Thai musicians play music to accompany muay Thai at Lumpinee stadium. (Photo: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty)
Opening in 1954 after general Praphas Charusathien urged the Thai army to build another stadium following the wild success of Rajadamnern, Lumpinee Stadium was once the gold standard for muay Thai events. From the time its birth until the late 1990s, the venue held some of the greatest fights in muay Thai history, and winning a Lumpinee championship quickly represented the highest level of achievement in the sport. Old Lumpinee Stadium closed in 2014 due to the opening of a new-and-improved version just a few miles away. With the demolition of the original, much history was lost.
Although the 1980s and mid-1990s are considered the golden ages of muay Thai, the fighters and fights from the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for the legends of that era. Even though Pone Kingpetch was the first Lumpinee Stadium champion, Apidej Sit Hirun became the first true star of Lumpinee after winning the welterweight title from Dejrit Ltti-anuchit.
Dubbed the “Golden Leg” for his violent and powerful kicks, Apidej is still known to some as the greatest kicker the sport has ever known. Not being the fastest fighter, Apidej had to rely on his fluid switch-hitting and uncanny ability to intelligently set up his kicks in ways that were never seen before. From 1961-71, he compiled a 350-10-1 record while winning seven different championships, including Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. Owner of arguably the most impressive record in muay Thai history, Apidej is sometimes referred to the Greatest of All-Time, but his level of competition has held him back in the eyes of some. Nevertheless, he was the first superstar of Lumpinee Stadium and inspired the next generation of legendary nak muays.
“The Comet from The South,” Poot Lorlek is known by most muay Thai aficionados as the greatest Thai boxer of the 1970s. Also known as “The Angle Fighter,” Poot is one of the finest technicians muay Thai has ever seen. In an era when aggression and power was the norm, Poot took a different approach to the sport and relied on technique, timing and footwork to compile a record of 65-13-2 and hold a Lumpinee championship from 1970-77. During those years, Poot bested nearly every elite fighter of the era, including the legendary “Immortal Boxer,” Vicharnnoi Porntawee, at Lumpinee Stadium in 1975. The fight with Vicharnnoi was awarded “Fight of the Year” by Thailand’s Sports Writers Association and marks a high point in one of the greatest rivalries in muay Thai history.
Poot retired in 1977 after getting married, for fear of being out of his prime and putting on a bad show for his loyal fans. After 34 years of retirement, Poot made a comeback in 2011 to fight the great Sagat Petchyindee -- a fight fans have wanted since they were both in their prime in the 1970s. Poot was 60 and Sagat was 56, but they surprisingly put on a memorable fight that saw Poot win a controversial decision. To this day, Poot is one of the most intelligent and technical nak muays to ever compete, and if it was not for his dominance and superstardom in the 1970s, the golden age of the 1980s might have taken a different turn.
The Golden Age of Muay Thai
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, muay Thai reached unexpected levels of popularity and skill, producing some of the greatest combat sports athletes of all-time. Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn, aka “The Sky Piercing Knee Kicker,” became the face of muay Thai in the 1980s and was the first undefeated Lumpinee Stadium champion in history. Known for his devastating knees from any stance or distance, Dieselnoi won the lightweight Lumpinee championship in 1981 after beating Koapong Sittichuchai on points. In 1982, Dieselnoi matched up with Samart Payakaroon -- a man many consider the greatest of all muay Thai practitioners. In a fight that is lost to history due to restrictions from the combat sports tape trading society, Dieselnoi was said to have easily defeated Samart on points with his usual aggression and sky-piercing knees to the body. From 1982-85 nobody dared to challenge the famed knee fighter, and he was forced to retire and vacate his Lumpinee championship at the ripe old age of 25 simply because there was nobody left to fight. It is said that Dieselnoi could never find opponents because the gamblers that ruled the sport at the time could not find a formidable enough opponent to give him decent odds and were scared of having to pay out millions of baht to the Dieselnoi bettors. Nonetheless, Dieselnoi is still the epitome of knee fighting in muay Thai and plays a huge part in the popularity of the sport today.
The other superstar of the golden era was Samart Payakaroon. Samart’s accomplishments as an undersized fighter are nothing short of astonishing. With a record of 129-19-2 in muay Thai, a 21-2 record in Western boxing and four Lumpinee Stadium championships, it is easy to see why Samart was the most revered fighter of his time. Just like Poot, Samart had to rely on his technique, timing and footwork to win fights due to his underwhelming physical abilities. From 1980-82 Samart dominated the muay Thai scene in Thailand and eventually moved to boxing in 1983 after effectively cleaning out every division from 105 pounds to 126 pounds. After his boxing career, he returned to muay Thai in the early 1990s but was years past his prime and ended up losing his last two fights, one of them by knockout. Samart’s legendary career is still talked about today, and he will forever remain one of the gold standards for future nak muays.
A Day at the Old Lumpinee
Old Lumpinee Stadium, located in central Bangkok, was a spectacle of sorts for hardcore fight fans. On fight nights, the outskirts of the stadium were crowded with food vendors, and the smell of palm oil and fish sauce devoured the surrounding area. Just 50 baht allowed patrons to enjoy authentic Thai food, from duck noodles to coconut custard, before enjoying a night of fights. The box office outside the stadium read “Foreigners 1000 baht, Thai’s 200 baht.” While it was a sign of blatant Thai favoritism, the conversion rate was equal to only $30 -- a price that was well worth it by all accounts.
