Behind the bright lights of the famed Lumpinee Stadium lies a dark history of those who have chosen a life fighting inside the ring. It is an all too familiar story of a nak muay seeing Muay Thai as his only way out of a life of poverty, a chance to provide a better life for his family and for himself.
The story of 3-time Lumpinee Muay Thai World Champion Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn is no different. Although Namsaknoi has made a name for himself as one of Thailand’s greatest and most accomplished Muay Thai fighters, his journey wasn’t that of a smooth one. This is because he initially did not get the riches and respect which he deserved, despite his many achievements as a Muay Thai fighter.
Born into a life of not-so-fortunate circumstances in Surat Thani, Thailand, Namsaknoi decided to become a Muay Thai fighter just like his older brother. However, he and his brother weren’t the only fighters in the family. The name “Namsaknoi”, which means “Little Namsak”, was taken from the fighting name of Namsak, the first Muay Thai fighter to receive an award from the King of Thailand. Namsak also just happens to be Namsaknoi’s uncle.
Making such a big decision at the tender age of 8 was the norm, much to the dismay of his father. “My mother thought I would be OK, but my father insisted against it,” says Namsaknoi. His father was so reluctant that up till Namsaknoi started fighting, his father refused to watch any of his fights, claiming that he was bad luck for his son. Fortunately, Namsaknoi’s mother was supportive. She would convince her husband that her son had a better future as a Muay Thai fighter. Eventually, Namsaknoi’s father relented – after all, what else could the future hold for a young boy from the province?
When Namsaknoi won his first fight at just 8 years old, he got only 150 baht – but at that point, it was a great amount to him, as his family struggled to make ends meet. He would later go on to win 285 out of 300 total fights. Unfortunately, he would not get to see – let alone keep – any of his winnings.
When he was 12 years old, Namsaknoi left his hometown for the capital city of Bangkok to further his Muay Thai training. Venturing to the big city was not so easy for the young fighter. He would face many challenges in and out of the gym. Often times, Namsaknoi was met with opposition in his gym, finding himself driven to the brink of exhaustion and hopelessness by those eager to see him fail. However, he saw these merely as opportunities to prove these people wrong. No matter how hard they drove him, Namsaknoi would never quit. And his hard work paid off.
“I won my first major title at 17 years old at Lumpinee Stadium,” Namsaknoi reveals, “Then I won the World Muay Thai Council belt at 112 pounds.” Namsaknoi would go on to have one of the longest reigns as a Muay Thai Champion in the history of the prestigious Lumpinee Stadium. In fact, the Thai media voted him as one of the greatest fighters in history, giving him the nickname “The Emperor”.
Namsaknoi’s days as The Emperor went on for a decade. “I received the Best Fighter of The Year award in 1996, then I got the champion of 130lbs at Lumpinee Stadium, Best Fighter of the Year again in 2001, champion of 135lbs, and the Best Wai Kru awards of Rajadamnern and Lumpinee Stadiums,” shares Namsaknoi.
Unfortunately, he did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor because his gym’s management took all his purse money – eventually leaving him penniless some time down the road.
“I stopped fighting when I was 28 years old, because I had some problems with the owner of my gym,” says Namsaknoi. “He did not compensate me fairly.”
As he approached the end of his fight career, Namsaknoi was in low spirits as his future was extremely uncertain and this scared him. “When I walked away from my gym, I was also walking away from my prize winnings and possessions – including the Lumpinee belts.”
Such stories are common amongst Muay Thai fighters, despite the fame they have achieved in their glory days. Often times, you’ll hear stories of legendary Muay Thai fighters past their prime returning to poverty – the very reason why they started fighting in the first place.
Namsaknoi’s experience was no different. He returned back home to Surat Thani with barely a penny to his name. Namsaknoi describes this as one of the lowest points in his life. He had no choice but to ask his parents for help. “One day, I walked into the house after work and saw my mother. She had been working on removing the flesh off some crabs by hand. She fell asleep by the tray and her fingers were fully covered in red scratches. I had no idea what I should do, and I cried in the bathroom. Quickly, I washed my face and went outside, waking her up to sleep on the bed. She said she was not done, but I told her to stop. She said it was okay, and she continued until she finished,” Namsaknoi shares.
Unwilling to ask for any more help from his family, he took a job as a Muay Thai instructor at Koh Phangan, where he eventually learned English. And as they say, the rest is history. Namsaknoi found a new career in teaching the art that he loved and practiced almost all his life. However, he still struggled to make ends meet despite working at various camps in Thailand.
Things started to look up for Namsaknoi when he received a call from Saknarong Sityodtong, who teaches at Evolve MMA. Although he didn’t know much about Evolve MMA or Singapore, he decided to take a leap of faith and so, he accepted the job.
“Muay Thai has changed me from a naïve young boy to a well-known World Champion. I’m happy I became a fighter,” says Namsaknoi. His love for teaching Muay Thai has also changed his life, especially after moving to Evolve MMA in Singapore. “My mother is happy for me,” he says, “She doesn’t have to work anymore. Thanks to Evolve MMA, my family has a much easier life.”
Although Namsaknoi lives a happier and more comfortable life, he believes that all the hardships that he experienced throughout his time as a fighter is what forged the warrior spirit within him. For Namsaknoi, being where he is today would have not been possible if he did not persevere through those trying times.
“The life of a fighter is tough. There are many times where you feel like you want to give up but you don’t, because you have goals you want to reach. We should all dare to dream big and work hard to fulfill those dreams. Because in the end, believe me, it will all be worth it,” Namsaknoi reveals. Perhaps we can all take a page out of Namsaknoi’s life story and use it as inspiration to give us hope when we have none.