The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot in fight sports but Saenchai is a true living legend of Muay Thai. 40 years old this year and still kicking asses in the ring when others his age have long hung up their boxing gloves.
For over two decades, Saenchai has entertained and captured the hearts of an entire generation of Muay Thai fans and beyond. So what makes him one of -if not- the best Muay Thai fighters of all time?
Is it his complete mastery of all Muay Thai weapons? His impeccable timing? The cartwheel kick? Or is it his penchant for comedy?
Saenchai (Thai: แสนชัย) was born on 30 July 1980 as Suphachai Saenpong (Thai: ศุภชัย แสนพงษ์). He comes from Maha Sarakham, a province in the Northeast region known as Isan – a region famous for producing Muay Thai greats.
Saenchai started training at the age of 8 when he was in primary 2. His playful character prompted his teacher to take him to train at a local muay thai gym to expend his excess energy. When he won his first fight at a school festival tournament, it motivated him to take his training seriously.
His first major gym was at the Sor Kingstar camp in Khon Kaen city where he adopted the fight name, Saenchai Sor Kingstar. He remained there for 6 years, building up a reputation as a regional champion.
Moving to Bangkok when he was around 17, Saenchai spent six transformative years at the renowned Jocky Gym. The camp was one of the biggest in Bangkok with over 40 fighters at any time and a huge collection of stadium belts.
He trained with the likes of legends such as Lerdsila Chumpairtour and Olympic gold medalist Somrak Khamsing. These fighters are well-known for their lightning-fast reflexes and “slippery” style. There, Saenchai developed a distinctive technical style that he would later come to be known for.
When Somrak left to start his own gym, he brought Saenchai along with him. He took on the name Saenchai Sor Khamsing at this point.
Under Somrak’s influence, Saenchai also competed in boxing under the fight name, Sangpetch Patanakan Gym. He holds a pristine record of 5 wins in his brief pro boxing career.
The partnership and mentorship lasted for about 3 years before a dispute tore them apart. (It is said that Saenchai competed in a Japanese promotion without approval from Somrak.) Saenchai left the Sor Khamsing gym and settled down at 13 Coins Gym in 2007.
He parted with 13 Coins in 2010 and moved to Sinbi Muay Thai Gym in Phuket where he remained briefly for about one and half years. During this period, he took on the fight name of Saenchai Sinbi Muay Thai.
He then returned to Bangkok, lending his name to PK Saenchai Gym and subsequently to Yokkao Gym. He has been splitting time between the two gyms since then. Till today, he is known as Saenchai PKSaenchaiMuayThaiGym.
Saenchai retired from the elite circuit in 2014 at the age of 34 after a loss at Rajadamnern stadium against an up-and-coming Petchmorakot Wor Sangprapai. He’s been undefeated ever since he transitioned fully to fighting foreigners with 55 straight wins to-date.
Is Saenchai the Greatest Muay Thai Fighter of All-Time?
Now let’s dissect Saenchai’s professional career of over 2 decades and make an argument on why he is -or isn’t- the greatest Muay Thai fighter of all-time.
Saenchai began competing in Bangkok in 1996 and came into prominence not long after. He won his first elite title (Lumpinee champion 115lbs) in 1997.
Between 1996 to 2014, Saenchai amassed over 200 fights at the highest level. He captured the Lumpinee stadium title 5 times across 3 weight classes, and was awarded Sports Writer Fighter of the Year award in 1999 and 2008.
If you take into account his fights before turning pro, Saenchai’s record (as of writing) stands at 346 fights with 299 wins, 42 losses and 5 draws.
Most Thai fighters retire before or around 30. He has indicated the possibility of retiring at 35 and subsequently 40 in past interviews. Now at 40, Saenchai looks like he still has a few competitive years in him.
Between 2014 to 2019, Saenchai competed in a total of 68 bouts. This averages out to be around 11-12 fights per year, fighting almost every month for 6 continuous years in his 30’s. This is unheard of in modern fight sports.
Although no longer competing at the elite level, he is still fighting up-and-coming foreign fighters half his age who have a physical advantage by virtue of being younger and fitter. In a sport as hard as Muay Thai, his longevity is simply unparalleled.
