Defining greatness and success is inherently subjective. It is often difficult to single out a single person as the greatest, unless you know exactly what categories you are including to measure it. To some, Muhammad Ali wasn’t the greatest boxer in the sports history–they believe that title belongs to Sugar Ray Robinson. However, if we are to include influence and impact, Muhammad Ali was the undoubtedly the greatest. There is no close second–he is the sportsman of the century.
Like all combat sports with a rich history, there are major camps hosting legends in Muay Thai. Jocky Gym created Kaoklai “The Giant Killer” Kaennorsing, who went into K-1 heavyweight tournaments as a welterweight and started taking out the elites.
They’d also create Somrak Khamsing–a man who defeated all the elites without ever given a chance for a title, who then transitioned into boxing and beat the last man to win against Floyd Mayweather for the Olympic boxing gold. Jocky would then create Saenchai, who is now the current pound for pound king of Muay Thai.
While Jocky gym and elite camps like it are common in Muay Thai history, one particular camp stands out–Sityodtong led by the legendary Yodtong Senanan. Yodtong is so revered in Thailand and internationally that there is really no argument on whether he’s the greatest coach of all time. With over 30 Lumpinee Stadium champions (the most prestigious stadium in Thailand) and over 57 champions, Yodtong is the most accomplished coach in the sport’s history. Yodtong would also be the man to coach the prodigious Samart Payakaroon, who is considered by most to the be greatest of all time in Muay Thai.
I can go on and try to name all of the Thai legends that Kru Yodtong Senanan created, but instead I’m going to share how much influence he’s had beyond that into the west and why he’s the most influential man in Muay Thai history.
Muay Thai roots run deep into MMA–which is essentially made up of the big 4 martial arts: Muay Thai, Boxing, Wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The kickboxing professors of MMA all had to essentially immerse themselves into Muay Thai due to the historic matches that took place in North America over the last generation.
Duke Roufus would go on to study Muay Thai under Yodtong, who is most famous for being the head coach of former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. Rob Kaman, Dutch Muay Thai and Kickboxing champion and pioneer, would also spend most of his time in Thailand studying at Sityodtong. Mark Delagrotte was named one of the conservators of Sityodtong Muay Thai, and he’s been coach to fighters like Frank Mir, Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar, Marcus Davis, Miguel Torres, Jorge Rivera… just to name a few. As a teenager, John Wayne Parr would leave all that he knew in Australia as a teenager to spend his first few months at Sityodtong.
A Heart of Gold
Beyond his technical prowess and ability to coach, Yodtong was also a great man. He would constantly take in orphans, impoverished children, and juvenile delinquents into his camp, giving them food, shelter, and sending them to school. Even if they showed little promise of being a talent in martial arts, he’d still keep helping them.
Like how Cus D’mato tamed Mike Tyson and taught him how to be a more wholesome person, Yodtong did that for his students.
“Be a good student, become a good teacher and stay away from a path of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. To be a good person is the most important thing.” -Yodtong Senanan (Source Sityodtong Los Angeles)
A few of these people include Yodsanan Sityodtong–an impoverished child turned boxing world champion, and Yoddecha Sityodtong–an orphan exploited by gangsters who turned a Muay Thai world champion (also the Muay Thai champion Jason Chambers had to face on the first episode of History Channel’s Human Weapons).
After I was abandoned, I lived on the streets. I was only seven, yet every day I had to hunt for food so I wouldn’t starve. I often went to sleep with nothing in my stomach. When I didn’t sell enough dumplings on the street for the gang, they burned me with cigarettes and whipped me with a belt. I would wake up each morning with nothing to look forward to – no family, no love, no dreams and no hope. And I was only a child. I did not want to live. Looking back, living on the streets gave me great suffering, but also taught me many great life lessons. I shed many tears, but I am grateful. I would not change anything about my past because it made me who I am today.
