The Buakaw Saga: A Living Legend

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International Kickboxer Magazine, Nov/Dec 2012

Buakaw, known to his parents as Sombat Banchamek, is arguably one of the greatest fighters of the modern era. Over a career which spans a staggering 238 fights, he has established his career with a style and a slew of performances which have thrilled millions. Now, in the ultimate triumph of business over sport, it appears his career has been stolen from him – and us – in a legal quagmire. On the back of sixteen straight wins, he has been forced into retirement. JARROD BOYLE looks back over the reign of a great champion and wonders where to from here.    

Buakaw began his fighting career like so many other Thais – at eight years of age. His record is held to be in the vicinity of two-hundred-and-thirty fights, but many believe the number to be as high as 400. He began fighting in his home province of Buriram, in north-eastern Thailand. When he turned fifteen, he moved to Chachengsao and began his contract with the Por. Pramuk gym. He took on the name of the gym as his own and has found it as difficult to shake as the contract itself.

His career in Thailand, while shrouded in mystery compounded by inaccuracy, is not without sterling achievements. He started his professional career at featherweight and won the Omnoi Stadium title belt. From there, he went on to win the All-Thailand Featherweight title. As he grew older – and heavier – he rose through the weight classes. As a lightweight, he once again won the Omnoi Stadium belt. The most prestigious event of his career arrived in December 2002 at the age of 20, when he won the Toyota Marathon 140lb title at Lumpini Stadium. He met the Japanese fighter, Kobayashi, in the finals and defeated him. Ironically, amongst all his achievements, he has failed to capture a Lumpini title.

In 2004, a Japanese ex-pat, Hideki Suzuki, head-trainer at Ingram Gym in Bangkok, contacted K1 and succeeded in getting Buakaw slated for the K1 Max. A virtual unknown outside of his native country, he shocked the world by capturing the belt by defeating three of the world’s best fighters in one night; Wayne Parr, the Japanese, Kohi, and finally, Masato. He defined himself in the course of that tournament as being a cagey, highly-skilled kicker in the Thai style.

“The first time I met Buakaw was at the [K1 Max 2004] qualifier, I fought Duane Ludwig and he fought Jordan Thai,” remembers Parr. “I saw the highlights from the back room while I was getting ready. Very impressive; very strong. Jordan couldn’t touch him.

“That was the first time Buakaw had been overseas. He had heard of me in the [Thai] newspapers and wanted to hang out with me, not least of all because I could speak Thai. Once we were matched to fight on the main show though, he gave me the cold-shoulder, because I was now the opponent. He was one of the fastest people I’ve fought, but not much power. Nothing like Yodslanklai – that hurt! Buakaw was just fast.

“From then on, after he won the tournament, you could see the clothes getting better and better; he got a bit of a strut. He became like the Thai Masato. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan. I watched all his fights. He’s entertaining and exciting. That’s made him one of the greatest fighters in the world.

“After 2005, he concentrated a lot more on his hands, because he had a lot of dubious decisions go against him. Buakaw dominated Souwer in the final of the 2005 K1 Max. It should never have been a draw; that decision was disgusting. I was actually sitting beside Andre Manaart watching (which was before Manaart started training Souwer). I bet him 100 Yen that Buakaw would win. Manaart tried to hand me the money after the third round and I told him, ‘Not yet, let’s just wait or the decision.’ Then, Manaart tried to give me the money after the extension round, as well. I said, ‘Let’s just wait until the ref lifts his hand.’ Then Souwer got the decision and I lost the money. That’s how certain we were.”

That said, Max was a sensational career move which garnered an international audience for Buakaw’s formidable skills. While his fight purses increased dramatically, his career as a Muay Thai fighter in his home country came to a halt. Many of the competition’s best fighters owe their reputation, at least in part, to fights against him, most notably Andy Souwer. It was clear after the 2005 loss to Souwer, Buakaw would have to develop his boxing skills if he was to capture more decisions.

The following year, he met Souwer in the finals with a flurry of punches that ended the fight by K.O. He was crowned K1 Max Champion for the second time. He remains, aside from Giorgio Petrosyan, the only Max fighter to have achieved this.

The second time Parr met Buakaw was in 2009 at Champion Versus Champion 2, in Jamaica.

“That time, it was under full Thai rules; [I felt] that fight was a lot closer than the first. He fought me the same way. He didn’t want to trade punches; he wanted to sit back and use his legs. I landed more strikes with my hands in that fight than the last one.

“Interestingly, he almost didn’t fight me. On the contract, the agreed weight was 71 kilos. When I weighed in at 71, his manager said ‘no’, they wouldn’t fight at more than 70. He wouldn’t get on the scales for about 45 minutes, until the contract was produced and the whole thing was sorted out.”

Since fighting Parr for the second time, he has developed both his audience and his reputation with a slew of fights against the best international opponents all over the world. He has become a regular fixture in Europe and features as a kind of rite-of-passage for rising European stars that sit around the 70kg mark. He has defeated all of them, except for a handful of losses to regular adversaries like Kraus, Souwer, and the Japanese Sato and Masato. He also claims one of the three Thai-shaped blots on Giorgio Petrosyan’s otherwise-spotless record.

The other Australian to have fought Buakaw more recently is Frank Giorgi. Frank met Buakaw on Thai Fight, a Thai promotion of a K1-style format conducted under full Thai rules.

“When I was waiting to go out, it was put to me that Buakaw was a national hero,” says Frank. “He was sponsored by the king and I was going to have to K.O. him to get the decision. When we weighed in, he came in two kilos under. He walks around at about 73, while I was getting around at 77. [During the fight] I felt that he was playing it safe and only doing what he had to do to win; he didn’t want to exchange with someone that was bigger than he was.

“He didn’t want to take too many risks. That said, he was too good, too smart, and super-quick. His eyes and timing were impeccable, and that’s the fruit of experience. Powerful, but not extremely. The knees and punches he hit me with were very powerful, but his legs, not so much. The right one was hard, sure, but the left kick, it was just ‘there’, if you know what I mean.”

Since fighting Frank, Buakaw has had another three contests. After fighting Djabar Askerov in Milan, Italy earlier this year, he disappeared suddenly. When he re-emerged some weeks later on Thai television, it was to apologise to his fans for the sudden absence and to explain the reason for it; his contract with Por. Pramuk gym was suffocating him. Stories of financial and personal mistreatment set the scene for a legal battle which climaxed with his retirement.

He has not recorded a loss since 2009 (to old foe Andy Souwer) and has put together a winning streak of sixteen fights since. One can only speculate on what will happen from this point. Perhaps the King of Thailand, Buakaw’s most auspicious sponsor, will come forward and deliver him from his oppressive contract; surely nothing carries as much weight in Thailand as a royal decree. That said, Yodsanklai is also circling as the number-one contender. The two top-welterweight Thais, not only in ranking but reputation, must surely be one of the most attractive promotions of the decade.

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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