Over the years, Muay Thai fans have been treated to spectacular bouts, rivalries, and spectacles. The pantheon of the sport’s greatest fighters is only reserved for those who have exhibited the art of Thailand’s national sport in a remarkable manner. There have been many good fighters, a number of greats, yet there has only ever been one Samart Payakaroon.
The reverence and respect paid to Samart by the Muay Thai community, even two decades apart from his last foray into the sport, shows just how beloved he still is. Considered the greatest Muay Thai fighter of all time by many, Samart was partly responsible for a revolution in Muay Thai during the “Golden Age” of Muay Thai in the 1970’s and 1980’s. His innovation and peerless abilities may never again be seen in the sport.
So, what made Samart Payakaroon an all-time great? What skills, qualities, and attributes did he take into the ring to deserve such adulation and praise? Many in Thailand regard Samart as a national treasure. Some of the younger generation recognize him more for his work in acting and music. However, there is little doubt that it is his work inside the ropes and for the sport of Muay Thai is what made him a legend.
Below, we will break down what took Samart to the iconic status he holds in Muay Thai, to this day.
One of the Most Incredible Skill Sets in Muay Thai
Samart’s journey in Muay Thai began as a 7-year-old in Chachoengsao, located in the East of Thailand. It was said that the young fighter was not gifted with athleticism or strength. According to Muay Thai historians, Samart also had mediocre cardio (owing to small lungs associated with his stature). These three qualities are often what many would expect to find in any Muay Thai fighter capable of achieving even moderate success.
Despite his shortcomings, Samart – under the tutelage of the legendary trainer Yodtong Senanan – would develop into a fighter capable of beating any opponent. His first challenge was to find a way of overcoming the disadvantages of being weaker and less athletic than his peers. It appears that Samart more than accounted for these perceived weaknesses, bending them into attributes that would win him numerous titles.
A master technician, Samart Payakaroon had lightning-quick reflexes and speed that made it looks as though he was seconds ahead of his opponents’ attacks. He would lure and bait other fighters into overextending before using their momentum to launch his own attacks. With distance management and control of range, par excellence, he could see things that others simply could not.
Samart had the vision of an architect and the precision of a surgeon inside the ropes. His attacks were unpredictable and inventive, often confusing the opponent. He would use his much fêted and trademark “Thai side kick,” a technique that resembled a cross between a teep and a side kick, to control distance and prevent his opponents from finding range. That being said, Samart had no problems fighting on the inside, either.
An Extremely High Fight IQ
Although a lot of the footage of the fights in Samart’s prime has not been released, there are videos out there that demonstrate just how intelligent he was. His fight IQ applied to both an offense and defense that were miles ahead of most other fighters.
His frequent ability to be in the right place at the right time was no accident. This all came down to his knowledge of space and distance, meaning that he would almost go through systematic stages to work his way into the right pockets and areas. Much like his offensive talents, Samart was almost impossible to hit, significantly. This is probably best exemplified by the fact that he never received one single cut in over 150 Muay Thai bouts.
This exceptional ring IQ was clear from an early stage in Samart’s career, helping him to capture the first of his Lumpinee Stadium titles (at 105 lbs) in 1980. By the time he had won his first title, Samart was already selling out as the hottest ticket in the sport. He would add the 108 lbs, 115 lbs, and 126 lbs titles by 1981. This was the Golden Age of the sport, and Samart was pretty much dominating all before him.
Samart was the first fighter to ever hand Nongkhai Sor Prapasorn a loss. He beat the tough and durable Nampon Nongkeeprawayuth, and battled the legendary Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn. The great technician was challenged and didn’t always have things go his way, but when he felt he had covered all the ground he could in Muay Thai, Samart decided to try his hand at boxing.
The Confidence to Adapt
It is one thing for a Muay Thai fighter to adapt his style depending on his opponents. Doing so in another sport is something different altogether, yet, Samart Payakaroon had the confidence to adapt to any situation. Depending on the style of fighter Samart had faced in a Muay Thai ring, he would invariably find ways to manipulate and turn that style against them. It was one of the greatest talents he had (in a truck full of them).
When Samart decided it was time for a new challenge, he would move to boxing in 1982. He had excellent hands and is undoubtedly one of the greatest punchers in the history of the sport of Muay Thai. Many of the other weapons that he used to establish himself as a ring legend would not be usable under the Queensberry Rules, and many were intrigued to see how the great man would fare with limited weaponry.
Heralded as the “Muhammad Ali” and “Sugar Ray Robinson” of Muay Thai, he would now have a chance to show what he could do with his fists alone. Adopting a southpaw stance, Samart would go on to surprise boxing fans by knocking out Lupe Pintor to win the WBC junior featherweight title. Samart would be beaten in his second title defense, but it would not matter to his legions of adoring fans.
When we look back at the Muay Thai career of Samart Payakaroon, it is one that is steeped in historic relevance. There is no doubt that this man would have been a true champion in any era, but to win four Lumpinee titles in the Golden Age of Muay Thai is some achievement.
What made it possible for Samart was his confidence and belief. Possessing one of the greatest defenses in Muay Thai history certainly helped. Understanding his impressive attacking creativity, peerless ring IQ, ability to turn his opponents’ strengths on them, distance control, and his adaptability, and you get a better idea of how great Samart Payakaroon was.