Who is the best Muay Thai fighter of all time? The question is probably as old as the sport itself.
Known as the “art of 8 limbs” because it utilizes all the striking possibilities of the human body, the combat tactics of Muay Thai were forged on the battlefields of what is today Thailand and Myanmar and can be traced as far back the mid 16th century. Before it became a sport, its brutal violence was used in actual combat to fend off invading armies.
In 1774, the King of the Burmese Empire, held what may have been the very first MMA tournament. Over the course of a seven-day religious holiday, the King wanted to see how Lethwei (Burmese Boxing) fared against the famed Siam (modern day Thailand) boxers.
He used prisoners of war that the Burmese army had captured while invading Thailand against the best fighters in Burma.
It was at this tournament that the first Muay Thai legend was born, Nai Khanomtom. In Khanomtom’s first fight he pummeled his opponent so easily, that the knockout was declared invalid because the referee thought that the Burmese fighter was too distracted by the Wai Kru, or pre-fight dance performed by every Muay Thai fighter to this day.
As a matter of fact, so effective were the Thai boxers over the Burmese that the spectators believed the Wai Kru was actually a form of black magic to put a spell on their opponent and ensure victory.
To prove it wasn’t a fluke, the King brought in another champion to challenge Khanomtom. And then another. And then another. In total, Khanomtom fought 9 opponents with no rest periods in between and knocked out every single one.
After running out of champions willing to fight Khanomtom, the King was quoted as saying “Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents.”
And ever since then, Muay Thai’s legacy has held firm.
The Mount Rushmore
Choosing the Best from the Rest
Over the centuries there have been countless fighters that have trained in the sport of Muay Thai. Narrowing it down to the top 4 won’t be an easy task. What makes it even harder is that Muay Thai’s influence has infiltrated many other combat sports.
To make things easier this list will only focus on what athletes achieved solely in the sport of Muay Thai. So even a great fighter like Buakaw, although his fighting style is heavily influenced by a Muay Thai background since most of his fights came in the sport of kickboxing, he will be left off this list.
Of course, all the criteria for what makes a fighter great – power, speed, technique, accuracy, etc., will be taken into account. But a Mount Rushmore needs to go deeper than that and look at the bigger picture. So things like legacy and influence on the sport will be taken into account as well.
So now that we have the criteria established let’s reveal the best Muay Thai fighters of all time.
Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn
Talking about the best Muay Thai fighters without mentioning Dieselnoi would be like talking about the best basketball players and not mentioning Michael Jordan. It’s basically obligatory.
Dieselnoi reigned supreme during the “Golden Era” of Muay Thai. He was so good in fact that he was forced to give up his belt because no one would agree to fight him.
Standing 6’2’’ (1.88 m), “The Little Diesel” was essentially a giant in his native country. And weighing in at an impossibly lean 135 lbs (60kg), the guy was a walking skeleton. With little to no meat wrapped around his bones, when his elbows and knees came crashing into your body, you might as well have been getting beat with a baseball bat.
Dieselnoi had the ultra long and lean body that Muay Thai coaches drool over. But Dieselnoi didn’t just dwarf his opponents, he knew how to fight, and most importantly, he knew how to use his size to his advantage. Giving him the rare combination of size, skill, and intelligence that only the great athletes, of any sport, possess.
Dieselnoi was the master of clinch wrestling. Once he got his arms around your neck, he would use his height to weigh down on the back of your head, yanking you around whatever which way he pleased and simply would not let go until he had his fill. He would ragdoll his opponent from side to side at will, all the while delivering the strike he’s most famous for – knees.
Dieselnoi threw his knees with a ferocity that had never been seen before.
Just watching him hitting pads sends a chill down my spine knowing that those blows are intended for another human being. There’s fluidity and even a gracefulness about his violence. It’s like watching an antelope run, you can see how easy and naturally it comes to them, and even if you didn’t know anything else about antelopes, you could tell that they were made to run. And Dieselnoi was made to bash bodies.
And it was with these knees that Dieselnoi won the Lumpinee Stadium Lightweight Championship in 1981. After that we fought another fighter who may be equally deserving of being called the best of all-time, Samart Payakaroon. The fight between the two was the biggest Muay Thai fight of all time up to that point. Although having lost to Samart previously, Dieselnoi was able to come out on top thanks in large part to his trademark knees.
As a matter of fact, Dieselnoi had become frighteningly good. So much so, that no other Muay Thai fighter would agree to fight him for the next two years. Dieselnoi was then forced to give up his belt due to inactivity.
Eager to find opponents, he took his show on the road, traveling to foreign countries to fight international fighters, often in mixed-styles contests.
Here’s one such example, as Dieselnoi just completely pulverizes American kickboxer John Moncayo.
Having run out of opponents, Dieselnoi retires at the young age of 25, not even having reached his prime.
His overall record is reported to be 110 wins (40 KO’s), 10 losses and 2 draws.
