Updated: Nov 21
Is Samart Payakaroon the Best Combat Sports Athlete of All-Time?
by Andrew Bryan
There are relatively few people who can claim to be a world champion in multiple sports. Those that can tend to be combat sports athletes – purely because there is more overlap in skills between the two.
We have fighters like Holly Holm, who held both boxing and a UFC title, then there’s the numerous kickboxing/muay thai cross over champions but perhaps Samart Payakaroon is the greatest example. Payakaroon might possibly be the best combat sports athlete to ever live, not because he was a champion in two sports, but because he is also uniformly considered the best fighter ever in one of them. Some would say Samart Payakaroon is the best combat sports athlete of all time.
Samart Payakaroon’s career began in Muay Thai after being introduced to it by his brother Kongtoranee (who is himself a five division Lumpinee Stadium Champion). Samart is considered the best in a very old school way, he simply beat everyone he fought not named Dieselnoi. Muay Thai is such a competitive sport that undefeated fighters simply do not exist, whereas boxers can hide behind an undefeated record for over a decade, through carefully picked opponents, taking as little risk as possible – Muay Thai involves you fighting monthly against whoever happens to be there.
As a result fighters do get good very fast as the best are always consistently competing with the best. So to have the long win streaks of Samart, a gainst the kind of names Samart beat is legitimately incredible.
Perhaps his most legendary fight, against Dieselnoi, another all time great, was effectively lost media until it somehow resurfaced in the form of a VHS tape in a gym, and uploaded to the internet. This fight was much sought after for two reasons, one, it’s Samart vs Dieselnoi, come on. The second is that it’s one few fights Samart actually lost. Dieselnoi was almost unbeatable if your name wasn’t Wicharnoi. So to see how Samart would attempt to tackle such an opponent was intriguing. Samart was a fighter of such importance that a missing fight from his career was akin to the Holy Grail in Muay Thai.
Samart’s style was built off careful, linear strikes like his frequently combination of the teep and jab, and a laser like left straight. His game was about off balancing and turning his opponent and shutting down their offence, not unlike Giorgio Petrosyan.
Samart won the Lumpinee Stadium Championship at 102, 105, 115 and 126lbs, and was frequent recipient of fighter of the year and fight of the year awards throughout the 1980s. It was during the mid 80s that Samart saw himself making a career move, taking up professional boxing.
There is a lot of overlap between Thai boxing and English boxing. The punching technique is the same, albeit with occasional differences in nuance brought about by stance. Thailand in particular has produced numerous boxing champions of varying quality, there are greats like Khaosai Galaxy and Srisaket sor Rungvisai – but equally there are a lot of fighters who pad up records against entry level opponents.
Samart Payakaroon was unlike a lot of fighters in that he was actively competing in both Muay Thai and professional boxing at the same time, and ultimately got to the top levels in both. Samart Payakaroon won the WBC Super Bantamweight Title off Lupe Pintor and while defending it against Juan Meza we saw this iconic moment.
Despite the constant claims of Muay Thai having no head movement, Samart Payakaroon delivers an incredible display off timing and defence against the career boxer. Then to immediately follow it up by dropping his opponent, it’s easy to see why Payakaroon was so well regarded.
It’s fair to say that he was not the same level of boxer as Thai boxer. While Samart fought decent opposition in boxing, he was champion for a very short time and we never saw him compete against the top boxers of the 1980s. That being said what he achieved wasn’t some throwaway belt that everyone and their mum had won, he was a legitimate WBC champion in the 1980s back when title belts were still a more exclusive club.
So the question remains, is Samart Payakaroon the greatest combat sports athlete? Last time I made the case for Giorgio Petrosyan on the grounds of his incredible longevity against a who’s who of fighters across multiple generations. Samart has a very different case, it’s not about longevity so much as it’s about sheer versatility. He won the big one in two sports, all the while being the best in the world at his main discipline, Michael Jordan couldn’t do it, and very few other athletes have even tried. For that, Samart Payakaroon could well be the best of all time.