Martial arts competitions are never a free-for-all, but Muay Thai gets pretty close.
Throughout history, different martial disciplines have been created with specific intentions and rules in mind. Military martial arts such as Israel’s Krav Maga and Russian Combat Sambo are the deadliest martial arts because they were created with the intention to incapacitate or maim an attacker in a life-threatening crisis. The rules of the game decide who will win a fight as much as skill, experience, and good luck.
Although Muay Thai’s written rules allow elbows and knees to the head, it is the discipline’s unwritten rules that really get hardcore. There is actually a stigma in Muay Thai against backing up to avoid getting hit. The best Muay Thai fighters will stand and eat damage while waiting for their chance to counterattack. Unlike reactive styles such as Judo and Wing Chun, Muay Thai is a discipline better suited for offense than defense. This is the sport that has produced the most savage striking in the world, and that is why the all-time best Muay Thai champs deserve a special kind of recognition.
In a street fight, these are men you would want on your side.
- 1. Samart Payakaroon – The Jade-Faced Tiger
- 2. Saenchai – The Kingstar
- 3. Buakaw Banchamek – The White Lotus
- 4. Dieselnoi – The Sky-Piercing Knee
- 5. Sangmanee Tienpo – The Million Dollar Baby
- 6. Kulabdam – The Left Meteorite
- 7. Apidej Sit-Hirun – The Golden Leg
- 8. Namkabuan – The Ring Genius
- Honorable Mention: Tony Jaa – Ting, the Muay Thai Warrior
- The Art of Eight Limbs
1. Samart Payakaroon – The Jade-Faced Tiger
- Total fights: 150
- Wins: 130
- By knockout: 30
- Losses: 18
Payakaroon gets called the Muhammad Ali of Muay Thai. He was active from 1972 to 1994, and many consider him to be the greatest Muay Thai fighter of all time.
The legendary kickboxer threw massive amounts of torque behind his kicks. Most fighters only use front kicks as a way to push their opponent around the ring, but like Anderson Silva after him, The Tiger was known to knock people out with these lightning-fast snaps.
The Tiger started training Muay Thai at the age of 7. Like many Eastern Muay Thai boxers, he also experimented with western boxing. Unlike some of the guys on this list who came after him, though, he never fully embraced the defensive style we are familiar with in the English-speaking world.
Payakaroon became the legend he is today when he began releasing music in 1990 between his boxing tours. Apart from being a fighter and a pop singer, he is also an actor.
Films Starring the Jade-Faced Tiger:
2. Saenchai – The Kingstar
- Total fights: 346
- Wins: 300
- By knockout: 40
- Losses : 41
Saenchai, who won the Lumpinee Stadium Championship at the age of 16, was active until he was 38. He is currently 40. Joe Rogan follows him on Instagram, has called him one of the greatest combat sports athletes ever, and says that until he finally retired in 2018, it was not unheard of for the man to have a fight once a week.
He is remarkable for more than his endurance and passion for the sport. He is also one of those fighters that remind us that pugilism is a dance. Saenchai is a quick, clever, deadly industry veteran with an international audience.
Saenchai fights can be more relatable for Western audiences than most other Muay Thai fighters because Saenchai uses angles and footwork in his arsenal. He is a creative striker who will send his opponents to the floor with unexpected (and sometimes unexplainable) blows that seem to come out of nowhere.
- 2010 Toyota Cup tournament champion
- 2010 WMC World Lightweight (135 lbs/61kg)
- 2011 WBC Diamond World Champion
- ‘99 and ‘08, Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter of the Year
3. Buakaw Banchamek – The White Lotus
- Total fights: 260
- Wins: 236
- Losses: 24
- KOs: 72
If you have ever seen one of those videos of Thai fighters training their shins by kicking stop signs in half, that guy might as well be Buakaw. He is an impressive figure internationally, having made a name for himself in a moment where fighters all over the world have their sights set on his native Thailand.
Buakaw is the youngest legendary-level fighter on this list. He is currently 38 years old. In July 2004, ‘The White Lotus’ beat another legendary Muay Thai fighter—Aussie John Wayne Parr—to become the K-1 MAX World Champ.
He has held the titles of Lumpinee Stadium Champion, Thailand Featherweight Champion, and went on to repeat his victory as two-time K-1 World MAX Champion.
4. Dieselnoi – The Sky-Piercing Knee
- Total fights: 116
- Wins: 110
- By knockout: 60
- Losses : 5
Dieselnoi was active from 1979 to 1985. He was the great rival of Samart Payakaroon throughout the early 80s. Muay Thai and Western boxing both went through a massive leap in coverage and attention during this decade—often referred to as the Golden Age of Muay Thai. The championship bout at Lumpinee Stadium between these two is the Muay Thai equivalent of the Ali vs. Frazier rivalry.
What earned Dieselnoi his nickname was his relatively tall stature. At the time, the average height of Thai men was 5’4. Dieselnoi was a tower in the ring standing in at 6’2, while still competing at the 130 lbs weight class.
At the end of the day there could only be one champion. Dieselnoi took home the Lumpinee belt and the prestigious Thailand’s Fighter of the Year in 1982.
