Thailand’s New MMA Sensation — Death, Destruction and T-Rex Costumes
With a minute and a half to go in the first round, Shannon Wiratchai lets loose with a right hook that sends his opponent scrambling. Wiratchai pounces on the dazed fighter — commanded, it would seem, by the 12,000 fans in Bangkok’s sold-out Impact Arena screaming for a quick knockout. Wiratchai unleashes another right, followed by a violent left that snaps his opponent’s head back, then a flying knee before the referee steps in. It’s over.
“That happened like thunder and lightning!” cries the announcer. “That man has been unstoppable.”
With that first-round KO victory on March 11, 2017, Wiratchai’s mixed martial arts professional record clocked over to seven wins, one loss and one no contest. This was his fifth straight win, bringing him another step closer to the championship belt, which will deliver not only fame for Wiratchai — a Thai fighter who didn’t come up through the Muay Thai ranks — but also the chance to change his home country’s opinion of MMA.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is by far the older combat sport, and most MMA fighters train in Muay Thai, along with boxing, wrestling and jujitsu. But to purveyors of Muay Thai, modern MMA is considered a threat, if they consider it at all.
Wiratchai could prove that a Thai champion can emerge from outside the Muay Thai ranks.
“I see this a bit like an educational process. [One year ago] no one here knew what MMA was,” says Kamol “Sukie” Sukosol Clapp, president of the Thailand branch of Singapore-based martial arts franchise ONE Championship. According to Clapp, it was a bruising fight to pull off a large-scale MMA tournament in the Land of Smiles, made possible only after the most careful lobbying. “We have a way to go yet,” he acknowledges.
For Wiratchai, 28, his MMA journey didn’t start by jetting around Asia under the auspices of ONE Championship. His professional debut took place in a far dingier setting. “I think it was 2011, in the Insanity nightclub, but it was called Insomnia then,” he says of his first professional fight in Thailand. “I couldn’t sleep before the fight.” Since then, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound fighter has taken on a half-dozen opponents in arenas from the Philippines to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, and is singled out for his flamboyant, striking-heavy style.
Born in Bangkok to a middle-class family — his father and mother are both medical professionals — Wiratchai concedes that his choice to pursue combat sports was a hard sell at first. “They were so upset,” he recalls of his parents’ reaction as he sips water during a brief rest at his Bangkok Fight Lab gym. Only after months of hard training had translated to a string of wins — and a decent paycheck — did Wiratchai convince his father that MMA was a legitimate career choice. His mother remains wary, fretting about injuries, but five years in, at least she understands what her son is doing.
Which, in many ways, is precisely what he’s trying to do for his country. In Thailand, MMA is still a barely understood concept — due, in large part, to the fact that combat sports there mean one thing: “When people in Thailand say ‘fighter,’ they mean ‘Muay Thai,’ ” says Wiratchai. Moreover, any new enterprise is considered “foreign” and met with suspicion by a sizable swath of the Thai community who believe Muay Thai is as integral to their identity as their language or religion.
“There are people that are worried about what [MMA] would do to the Muay Thai fights, like it would steal our fighters,” says Grand Master Woody, a renowned trainer who literally wrote the book on Muay Thai. Woody calls these concerns “stupid talk” and insists MMA is actually good for Muay Thai and vice versa.
In the past, ONE Championship has signed and promoted former Muay Thai champions in the hopes of winning over fans, but Wiratchai — with a background in judo and kung fu — could prove that a Thai champion can emerge from outside the Muay Thai ranks.
First, though, he’s got to win the championship belt, which will take unseating the formidable current champion, Eduard Folayang of the Philippines. With another Bangkok event scheduled for December 9, Wiratchai hopes that adding a win there to his recent performances will mean a headline matchup is in the cards.
He’s got an ever-growing fan base in his corner, one that’s drawn to his quick hands and taste for the dramatic. In a 2016 fight against a former boxer from Burma — the first ONE Championship event in Thailand — Wiratchai emerged from a sea of fog and strode into the ring in an ancient warrior outfit, complete with helmet and sword. On his lower half, he wore an inflatable T. rex costume.
“Thailand and Burma have a history,” he explains, referencing an 18th-century invasion by Burmese armies that left the Thai state in ruin. “So I wanted to make [it] part ‘we will have revenge’ and part ‘let’s just have some fun.’ ”
In the tradition of the greatest fighters, Wiratchai is learning how to put on a show: when to taunt, when to teach — and when to throw a savage right hook that levels your opponent.