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Namsaknoi: Countering the Switch Hitter
In what may have been his last fight, Namsaknoi would meet Diego Calzolari for the WAKO World Muay Thai title in Italy. In this 2010 contest, the fighters would honor modified rules that allowed clinching but not elbows.
The story of this fight really exemplifies what usually happens when a Western fighter faces an elite Thai nak muay—the Westerner tries to push the action aggressively and the Thai denies his advances with magnificent counters.
Round 1: Timing, Efficiency & Defense
In Round 1, Namsaknoi emerged as a southpaw, a tactic that some fighters use to confuse their opponent. Everyone who knows about Namsaknoi knows that he is a brilliant orthodox fighter; what is lesser known is how capable he is at switch hitting. He can comfortably perform as a southpaw and land superb combinations offensively, but he prefers to be defensive in orthodox.
One of the perks of starting in the southpaw stance is that it pulls the power range a bit further, forcing one’s rear side to be more emphasized. This strategy also allows a fighter to learn whether his opponent understands how to fight a southpaw—or not. In MMA, Anthony Pettis has repeatedly placed himself in southpaw vs. orthodox engagements in order to score knockouts.
To me, the most fascinating element of Namsaknoi’s game is his efficiency. There are many components that make up Namsaknoi’s efficiency game, but the most crucial is his mentality on defense.
When most people practice martial arts, their emphasis is on offense. After all, highlight reels consist primarily of dazzlingly offensive attacks. However, a great defense can be the foundation for building offense. The concept of energy conservation is fundamental in Muay Thai, as compared to other combat sports. In a traditional five-round fight, the fighters would generally take it easier in the first two rounds, amping up their energy as the fight progressed.
Defense and offense can be thought of in terms of gears, or degrees of effort: if a fighter has 10 gears and his 7th gear defense can neutralize his opponent’s 10th gear offense, how will that fight play out? The opponent’s energy will be drained considerably faster, especially considering how mentally frustrating it will be to have his best attacks crumble in the face of superior defensive tactics.
This is precisely the story of Round 1, as Namsaknoi, probably at a 6th or 7th gear defensively, completely stymies the 10th gear blitzes of Calzolari’s. Namsaknoi learns the timing of his opponent early on, Calzolari having played his cards already, and he wades through the offensive attacks with relative ease. Meanwhile, Namsaknoi has barely spoiled any tricks from his repertoire. You can actually see these concepts unfold and reveal themselves as the fight goes on.
Round 2: The Switch from Defensive to More Attacks—Lead Kick Finds a Home
Namsaknoi returns in Round 2 with a decided advantage—a surplus of energy with his opponent’s best and strongest cards turned face up. His gears begin to shift again as he dips further into his energy reserves to amplify his attacks.
One of Namsaknoi’s favorite attacks and one which he has worked on diligently to perfect is a lead left kick, which so happens to be a very good way to counter the right hand. Here, you can see similarities between his style and Buakaw’s, who claims Namsaknoi as his camp senior and mentor. If there is one crucial difference between the two, it is that Namsaknoi’s timing is tiers above whereas Buakaw possesses greater power and more ferocious aggression.
In this round, Diego is still able to fire back with some threats of his own, though that will change quickly in the following round: the secrets of his timing have been unraveled, and he has been forcing his attacks with little success. Namsaknoi is relaxed, Diego is thoroughly tense—this will continue to greatly affect their respective energy levels.
Round 3: Pressure & Offence—Timing the Right Knee
By the time he reaches Round 3, Namsaknoi is fully aware that his offense can be liberally applied. The more he pressures and attacks, the more holes in Calzolari’s game will be exposed. The only attack that Diego has left in his arsenal is a shifting right hand, which his skilled opponent deftly counters; everything else misses by a mile. Diego is now fighting on the ropes with few escape options, fighting exclusively on the vapors left in his gas tank. Inside the clinch, he is on the receiving end of savage knees and tosses. Outside of it, he’s getting picked apart: every time he shifts for his only hope, the right hand, he’s speared with a knee.
Round 4: Personality, Compassion, & the Knockout
The fight game is brutal and requires an absolute killer instinct. Each fighter consents to compete in ruthless battle and endure hard punishment, all so that they each better themselves with the experience. What has always separated fighters and martial arts, though, is compassion and sportsmanship. Unmerciful levels of violence and aggression are required to be a fighter, and the capacity to turn that on and off at will is held by disciplined martial artists. In the training room or during a fight is when you can catch a glimpse of a fighter’s true alignment, and this is also built into the Thai Nak Muay culture and mindset.
Diego, knowing that he’s nearing his end, comes out willing to clinch only to find that he’s utterly outclassed there, too. During a couple of knee exchanges, Diego was hunched over with his head open to be drilled with knees. In a moment of astonishing compassion, Namsaknoi disengages and allows Diego to stand back up. When Diego was most vulnerable to being defeated, Namsaknoi spares him the near promise of severe head trauma.
Calzolari has heart, so he presses forward undeterred and attempts the desperate Hail Mary play he needs to level the playing field—a devastating shifting right hand. But in doing so, he self-impaled straight into his own demise, going out on his shield. No one can or would deny that Diego Calzolari has a warrior heart, but this was not a fight he was fated to win.
One of the most impressive aspects of Por Pramuk fighters like Namsaknoi and Buakaw is how they transition between the ranges of punching, kicking and clinching so well. Yet it is Buakaw’s name the world knows, not Namsaknoi’s. It’s on this note that I’d like to touch on the topic of recognition.
In terms of achievements, Namsaknoi is a pure legend. He fought at the top levels of the prestigious Lumpinee Stadium for an incredible six years, racking up a record of 285-15—a win rate almost unheard among the highest echelons of Muay Thai. He has bested the likes of Saenchai, Thongchai, Pajunsuk, Kaolan Kaovichit (K-1 MAX finalist), Lamnamoon and Samkor—true stars and heroes of the current Muay Thai era.
Interestingly, I have been told that Buakaw was not, in fact, the original pick to enter the K-1 World MAX tournament, but a stand-in to replace the injured first choice, Namsaknoi, who reigned at the top of Muay Thai from 2000-2006.
This, to be clear, is not a knock on Buakaw. He has been a tremendous ambassador for Muay Thai, and it was his destiny to dominate K-1 kickboxing the way he did. However, he was not the cream of the crop within the elite circles of Thai Muay Thai when he entered the kickboxing circuit and has not completed in it since.
Unknown to many in the global fighting community is a class of Muay Thai fighters at the great Buakaw’s level—and above. (This fact is not lost on me and drives me crazy on a regular basis, which is why I’ve begun to feature Muay Thai fighters more often.) Until some of these hidden gems are revealed to the fight community at large, they will remain unknown, underappreciated, and unable to erase the public perception of nak muays as “stand-and-bang” fighters and replace it instead with an understanding of the complex, intelligent styles of evasion and aggression that Muay Thai practitioners also possess.
Namsaknoi is the greatest transition fighter I have ever witnessed, but more importantly he has proven that he is an extraordinary martial artist and human being. His story is as compelling as any other fighter’s, presenting in raw form the perseverance, heart and tenacity needed to compete at his level. Even more irresistible is his underdog story—a child never particularly powerful or athletic who had a knack for understanding technique and a “never-say-die” attitude in competition. After years of training, blood, sweat and tears, he dominated the fight circuit. But like his contemporary in Buakaw, he was cheated out of his earnings by his camp, leaving him with few options for survival until the team at Evolve MMA brought him in as a coach.
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