Edited by Scott Blacklock
The Meaning of Being a World Champion in Striking
To be a world champion in striking today is somewhat diluted. Boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai—they all have numerous organizations that crown world champions without significant weight behind those claims. Take for example the legendary pound for pound Muay Thai champion, Saenchai. Today, he still fights and absolutely dusts most foreign world champion Muay Thai fighters, building a record of 60-1 under Muay Thai rules. However, look to Saenchai’s record against the top competitors of the Thai circuit: the less informed would find it substantially less impressive.
The legacy of a fighter like Saenchai is not defined by his losses against the elites Thais. There is a surplus of elite-level strikers in Thailand, all possessing mastery of different styles. While there have been legends with absurdly high win ratios, the competition is too high to sustain unbroken winning streaks throughout their entire career. This fact is even more intrinsic to the most competitive weight classes, where Saenchai fought for most of his career in Thailand.
To the hardcore fans who truly understand the striking sports, it is known that stadium champions of Thailand are the most adaptable, dangerous strikers on the planet. But to the casual western fan, the names of these legends-in-the-making cross no lips and are recognized by few, if any eyes. Dedicated Muay Thai media barely exists; consumer traffic is abysmal compared to that of MMA. This has been a recurring theme in much of my analysis: acknowledging the absence of a spotlight on the greats of Muay Thai—and working to correct that.
Today we see flashes of potential—glimmers of hope that the recognition rightfully due to the supreme strikers of Muay Thai is on its way. More Thai fighters are finding opportunities internationally. Historically, there have been several top-level Muay Thai fighters who have transitioned into boxing and kickboxing, securing prestigious world titles along the way. If the upper crust of Muay Thai strikers in lighter weight classes were to compete around the world, whether in Muay thai or kickboxing, they would dominate.
Even in the sweet science of boxing, several world champion have transitioned from Muay Thai. In fact, the world record that Vasyl Lomachenko tried to beat was set by Saensak Muangsurin, a legendary Nak Muay turned boxer who captured the world title by his third boxing bout. In kickboxing, we have the three kings in Buakaw, Sittichai, Kaew Fairtex—elite fighters not initially dominant on the Thai stadium circuit, but who have crushed competition and won international kickboxing titles in style. It is a testament to the level of competition that waits at the summit of Muay Thai, and to the fantastic challenge presented to anyone who dares mount that summit.
This is why it’s truly a special occasion whenever a foreign fighter can defeat a prime Lumpinee or Rajadamnern stadium champion under Muay Thai rules. There have only been a handful of these foreigners to achieve this, Ramon Dekkers being the most famous. Dekkers inspired the West to compete against the Thais, and he is widely considered the greatest to do so. But even at his best, Dekkers was a 50/50 fighter against the best of the best Thai competitors.
This brings us to Tenshin Nasukawa.
Tenshin Nasukawa: The Next Superstar in Striking
The moment he won his most recent fight, I knew I had to feature Tenshin Nasukawa. At only eighteen years old and still a high school student, Nasukawa defeats a prime Lumpinee stadium champion in extraordinary fashion. This may not have the notoriety of Dekkers vs. Coban—“The Fight that Changed the World”—but there is an identical set of emotions that accompany this, Nasukawa’s spectacularly unique KO victory.
Boasting an amateur record of 99-5, and now a professional record of 17-0 with 13 Kos, Tenshin Nasukawa is quite possibly “the next big thing.” Possessing an extremely high fight IQ, relentless pacing, and knockout power, he is riding the wave of his recent monumental victory—and has nothing but potential greatness lying ahead.
The Japanese media is the consummate “king-maker” and has the capacity to create superstars, especially one of their very own. But for now at least, the Western world has yet to recognize this rising talent—or the historic accomplishment that is his latest win.
The most common and expected strategy for a foreigner against a Thai is to employ a feverishly fast pace. Thai fighters generally set a slower pace, “flowing” into the fight for various reasons—scoring, efficiency, rhythm, and timing setting, for example. Setting a high tempo right from the get-go is the foreigner fighter’s way of avoiding being deciphered by the more technical Thais. This strategy is built upon the assumption that at a fast pace, fewer patterns will be set and knockouts will better present themselves in the midst of chaos.
Though this scheme has been successfully laid out many times before, it is rarely well-executed at the highest levels of Muay Thai competition. Only a few Western fighters have been able to prosper against the elites by implementing this game plan—true legends like John Wayne Parr, Damien Trainor, and Ramon Dekkers. They all understood the Thai style very well and as they often did, fought a very technical fight. In kickboxing, the most famous example is from the inaugural 2002 K-1 MAX tournament, eventual champion, Albert Kraus, who set a mad pace and famously knocked out Lumpinee champion, Kaolan Kaovichit. Years later, Andre Dida also came close to taking out Buakaw in a similar manner, but would run out of steam after the first round after he failed to put Buakaw away.
