In the sport of Muay Thai no-one gets to retire undefeated. There are no Floyd Mayweathers, walking away from the sport with a perfect professional record.
Fighters start at such a young age and compete so frequently that defeat is inevitable. Careers will always have their ups and down and this is something that Nong-O Gaiyanghadao has experienced first hand.
As the reigning ONE Championship bantamweight Muay Thai champion he is one of the highest earners in the sport. Nong-O is a multiple time Lumpinee and Rajadamnern champion who has gone head to head with the best fighters in his division and, more often than not, emerged victorious.
But when he was at the pinnacle of his powers Nong-O suffered a devastating slump. He had lost six fights in a row. Looking back, he puts it down to pressure caused by financial concerns,
“I was building a house for my family during that time and relied on the money from fighting as our main source of income. Looking back, I was thinking too much. I felt pressure to make money to build a house, and support my family. All the thinking affected my performance, I think.”
The losses came at the hands of F16 Rajanon, Kongsak Sitboonmee, Jomthong Chuwattana, Saketdao Phetpayatai and Saenchai Sor Kingstar. These were some of the best pound for pound fighters in the world during that period.
But Nong-O bounced back in style, winning three fights in a single afternoon to claim the 130lbs Toyota Marathon in 2011. He would recapture the Lumpinee title he had lost too, albeit in a higher weight class.
Having established himself as one of the very best in Thailand the 33 year old was given the opportunity to become an international star with ONE Championship. He has won six fights out of six for the promotion, competing in sold out stadiums and arenas all over Asia.
It’s a far cry from Nong-O’s first fight. He was handed 100 baht after winning and was so excited he decided to come back and do it all over again the next day.
He never set out to be a champion, but was lured into the sport by a persuasive gym owner who spotted his potential,
“I have always been interested in Muay Thai since I was young because there was a small camp right next to our house. My neighbour asked me if I wanted to join, I didn’t like it at first but since I passed by the camp every day the owner convinced me to do Muay Thai. He kept on inviting me so I thought I’d give it a try.”
However it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Nong-O. But from a very young age he was able to recognize the financial benefits of being a fighter,
“At first, I didn’t like fighting. However, I made money from it that helped to improve my financial status, and I kept doing it.”
The purse money might have been meager. But life was a struggle for Nong-O’s family and it made a difference,
“When I was young we were poor. We planted vegetables and ate eggs almost every day. My parents were working in Bangkok and they sent money home but some months it wasn’t enough.”
Initially his parents were unsure what to think about their son’s new hobby,
“At first my parents didn’t like it because they didn’t know much about the sport. When my parents found out that I was fighting they didn’t want to watch because they were scared I would get hurt,” Nong-O recalls.
Nong-O would fight around 20 times before his parents started to become really supportive. Eventually the time came to move to Bangkok in order to take his career to the next level and compete in the famous stadiums there.
This was another difficult moment for Nong-O,
“My first trainer and my parents brought me there but when my parents went away I cried (because) when they were away before I was with my grandmother but this time it was with new people and they were all strangers.”
It was a pivotal moment in Nong-O’s career. After shedding a few tears, he resolved to remain in Bangkok and become a successful fighter,
“After I finished crying I got stronger. I had to go on. I had a goal.”
He would go on to surpass all expectations, establishing himself as one of the best fighters of his generation. But Nong-O will be the first to admit that there were moments when he could have walked away.
For Muay Thai fighters like Nong-O the road to success is seldom a straight one. There were times when he doubted himself, and could easily have decided to pick a simpler path or a more straightforward profession.
He had the mental strength and tenacity to continue and Nong-O is proud that he was able to persevere and reap the benefits of a career that is rapidly approaching its third decade,
“I’m so glad I didn’t quit or I wouldn’t be where I am today.”