In every sport, about once every generation or so, an athlete will come along that completely changes the game. A bar raiser. A paradigm shifter. Someone who not only does things that no one thought possible, but makes them look easy. An athlete that will push the standards of the sport to an all-time high. And right now, Saenchai is doing just that for the sport of Muay Thai.
While there still may be a debate about who the greatest overall fighter is. There is no question that Saenchai is the most technical fighter of all time. The guy can do it all. If he has a weakness in his fight game, then he’s keeping it a closely-guarded secret, because so far no one has figured it out.
Not only does Saenchai possess the technical skills he also has a creativity to his violence that is unmatched and makes him a combat savant. He has introduced unique set-ups, attack angles, and delivery methods to the sport that look like they’ve come from a video game. It’s almost as if he’s operating with a different set of physics than the rest of us.
Have you ever tried to swat a fly out of the air and the fly just buzzes nonchalantly around your head with no fear whatsoever, as your big, stupid hand comes up empty time after time? This is what fighting Saenchai is like. Only this little fly can hit back, often with devastating results.
So technical are Saenchai’s fighting skills, that this highlight reel of his comes with a glossary to help you understand his ability and to showcase his complete range of attacks.
If there’s one criticism of Saenchai, it’s how easy he makes everything look. But make no mistake about it, this is Muay Thai at the highest level. Just try some of these strikes on a heavy bag and feel how awkward it is. Now think that he’s doing it while someone is trying to take his head off. He is a god amongst men.
Saenchai is in the ring conducting symphonies of violence, while the rest of us are just banging pots and pans together. He is a living legend and watching him fight, you are seeing the future of the sport.
The knock on traditional Muay Thai fighters is that their boxing skills, especially punching and defensive footwork aren’t sharp usually due to these skills being overlooked in training. Be that as it may, Samart Payakaroon, showed what could happen when it was all tied together.
Generally seen as not being very physically gifted, Samart would perform surgery in the ring. He would precisely pick apart his opponents on his way to yet another victory. Samart had a natural talent for both delivering and avoiding blows, with reflexes that would make a mongoose envious. He was such a natural fighter that he made a seamless transition over to western boxing and became the 1986 WBC Junior Featherweight Champion. Watch here as he takes on Juan Meza, who with a record of 43-6 was no slouch himself, but the way Samart could make people miss Meza looks like he’s shadowboxing.
Think about that for a second – Going from a sport that he began at the age of 10 and utilizes 8 limbs for attacking, to a sport where you only have two options – your left hand and your right hand. It’d be like trying to drive a race car but not being allowed past 2nd gear. The mental restraint it must have taken to compete within the limitations of the rules, all the while knowing at any given time he could switch gears and completely pulverize the man standing across from him. This shows you the caliber of fighter Samart was.
As we now live in a world where MMA is insanely popular and negotiations for a McGregor-Mayweather fight are heating up, a fighter crossing over into another discipline doesn’t sound so groundbreaking. But in the 1980’s this was unheard of. Samart helped to blaze the trail of crossover fighting that our current MMA stars are walking to this day.
But before all that he was a Muay Thai badass. The list of fighters he’s defeated could, on its own, serve as a Muay Thai Mount Rushmore. You think McGregor winning the belt in two weight classes was cool? Samart has been the champion in 4 different weight classes. He won his first Lumpinee Stadium Championship at the age of 17. His fighting resume is second to none.
So to not have Samart on the Mount Rushmore of Muay Thai would be a crime.
During his reign, the baby face killer was insanely popular amongst a fan base that went far beyond just fighting. He even used his popularity and good looks to cross over into music and film. This was long before this became commonplace by today’s superstars.
Even to this day, Samart can’t walk down the street in Bangkok without being hounded for autographs and pictures. He is a hero in Thailand and a hero for anyone that knows their Muay Thai history.
K-1 champion Buakaw Banchamek stated that Samart was the greatest Muay Thai fighter ever, without question and that’s coming from a guy that knows a thing or two about Muay Thai.
Unfortunately, footage of Samart is pretty rare. Most of the stuff you see out there comes from later in his career when he was already past his prime. That being said, highlight reels like this one can give you a glimpse of his brilliance.
Samart finished his career with a record of 129 wins, 19 losses, and 2 draws.
Muay Thai is a 500-year-old sport and narrowing it all down to just 4 fighters would be impossible without at least one controversial pick. And that pick is Ramon Dekkers.
But anyone who has seen Dekkers fight wouldn’t think it was a very controversial pick at all. His skill level could compete with any other fighter.
So the controversy isn’t in his ability, it’s the fact that he isn’t quite as decorated as some other fighters. For example, Dekkers never won a Lumpinee or Rajadamnern title. These are really the only two championships that matter in Thailand. Other fighters, some of whom aren’t on this list are multiple title holders. But let’s look a level deeper. Because why Dekkers never won a major Muay Thai championship may be a source of controversy in of itself.