Nasukawa pushed the action aggressively against Wanchalong, but without the recklessness that has delivered losses to many foreign fighters before. He wasn’t just spraying and praying like the fighters that focus on solely on offense and hardly at all on defense, Tenshin expertly interpreting all incoming shots, defending and countering them accordingly. The brilliance of Nasukawa is employing right from the opening bell a hybrid style: the patterns and chaining of strikes inherent to Muay Thai combined with the pacing of kickboxing.
Nasukawa spotted patterns set by Wanchalong and exploited them immediately. He measured his opponent’s reaction off an excellent step-in jab, then tested a 1-2 (defended by the long guard) and finished by attacking the mid-section straight away. He then proceeded to reply the same sequence of events, but this time with a jab into lead hook and rear straight to the body. This is pattern setting and pattern breaking used to exploit the openings from a defensive tendency.
Perhaps telling of the roots of his success is Tenshin’s background of training Muay Thai and fighting in Thailand since childhood. We can see that by the age of 14, the fundamentals of the sport had already sprouted deep within him. Here he’s fighting at the Queen’s birthday event in Thailand, displaying sharp fundamental Muay Thai techniques—timing, setup, and rhythm. This is a young man who has, from very early on, learned and practiced fully authentic Muay Thai.
Four years later, the Tenshin Nasukawa that would battle Wanchalong, a legitimate Lumpinee Stadium champion, has amassed an incredible amateur record and defended an impeccable professional record of 17-0 with 13 KOs. Interestingly, many of the aforementioned bouts were in kickboxing, and we can see the impact that has had on his combinations, pacing, and timing. Nasukawa also employs techniques that classically belong to Kyokushin and his Japanese heritage, such as his hybrid teep, the karateka front kick, and the style of using a cut kick as a low kick. What makes the man so uniquely dangerous is the more recently-added elements of kickboxing, blended with his underlying comprehension of Muay Thai and how to defend against attacks. Against Wanchalong, Tenshin defended and countered almost every attack—an accomplishment made more impressive if one knows Wanchalong and his history of excellence as a Thai stadium champion.
The conclusion of their fight was nothing short of sensational. Wanchalong pulls of a Thai variation of the crescent kick, to which Tenshin responds with testing and baiting of the front kick, then the cut kick, and finally the jumping spinning back kick. The blow landed cleanly flush opposing Wanchalong’s lead hook, creating the devastating double-torque effect that resulted in a brutal KO. It wasn’t a high-percentage attack, and critics will and have certainly classified it as a fluke. But this is Tenshin Nasukawa—a notorious KO artist who knows exactly when to loose and detonate one of his dreadfully violent missile attacks.
Demonstrating his karate influence, here we see Nasukawa launching a savage roundhouse front-kick hybrid.
After landing this superb technique, Nasukawa sets up a knee to the same spot, landing Sittichai’s most famous shot: the cross-into-rear knee. This would have been sufficient by itself in ending the fight. But on the way down, Tenshin attempts another knee to the head. Had his opponent remained standing after the first blow, the second almost certainly would have been a killshot.
Nasukawa knows exactly what he is doing. He knows the openings he needs and how to draw them out. He is the definition of a ring genius and a knockout savant. For those of us watching, we are witnessing the ascension of a special athlete.
As exhilarating as the glory must be for Nasukawa, it is equally heartbreaking for Wanchalong, a champion who is left to wallow in a defeat that he assuredly realizes is reminiscent of matches like Dekkers vs. Coban. So much was on the line in this fight, which was historic in that it pitted against one another something of far greater significance than these two men. The seed of Japanese kickboxing was controversially planted many years ago by the influence of Muay Thai, a genesis that made far-reaching waves that would soon deeply affect the Dutch style of Muay Thai and Kickboxing. Nasukawa and Wanchalong were fighting for more than a belt—they fought to defend their respective countries’ glory and legacy.
Search for a video playback of Tenshin’s win against Wanchalong and you’ll find that the number one video giving him exposure is from me—but it really shouldn’t be. This was an important historical event in the lineage of Muay Thai and Japanese kickboxing that has gone largely unnoticed in the Western world, by media and spectators alike. While we wait for the West to turn its eyes towards Muay Thai and its superstars-in-waiting, I will continue to do my part in offering what little media coverage I can. Rest assured, friends, there is much work to be done.
Though it’s not my primary mission, the best part of creating these video features has always been about who it connects me to. Congratulations to you, Tenshin Nasukawa, on cementing your place at the very top of the Muay Thai mountain. You were meant to do this. You were born for greatness.
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Want even more? My new book, Striking Techniques: Volume 1, contains tutorials from elite fighters and coaches, as well as my discussions and detailed thoughts on some of the most central striking chains and techniques.