5. Sangmanee Tienpo – The Million Dollar Baby
- Total fights: 133
- Wins: 101
- By knockout: 30
- Losses: 26
The Million Dollar Baby is the modern face of Thai kickboxing. He is a young, ferocious fighter with a bright future. On September 16, 2019, he signed a multi-fight contract with ONE championship, a Singaporean striking-only championship. The 23-year-old has never been defeated by a non-Thai.
He began his career at age 15, when he moved to Saenchai’s gym in Bangkok. Saenchai wound up switching gyms a few years later after Sangmanee supposedly became the new star of the gym.
This momentous year for the kid saw him named Thailand’s Fighter of the year as well as champion of Lumpinee—all before reaching 16!
The Million Dollar Baby specializes in TKOs. This is when the referee must step in to stop a fight for safety concerns. His weapon of choice is his left shin, which he uses to absolutely smash his opponents.
Some of Million Dollar Baby’s TKO victims:
- Marlon Santos, Brazil
- Martin Avery, Ireland
- Timur Mamatisakov, Kyrgyzstan
6. Kulabdam – The Left Meteorite
- Total: 89
- Wins: 68
- Losses : 19
- Draws: 2
Muay Thai boxers usually employ less footwork than Western boxers, but that is not the case with this guy. He can bob and weave with the best of them. The video above shows ‘The Left Meteorite’ dropping one of the best elbow strikers in the world with an explosive blitz.
Both Kulabdam and Sandmanee are seen as Thailand’s contenders at the new ONE Championship. Both are powerful strikers, but Sandmanee is more of a kicking and kneeing specialist, while ‘The Meteorite’ got his name from his astounding left cross. Kulabdam is known for being a knockout artist. He is only 5’6, but he throws his bulk perfectly behind his blows.
This future fight between the two Muay Thai titans will be one for the books. The organizer, ONE Championship, is also the main source of income for both athletes. It is a relatively new organization that could be seen as an Asian answer to UFC.
7. Apidej Sit-Hirun – The Golden Leg
This fighter is considered the hardest kicker in Muay Thai history. He was born in September 1941 and died of lung cancer in 2013. The best part of his kickboxing career spanned the 60s and ran all the way up to the 70s.
Unfortunately, most of his fights are lost to history. Unlike Thailand today, the Thailand of the 60s was not a country with a particularly vigorous sports journalism industry, international sporting interest, or close relations with the outside world.
Apidej is still considered a legend for two reasons. The first, he broke both of Sompong Charoenmuang’s arms with his devastating kicks and forced the kickboxer to retire. The second was an honor Apidej received from the king of Thailand at the time. King Bhumibol Adulyadej named Apidej a national hero and Muay Thai Fighter of the Century after Apidej held an astounding seven Muay Thai and boxing titles during the 1960s.
8. Namkabuan – The Ring Genius
- Total wins :283
- Wins: 266
- Losses: 15
- Draws: 2
Like many Muay Thai competitors, The Ring Genius is a deeply religious athlete. Your first time spectating a traditional Muay Thai fight starring ‘The Ring Genius’ can be jarring if you are used to watching the UFC. You will be hypnotized by the trancelike traditional music, the teammates sitting inside the ring with the fighters, and the ritual wai kru ceremony before an event.
One thing you will definitely notice early on is how the cheeky Thai just stands there soaking up damage!
‘The Ring Genius’ is the younger brother of another of the most famous Thai boxers, Namphon Nongkee Pahuyuth. Namkabuan has fighting in his blood. He was an undefeated World Champion of Lumpinee for six years in the 90s.
Honorable Mention: Tony Jaa – Ting, the Muay Thai Warrior
Jaa is not actually a champion fighter like some of the other names on this list, but he deserves a mention for being possibly the most famous fighter in his discipline and one of the faces of modern Muay Thai around the planet.
If you enjoy Muay Thai and martial arts films, there’s a good chance you have heard of Jaa’s work. His debut role as an actor as well as a stuntman a-la-Jackie Chan was as Ting, the hero of the wildly successful 2003 martial arts movie Ong-Bak, which introduced many Westerners to the art of Muay Thai.
The plot of Ong-Bak actually mirrors Jaa’s own life. It revolves around a deeply Buddhist farm laborer with serious martial arts savvy from the Thailand backwaters whose village is desecrated by goons from the city. Ting (Jaa) must then recover a severed golden Buddha head to restore his peoples’ honor by taking on horde after horde of bad guys.
Jaa got his start in film working as a stuntman. He says Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bruce Lee were huge influences on him growing up.
“What they (Lee, Chan, and Li) did was so beautiful, so heroic that I wanted to do it too,” Jaa told Time in a 2004 interview. “I practiced until I could do the move exactly as I had seen the masters do it.”
Injuries Sustained During Filing:
- Split ligament
- Sprained ankle
- Catching on fire
The Art of Eight Limbs
In Muay Thai, knees, shins, and hands are all treated as weapons. This is a much more complete striking system than what we are used to in the West. The masters of Muay Thai in this list are not just top champions in their niche, they are equally if not more formidable than their boxing counterparts like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, making them among the greatest combat sport fighters in history.