My life changed dramatically when I was rescued and brought to the Sityodtong Gym. The Grandmaster, Kru Yodtong, treated me like a son from the very first day. He gave me food and a bed, and I slept for two days straight because I was so tired. I remember thinking I was in heaven because I had three meals a day for the first time. By some miracle, here I was, a little boy at the greatest muay thai school in the country. I remember watching a few of the world champions train. It was beautiful, graceful and powerful. I was hooked instantly. From that day, Sityodtong Gym became my family and my life. – Yoddecha Sityodtong (Source Mens Health)
Impact on Asian Martial Arts
In my opinion, the mark of a great man is his impact on others. Yodtong was not just a great man himself, but he inspired hundreds of other great men that would go on to make a huge impact in the world of martial arts. One such man is Chatri Sityodtong.
Chatri was a student of Yodtong Senanan from a young age. When pursuing education in the states, Chatri and his family was abandoned by his father. On a scholarship to the Harvard MBA, he taught Muay Thai and survived on just a few dollars a day, living with his mother in the dorms.
Life was difficult, but with the life lessons learned from Yodtong and Muay Thai, Chatri knew that he could withstand the adversity and overcome it. You can let the struggles break you or you can let it make you a better person–that is the heart of martial arts and grit is the spirit of a martial artist. Chatri would graduate and become a superstar on wall street, creating a 500$ million hedge fund.
Being named one of the conservators of Sityodtong Muay Thai, in 2008, Chatri would redirect his energy back into martial arts, becoming the founder and chairman of the Asian Premier MMA organization, One FC / One Championship. He would also become the founder of Evolve MMA–the premier martial arts camp in Asia.
Taking in a gigantic roster of mostly impoverished Muay Thai legends, Chatri would make them amongst the highest paid instructors in the world. The story of Chatri is one for another day, but he is without a doubt the most powerful man in Asian martial arts today. If you’re interested in his story, check out his TedTalk.
The purpose of this article is to feature how a great man inspired other great men. Chatri is an extremely respected martial artist and well known for his often charitable causes inside and outside of martial arts, but he also grew up being influenced by his Muay Thai master.
Chatri Sityodtong: I saw my teacher, Kru Yodtong Senanan, for the last time as we pushed his casket into the crematorium for cremation. When I was a kid many years ago, he took me under his wing to teach me the art of Muay Thai. It was very difficult to know that I will never see him again. Thousands of people from all over Thailand (and even around the world) flocked to his funeral to pay respect to one of the greatest legends in history. Without a doubt, he gave this world far more than he ever received from it. He developed the most beautiful, technical style of Muay Thai. He produced the most number of Muay Thai World Champions in history. He helped thousands of orphans and underprivileged children lead a better life. He changed the world.
He died as he had lived most of his life – penniless. He was not penniless because he lived a materialistic life. He was not penniless because he couldn’t make any money. He was not penniless because he had bad luck. He was penniless simply because he always chose to give everything he had to those less fortunate than himself. His generosity was the definition of the human spirit born free.
I will share a true story about Kru Yodtong Senanan that is well-known all over Thailand. This story best captures who my teacher, Kru Yodtong, was as a human being. Several years ago, Kru Yodtong won US$2 million in the lottery in Thailand. People from all over the region flocked to Sityodtong Camp and he proceeded to give away all of his winnings – one by one – based on each stranger’s individual story of need and poverty. He listened to each story and he gave out what he thought was an appropriate amount to each person. For a few days straight, Sityodtong Camp was a sea of people – literally. It was a crazy mad zoo. At the end of those few days, Kru Yodtong gave away everything he had even though he was poor himself.
His whole life was about giving to the world. He gave thousands of impoverished children and orphans an opportunity to change their lives through the art of Muay Thai. He not only taught all of his students how to fight, but he taught us how to live.
Success can never be measured by big houses, luxury cars, or fancy clothes. For me, greatness can only be measured by what you do for others. Thank you Kru for not only teaching me how to fight in the ring, but for teaching me how to live life. Until we meet again, I will do my best to honor your legacy. (Source Evolve MMA)
These are the men who lead by example, harnessing the power of martial arts to grow the human potential. These are the real martial artists of the world. The team at Evolve is set to make waves in the international arena of martial arts, and it was all inspire by the great Yodtong Senanan.
Rest in Peace, Yodtong Senanan, August, 28 1937 – Feburary 8, 2013