue: The Wonder Years at Kiatsingnoi
Namsaknoi is favorably known for his years as a campmate and senior of Muay Thai superstar, Buakaw Banchamek. What is often not narrated, is that his formative years were spent at the now-defunct Kiatsingnoi camp. In its heydays, Kiatsingnoi was a top contender on the elite stadium circuit of Bangkok, spawning numerous champions such as Pairot, Wangchannoi, and Rattanachai. While the training at Kiatsingnoi was undeniably hellish, these were the days that truly counted for Namsaknoi who affirms,
“It was very tough training at Kiatsingnoi and I faced a lot of hard situations. But I always believe that it was the tough situations that made me a champion, and who I am today.”
Renowned Muay Thai figure, Trainer Gae was Namsaknoi’s campmate at Kiatsingnoi. Gae was an up-and-coming fighter until an unfortunate injury sustained during a fight led to an early retirement from competing. He recounted the communal life at Kiatsingnoi where 30 fighters shared a room as well as a single toilet. He shares Namsaknoi’s sentiments when it came to training at their former camp:
“Training was always tough for everybody. But Namsaknoi trained harder than anyone, and our trainer pushed him very hard too. Sometimes while we ate, he would still be drilling on the bag or working on the pads. You need a lot of heart and self-motivation to be a champion. This is why Namsaknoi is such a great fighter.”
Namsaknoi’s reputation as a Muay Thai legend wouldn’t be justified if he hadn’t faced many of the best in his time. Attachai Fairtex, Lamnamoon Sor Sumalee, Samkor Kiatmontep and Saenchai are some of the biggest names stamped on his fight record.
At 17, while he was fighting up the ranks and trying to make a name for himself, he came face-to-face with a famously ferocious fighter. Namsaknoi was to take on Thongchai Tor Silachai, a Muay Thai legend in his own right, at the Lumpinee stadium. There was a lot at stake for young Namsaknoi: not only was Thongchai an accomplished champion by then, the winner of the fight would also take home the coveted Fighter of the Year award. To up the ante, the camp was only notified of the fight 2 weeks prior.
“The trainers and I knew that the only way I was going to win the fight was to double up on the training. Literally. Each training session at Kiatsingnoi, we would first go for a run, then clinch, work on the pads and then bag work. I would do double so after bag work, i would go for another round of clinching, then pad work and bag work. That amounted to 4 training sessions in one day. Every day for 2 whole weeks.”
As the story goes, Namsaknoi went on to defeat Thongchai and bagged his first Fighter of the Year Award (1996).
Despite the arduous life , the gym clearly holds a very special place in his heart. Those glorious days are long gone, as seen in a video of Namsaknoi’s visit to the abandoned camp in 2017. What’s left is but a crumbling state of desolation.
“The very first time when I stepped into the gym, everywhere i looked around, were the famous fighters that I saw on the tv. These were the fighters whom I looked up to as a young fighter. It was a dream come true. So when I went back after so many years, it was a very emotional experience especially seeing it in such a rundown state.”
Namsaknoi’s accounts of his life during that period also gives us glimpses into the brutal training that produced the world’s greatest fighters. It’s easy to espouse modern sports science and argue its effectiveness over old school training. But Thais remain staunch believers of pure hard work. Even today, it’s still sheer quantity over quality when it comes to training. The common thread among the success of all the Thai champions boils down to one simple yet rare human trait: grit.
Epilogue: There and Back Again
Since his retirement as a fighter (in 2007), Namsaknoi quickly found himself back in the sport albeit as a trainer. Kru Must, as he is known to his students, built a solid reputation on the Southern Thai islands on Koh Samui, Phuket, and Koh Phangan.
“The transition from being a pro-fighter to a trainer was actually really hard for me. I couldn’t speak English but I had to teach foreigners! It was the worst thing as I didn’t know how to express myself. As I started to pick up the language, my foreign students really enjoyed my classes and they kept coming back.”
It wasn’t long before he received a life-changing call from Singapore where he would spend 6 years at the well-known Evolve MMA as a Muay Thai instructor and trainer of the Evolve fight team. I had the fortune to train under Kru Must at Evolve and everyone who has trained with him has nothing but praise for him. He is an incredibly articulate trainer and has this ability to explain technical details with such brilliant clarity.
In 2016, Namsaknoi left Evolve, striking out on his own to set up his gym on Koh Phangan. 6 years at the renowned MMA academy has only served to sharpen his acumen as a trainer but also enriched him financially. He went on to realize his dream of running his own gym and Namsaknoi Muay Thai Club was brought to life.
In the camp’s brief existence, Namsaknoi gathered a small band of sponsored fighters under his wing that included Muay Thai blogger and American kickboxer, Paul Banasiak (above left). When it came to his own gym, Namsaknoi means business. His modus operandi was clearly inspired by his years at Kiatsingnoi.
“I didn’t want to spoil my fighters. As a sponsored fighter, you need to do the right thing. For me, i was a sponsored fighter before so I took it from my own experience and brought it into my role as a trainer. If you are good, I won’t take anything away from it but I know you can be even better. As a fighter, you need to discipline yourself. You cannot go easy on yourself.”
Alas, things didn’t quite work out with the gym and Namsaknoi resumed his post as a trainer at Evolve in January. His return was greeted with nothing but enthusiasm by his students and co-workers. But just as quickly as he had settled back at his previous role, in a strange turn of events, the word is that he has left Evolve once again. His whereabouts remain undisclosed at this point but there is little doubt that he will make a comeback on the Muay Thai scene in some way.
When I met him again this February, Kru Must was more cheerful than when I last saw him on his last day at Evolve back in 2016. This was a man who has weathered some truly tough times in his life but not once was he ever truly defeated. His 6-year undefeated run as the 135lbs Lumpinee champion appears to translate into his outlook on life as well. A true warrior who doesn’t resign to fate; a true king of his own destiny. May he find success in his endeavors. Long live the emperor.