Muay Thai in Pattaya, Thailand
Chungpuk Kiatsongrit, Rick Rufus, Nikiema,
Leonaht, Youssef, and more
Roberto Pedreira's first encounter with Muay Thai didn't impress him.
"What kind of martial art is that supposed to be?" he thought. Grabbing a man's head, driving knees into his ribs, kicking his legs. It seemed
more like a street brawl or Hollywood cowboy saloon donnybrook. (This was more
than a decade prior to Changpuk Kiatsongrit's consciousness-raising and
eye-opening visit to the USA, about which, read more below. Gracie jiu-jitsu didn't even exist in those
But Roberto had missed the point. Muay Thai isn't a martial
art (in the sense that Americans understand it). Muay Thai isn't designed to
socialize children and bring spiritual enlightenment to bored housewives and
identity-seeking college students.
What Muay Thai is designed to be
is brutally efficient at destroying adversaries. It
is also eminently adaptable to the street. Eventually, Robert figured that out
the first time he held a Thai pad and felt the power of a correctly
executed Thai kick. It was a satori [悟り]
experience. Subsequently he has never missed any chance to train Muay Thai every time
he goes to Thailand (every year since 1991, 1-3 times, for 3-4 weeks at a time, see here for reports).
In March 2016 Roberto once
again visited at Sitpholek Gym, hoping to catch up with legend Changpuk
Kiatsongrit, the man who reintroduced Rick Rufus and America to the painful
realities of Muay Thai's leg kicks. Roberto first met Changpuk in or around the
year 2000, when he (Changpuk) was teaching at Sitpholek, at that time located
within the Weekender Hotel Complex. ("Reintroduced," because Muay
Thai, then called Siamese Boxing, was introduced to the USA on a wide scale as
early as 1953; see Craze 4, forthcoming for
In 2015, Roberto Pedreira
"Changpuk set off a
revolution in 1988 that was less noticed, or less remembered, but as significant
as the "Gracie" revolution of 1993. Changpuk introduced low kicks to
American kickboxing. Rick Rufus served as the 'victim.' Basically, with nothing
more than low kicks he destroyed Rick Rufus. Rick's brother Jeff comically
criticized that "it doesn't take talent to kick low". Jeff missed the
point. The question is not how much talent it takes, but how effective it is
(which was the selling point of the Gracie revolution as well). It was a novel
concept: what matters is not how difficult it is to learn or execute the
technique, but how effective it is in doing what it is intended to do.
(For the complete story
Changpuk wasn't at Sitpholek in
March 2016. Back in Korea it seemed. In fact, no one was at Sitpholek, not even a
girl at the counter. Roberto went in at the usual training time of 3:30 and
started jumping rope, expecting that a trainer or some boxers would eventually
show up. By 4:00 a boxer from Czechoslovakia arrived along with a group of four
Indian pro-wrestlers and their Kurdistani teacher. A bit later two trainers, Vut
and Leonaht, came down from the fourth floor where they had been watching TV or
Roberto knew Vut from
years past. Leonaht was a new face, but looked somehow familiar. He stood out,
being very tall for a Thai. The reason, he explained, was that his father, who
he never met, had been an American serviceman based at U-Tapao airport in Rayong
province, not far from Pattaya. He grew up at the Sityodtong Boxing Camp,
which he joined in 1985 at the age of 11 years old.
The pro-wrestlers were
performing at Pattaya Stadium in a few days and were rehearsing their act. Vut
and Leonaht watched them with bemused interest. As almost always, trainers don't
want to do any more that they absolutely have to with foreign recreational
boxers and basically serve as human sandbags, holding pads for you to kick. It
isn't that they are lazy--unmotivated is a better word. In fact, they don't know
what you want, need, or are capable of. And they don't want to get
kneed in the face by a spazz (so they tend to hold the pads out limply, which
doesn't give you resistance for a proper knee strike). If you want more, you
have to take the initiative, but in a subtle way. Typically, a trainer will have
you doing single techniques, illogical combinations, and sometimes inefficient
techniques such as spinning elbows. A better use of your time is to perform
repetitions of logical combinations, such as punch > kick, block > kick,
punch > knee. and so on, combinations that you could potentially use
in combat. If that works out, extend the combination to three moves, mix
in defenses, and in that way, build a meaningful training session. If the
trainer responds positively, it's all good. If not, look for a different trainer
I visited Stephane Nikiema's
gym and also found that no one was there. Nikiema drove by at 3:30 and also
noticed that no one including his trainer was there so he unlocked the door and
promised to be back soon. I went in a started jumping rope. His trainer showed
up at 4:00. No one else did, except a dad and his young son. The dad watched
while Nikiema taught the boy how to punch. It looked as though he had already
taken some karate lessons.
No one else showed up or was
likely to, Nikiema explained. The new European champion, named Youssef (no doubt
Youssef Boughanem) had opened up a new gym on the other side of Sukhimvit
Highway and everyone went there . The young guys want to
train with the champions, Nikiema said philosophically. that was normal and
natural. He didn't blame them. Nikiema had given up on Pattaya and was looking
for a buyer for his gym. He planned to move to New York in June where he and
Jerome LeBanner were going to teach at a Crossfit gym.
Nikiema also explained that
Sitpholek Gym was officially closed (although he doors were still open) and the
owner, Frank, had a new gym somewhere in the same general area. The lady at the
Sitpholek counter (when she finally showed up) told Roberto that the new gym
would be opening in several months. No one knew where anything was, other
than "over there". Nikiema suggested searching the internet.
That didn't help but it did tell me that there was a camp that was worth
checking out. It was either new or I had somehow missed it, because it was 5-10
minutes from Sityodtong. It is the Sor Klinmee camp at 155/9 Moo 6 in Nongphrue
. I will check out both camps next time.
Leonaht, still in good shape at 42 years of
Leonaht watching chicken.
Leonaht feeding chickens.
Poster of Leonaht with championship belt.
Leonaht (on right) in 1990 .
Indian Pro-Wrestlers and Kurdistani Teacher.
1. There are lots of videos
of Youssef Boughanem on youtube. Here's one, fighting Sudsakorn Sor Klinmee https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB1j03isXdk
Here's a good review of Sor Klinmee: http://www.muaythaischolar.com/sor-klinmee-gym-review.
The site has helpful reviews of many other gyms in Thailand too. In fact, it's a
useful Muay Thai site in general. Here's a video of Sudsakorn Sor Klinmee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB1j03isXdk
3. Photo from "The Camp
where Champs are Made" by Gary Ohmert, in Muay Thai Volume 1 (1990),
(c) 2016, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Slightly revised Jan. 4, 2022.