The VIP seats were only feet away from the ring, and numerous celebrities attended Lumpinee events every year, including Steven Seagal, Nicolas Cage and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Once inside, the frantic gamblers were hard to miss, as they used flamboyant hand signals to place bets on upcoming fights. Odds rarely went past 2-to-1 at Lumpinee, so if it was money you were after, you were in the wrong place. Those who went for the 200-baht seats expected hard, old-school bleachers and piles of beer bottles and cigarette butts under their feet. Some say the cheap seats were part of the authentic Lumpinee experience, and gambling -- legal and illegal -- was frantic in the bleachers. Those who went for the VIP seats expected old Thai mobsters in elaborate suits, flowing beers and thick cigarette smoke surrounding the ring, like a 1950s boxing match.
Unlike most stadiums, backstage was open to the public and occupied by dodgy Thai mobsters and the bookies who worked for them. If you were feeling feisty and looking for a fight, you were oftentimes in luck. Occasionally at the old and new stadiums, they will stage fights with random tourists with little to no combat experience. You might be thrown in the ring with a kid half your age and double the fighting skills, but if you wanted the true Lumpinee experience, the only way was to get your rear end handed to you by some of the best nak muays in the world.
Gambling, Corruption and Chao Pho
Gambling and corruption in sports go hand in hand, and it is prevalent in Lumpinee Stadium. The Thai mobsters and bookies, or Chao Pho, control nearly every aspect of the fights. Even if a fighter should be listed at 9-to-1 odds, the bookies will list him at 2-to-1 for fear of massive payouts.
No matter who is winning a fight, whichever fighter the Chap Pho bet on will emerge victorious. If you watch closely, going into the fifth and final round, fighters will glance to the stands for directions. If the fighter the mobsters bet on is losing, the other fighter will quickly throw the fight. Even if the fighter chooses not to do so, the referee will make sure the mobsters win, no matter what happened in the fight.
This problem extends beyond Lumpinee and impacts every single muay Thai event held in Thailand these days. Nak muay legends like Saenchai and Buakaw will not even fight in Thailand anymore due to corruption and gambling. This has caused The Art of the Eight Limbs to decline in popularity in its home country -- a story for another day.
Tragedy at Lumpinee
At first glance, the Lumpinee experience might seem as if it is all fun and games. However, the good comes with the bad. With the Chao Pho running things, tragedy is bound to happen.
During the golden era of muay Thai, a famous Thai mobster by the name of Klaew Thanikul ruled the sport’s landscape. A stylish man who allegedly made his fortune from casinos and rental properties, Klaew was Thailand’s de facto fight promoter in the 1980s. From gambling, drugs and extortion to human trafficking and prostitution, Klaew dabbled in a bit of everything organized crime had to offer. As Thailand’s equivalent to John Gotti, Klaew was under constant protection and traveled with a team of bodyguards at all times -- and rightfully so. In 1982, the first attempt on his life was made ringside at Lumpinee Stadium. An unknown assassin launched a grenade into the VIP area in hopes of offing Thailand’s most notorious gangster. Unfortunately for the assassin, Klaew was backstage taking a bathroom break and his bodyguards opened fire killing him, along with many innocent fightgoers in the packed stadium. Later that year, legendary trainer Ngu Hapalang took a bullet between the ears in the middle of a fight he was cornering. Nobody ever found out who put the hit on Ngu, but Klaew was the prime suspect and said little to deny the attack.
In 1988, Chao Pho bookie Chaiwat Palangwattanakij was shot and killed ringside at Lumpinee just before the fifth round -- the same time Klaew’s assassination was attempted. Thousands of fans ran for the exits as Chaiwat’s bodyguards opened fire on the gunman, killing him and two others. Over 50 shots were fired and more than four people were killed by gunfire; another 10 or so were trampled to death by fans rushing to safety. Klaew was asked about the cold-blooded killing: “If I really wanted to [kill Chaiwat], I don’t have to make any order. I could just say, ‘I don’t want to walk with him’ and he would be in big trouble.”
Unfortunately, this was not the last of the violence to hit Lumpinee Stadium. In 1991, on the drive home from Lumpinee, Klaew was bum-rushed by 10 hired guns in a pickup truck and doused with 60 bullets, killing him on the spot. His body was found with his trademark Somdej Wat Rakang necklace, worn for luck and protection, nestled between his tongue and cheek. He had been so paranoid about an attack on his life that he was sucking on the necklace like a baby with a binky.
Despite the crime and corruption, Lumpinee remains an important part of muay Thai’s history. At one time, Lumpinee represented the pinnacle of muay Thai competition, and only the elite of the elite were fortunate enough to have a Lumpinee championship grace their waists. These days, the new stadium is suffering, regardless of its first-class amenities. Some say the gambling and corruption have killed the sport in its home country and kids are growing up doing other sports besides muay Thai. The eight-limbed art of combat might be dying in Thailand, but its popularity in other parts of the world will keep Thailand and muay Thai relevant for years to come.