Saenchai Fighting Style
There is no doubt that Saenchai is the most stylistic Muay Thai fighter of all time. Switching stances, incredible feints, signature moves – nobody moves like him.
Saenchai’s style was forged during his early years at Jocky Gym and refined to perfection over the years. His quick reflexes and amazing fight IQ helped keep damage to a minimum.
He has only been knocked out once in over two hundred fights and this was early in his professional career.
His other serious injury was against Nong-O Sit Or but one of his own doing. By his account, he overextended a kick that was dodged by Nong-O and tore a ligament. He went on to win the fight but had to go to the hospital right after.
Saenchai’s KO power was not his forte but his next-level skills were always apparent. The ease with which he fought and the confidence displayed is admirable. The way he sometimes toys with his opponent is mind-blowing.
There is contention over who was the first to use the Muay Thai cartwheel kick but Saenchai made it his signature move. So much so that everyone just associates it with him.
The Cartwheel kick was likely based on a Muay Boran (ancient Thai boxing) move called Ma Deed Kra Lok (Thai: ม้าดีดกระโหลก). The name translates roughly as “horse kick”.
It was first used in modern Muay Thai in the early 90s by golden era fighter, Rotnarong. He executed the move with two hands on the canvas instead of one hand (see picture below).
Both Rotnarong and Saenchai have on record said that the cartwheel kick was based on “sepak takraw”. Sepak Takraw is a Southeast asian sport played with a rattan ball. Think volleyball but instead of hands, players use only legs or their heads to get the ball to the other side of the court.
The cartwheel kick supposedly contravenes the rules of stadium Muay Thai. In fact, a point gets taken away for this move as the hand is not allowed on the canvas before your kick lands. Outside of the stadiums, promotions and ring officials let Saenchai get away with the kick.
It’s flashy and the crowds love it. Saenchai knows it and made it his signature move that he would deliver every fight. It’s basically like Sagad with his “tiger uppercut” in Street Fighter. Someday Saenchai will make it as a video game character complete with the cartwheel kick.
Saenchai formed a number of famous rivalries during his elite stadium phase.
During his reign between 1999 to 2008 at the peak of his career, Saenchai was the guy to beat. Ask any fighter who the best of the time is and the answer is always the same: “Saenchai”.
Here we look at three of the greatest champions and the most formidable rivals in Saenchai’s career:
Nong-O Sit Or
Nong-O Sit Or (now Nong-O Kaiyanghadao) was considered by some to be the p4p number one during his time. He is a highly-skilled Muay Femur technician with exceptional fundamentals and superior movement.
When the two master technicians collided, Saenchai bested Nong-O in all six of their meetings, proving himself as the “King of Femurs”.
Petchboonchu FA Group
Petchboonchu was the premier Muay Khao of his generation and the most decorated Muay Thai fighter of all time. It is said that the knee fighting style is the best strategy against Muay Femurs. They limit the Femur in the clinch and overpower by sheer will and volume of attack.
Petchboonchu raked in 3 wins against Saenchai over their 7 encounters and 4 losses. One of the losses involved the historical “1 vs 2” bout where he teamed up with Sagetdao Petchphaythai.
The 5-round bout featured Petchboonchu in the first 3 rounds and Sagetdao finishing up with rounds 4 and 5. Saenchai walked away with the victory via decision against the two best Muay Khao’s. Enough said.
Singdam was by far Saenchai’s most competitive rival with a total of 9 meetings between them. The Buriram heavy kicker who also happens to be a knee specialist gave Saenchai -and the fans- one of the most exciting Muay Thai rivalries.
Singdam fought out of the renowned Kiatmoo9 Gym, a village camp that produced numerous multitime champions. He relied on building a strong foundation with unrivaled conditioning to claim the Lumpinee and Thailand titles multiple times.
Nine bouts over a 9-year rivalry, Saenchai edged out with 5 wins and 4 losses.
There is no competition: Saenchai is simply the best of his generation.
Giving Up Weight
Everything you have heard about Saenchai giving up weight is true. At his career peak, he was consistently fighting at a weight disadvantage for the years between 2003 to 2014.
Not only was he giving up weight to fight foreign fighters, he would be fighting at 2-3 pounds smaller than Thai elite opponents. The fact that this lasted for a period of 12 years at the elite level is a modern miracle.