While we have enjoyed the proliferation and widespread popularity of Muay Thai and its influence on other combat sports. You must remember it wasn’t always like this. As a matter of fact, one could argue outside of Thailand, Muay Thai didn’t become popular until almost a decade into the 2000’s. This is a full 20 years after what is considered to be Muay Thai’s Golden Age.
Things were different back then. Muay Thai was not only the national sport of Thailand but it was deeply ingrained in the culture of the country. In other words, this was a sport for Thais by Thais.
Not that foreigners were lining up to get into the ring after seeing the bloody brutality of the Combat of the 8 Limbs. Most were quite comfortable sticking to their boxing or martial arts. These were regarded as a “science” or a disciplined art form. At that time many foreigners saw Muay Thai as being too savage and lawless and therefore dismissed the sport as being akin to human cockfighting.
And then Ramon Dekkers came along.
Dekkers was born in the Netherlands and began training in Judo at the age of 12 before moving onto other disciplines. During that time kickboxing had become very popular in the Netherlands with Muay Thai capturing a small but dedicated following. By the time Dekkers was 13 he was training Muay Thai full-time under Cor Hemmers who also helped train the likes of Alistair Overeem, Bas Rutten, Gökhan Saki among others.
Dekkers became popular with Dutch fans for his hard-charging aggressive style. He brought his talent and style to Thailand and in doing so, pissed off a lot of Thais.
You see it wasn’t so much that Thais didn’t want foreigners using Muay Thai. A well-enjoyed form of entertainment in Thailand is watching a much smaller yet well-trained Thai fighter beat up a much bigger farang tourist, a past time that is still very much in practice today.
But Dekkers could actually fight. So it rubbed a lot of traditionalists the wrong way when a farang came into Thailand and beat up Thais using the method they had invented. But what really pissed them off was how he was winning.
One thing you have to understand about traditional Muay Thai is that the fight builds tempo as it goes along. During the first two rounds, the fighters feel each other without either one of them opening themselves up for any serious attack. Early round knockouts didn’t happen. The fight really started in the third round as the fighters start to land more and more significant strikes. The final two rounds is where it becomes an all out brawl.
Why do they fight like this? Well, one answer is because of another favorite pastime of the Thais which is deeply entrenched in the culture of Muay Thai – gambling.
A lot of gambling, both official and unofficial, takes place at a Muay Thai fight. Most gamblers like to see the first couple of rounds before placing their bets. This gives them a chance to see how the fighters perform. As the fight continues, the odds change and more and more money is put down. Having a first or second round KO would mean that almost no bets were made. This meant that no-one would win any money.
So when a young and ambitious Ramon Dekkers came along looking to finish his opponent as early as possible, robbing the Thai spectators of their gambling earnings, people didn’t take too kindly to it. And it’s very likely that he pissed off some people in some high places. People that could in one way or another, influence the outcome of a fight.
And the fact that he was farang only made it worse.
Here’s where the controversy comes into play. Because Dekkers wasn’t well liked and also in part because of a confusing scoring system used by Muay Thai judges, it was almost impossible for Dekkers to win by points. He now had to KO his opponent to ensure victory, making his style even more aggressive and compounding the problem further.
As a result, right from the opening bell, Dekkers unleashed an absolute blitzkrieg and assaulted his opponents at a pace that they had never seen and were simply not ready for.
But whether you believe Dekkers was robbed by the judges or you think he legitimately lost these fights. The influence he had in bringing Muay Thai out of Thailand and showing it to the rest of the world is undeniable. He was the first foreign superstar. As a sport that was dominated by Thais for centuries, without him Muay Thai and all the other sports it has influenced would not be what it is today. He also ushered in a new, more aggressive style of fighting which forever changed the sport. For these reasons, Ramon Dekkers belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Muay Thai.
Regardless of how the Thais may have felt about Dekkers, it is certain that he had their respect. Because of his ability and determination in the ring, Dekkers’ popularity soared with Thai fans. In 1992 he became the first foreigner to be recognized as “Fighter of the Year” by the Thai press.
In 2012 Dekkers received a Royal Award from the King of Thailand himself for his services to the sport. He was also named the Ambassador to all foreign fighters in Thailand, a huge honor.
His fight career lasted an unbelievable 223 fights. He won 186 of them, 95 coming by way of knockout, 35 losses and 2 draws.
The Final Round
So there you have it – The Muay Thai Mount Rushmore. These are the godfathers of the sport. The game changers. They helped raise Muay Thai to new levels. Leaving a legacy that will remain long after they hang up their gloves.
It wasn’t easy narrowing it down to just 4 fighters. I’m sure that many of you reading this could make valid arguments for including other fighters.
However, the impact these four fighters have had on Muay Thai is beyond reproach. They helped take a sport that, from outside of Thailand, was seen as a barbaric side-show spectacle, and they brought it to the main stream. Muay Thai is now easily recognized and heavily respected the world over.
And it’s all thanks to these guys.