Every pound matters at the highest level of the sport. Athletes fought their best at certain weights that involve the optimal level of weight cut. Saenchai essentially had to fight opponents who were naturally bigger and even had to undergo a more drastic weight cut.
Despite giving up weight, Saenchai would still bag more wins than losses. He would lose only two times on occasions where the weights were equal. First to Singdam Kiatmoo9 in 2005, and then in 2014 to Petchboonchu FA Group.
In his last stadium fight against Petchmorakot where he lost by points, he’d also given up 2 pounds in weight.
Unlike the majority of fighters in the history of the sport, Saenchai had never scrutinized over the half pound or quarter pound weight difference. There is simply none like him, past and present. Not even the next guy.
Saenchai vs Samart Payakaroon
So who is the one true Muay Thai GOAT?
Many Muay Thai aficionados and Thai fans consider Samart Payakaroon the greatest of all-time. He is often considered to be the Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson of Muay Thai.
As a quick reference, Samart retired with a record of 150 fights with 129 wins, 19 losses and 2 draws. He won 4 Lumpinee titles across 4 different weight classes between 1980-1981. He also received the Sports Writer Fighter of the Year award 3 times in 1981, 1983 and 1988.
Samart competed actively between 1972 to 1984, transition to boxing full-time and returning to Muay Thai in 1988. He retired from Muay Thai in 1993 and boxing in 1994. That’s about 2 decades of fighting.
Samart fought during the period referred to as the “Golden Era” of Muay Thai. There was a much larger pool of talents and competitors during this time. The fight purses were also more lucrative as the economy was booming.
Like Saenchai, Samart suffered only 1 knockout loss in his professional career and it was because he went up in weight.
He rose to the top around the late 70s and dominated for a total of around 8 years. Compare this to Saenchai who was the number one guy for 12 years between 2003 to 2014.
Here’s a look at the stats:
|Stats||Samart Payakaroon||Saenchai PKSaenchaiGym|
|Years Fighting||22 years||32 years +|
|Muay Thai Record||150 fights, 129 wins||346 fights, 299 wins|
|Years Dominating (Elite level)||8 years||12 years|
|Fight of the Year Award||3 times||2 times|
In terms of longevity and domination, Saenchai takes the win over Samart.
There is no conclusive answer in terms of skills to this comparison given the different circumstances and eras in which the two legends competed. It is hard to predict what would happen if the two had been born in different eras.
I once asked Saenchai about his thoughts on who the GOAT is: him or Samart? His body language changed as soon as he heard “Samart” and it was like he already knew what was coming. He’s obviously been asked this question before. Perhaps once too many.
His reply was short and firm but with a smile, “no, no talk about this”. Saenchai obviously had a lot of respect for those that came before him.
The Thai fighters never really gave much thought or care about who the GOAT is. It’s just us, fight fans who lose our heads and bite each other’s heads off arguing on forums with strangers on the rightful king of the throne.
In Real Life
Saenchai’s appeal to fight fans extend beyond his extraordinary Muay Thai skills.
I’ve had several opportunities to chat with Saenchai over the last couple of years during my visits to Bangkok as well as my travel with the Yokkao team.
I have trained with Saenchai, and traveled with him in a couple of his overseas fights. So I am speaking from my personal experience and observations.
What strikes me most about Saenchai is his humility and down-to-earth personality. He knows he is a mega celebrity in the sport but he never acted like one.
Not once, not even a second has he ever behaved like a diva in my encounters. I have met quite a number of world champions over the years and Saenchai is as humble as they get. Trust me, I have seen young foreign fighters who think and act like they are a big deal.
He never rejects a fan asking for photos, and always puts on a smile for them. He is in real life what you see on social media. That for me, is part of what makes him a respectable legend like no other.
I want to add that Saenchai reviews his fights, watching them on his phone after every fight. Several times. This is the work ethics of a true legend.
This feature has been a long time coming and overdue. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and learned a few things about Saenchai you didn’t know before.
Saenchai may be past his prime but his ring presence and skills are as sublime as ever before.
Is Saenchai the greatest Muay Thai fighter of all time? Well, you decide. (Scroll down for Saenchai’s highlight video)