Thanongsaklek ‘Topnoi’ TigerMuayThai recently fought on the biggest card of the year in Japan. A typhoon hit Tokyo that weekend but it didn’t deter 27,208 people from buying tickets to see Rizin 13 at the Saitama Super Arena.

Topnoi’s path to success has not been a straightforward one. A veteran of 200 Muay Thai bouts, he fought some of the best fighters in his division and consistently held his own without ever managing to win one of the major stadium titles.

The 26-year-old has discovered a new lease on life since transitioning to MMA, a career move that only came about by chance.

“I got to the point where I was out of shape and a little fat and wasn’t enjoying the Muay Thai fights so much and I got the chance to go there and work at Tiger Muay Thai as a trainer,” said Topnoi.

“I was invited to try the MMA training and I liked it, it was a new challenge for me.”

Topnoi’s steep career trajectory as a mixed martial artist is particularly surprising when you consider that he actually got off to the worst possible start. His first fight was at Full Metal Dojo 10 in 2016, and he was stopped late in the opening round by Yodkaikaew Fairtex.

“I only trained for two weeks before having my first fight on the FMD show in Bangkok. I lost, but really enjoyed it and carried on training to fight more,” said Topnoi.

Three months later Topnoi would register the first win of his career fighting for the same promotion. Another victory at FMD 12 in 2016 was followed by three straight wins the following year which helped him secure a contract with world famous Japanese promotion Rizin.

‘A different world’

The Saitama Super Arena is a long way from Buriram in rural northeastern Thailand. Even competing in the pressure cooker environment of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern could not prepare Topnoi for the experience of fighting in one of the biggest indoor arenas in all of Asia.

“It is a different world. In Bangkok you just turn up to do your job and fight and there is a lot of pressure from the gambling community when you fight. In Japan they really get behind you. I have a fan club that follow me and I’m always getting asked for my autograph and to have my picture taken with the fans and I often get given gifts too.”

Topnoi’s first fight in Japan lasted a little over a minute but produced some of the best action in Rizin history. He traded knockdowns with Tadaaki Yamamoto before finishing the 28-fight Japanese veteran in brutal style.

It looked like Topnoi was enjoying himself and he found fighting in Japan to be a liberating experience.

“There is no pressure like in Muay Thai fights; if you don’t perform so well the fan club gets behind you and gives you support. And I fight in front of 20,000 people which is amazing.”

At Tiger Muay Thai he trains under renowned coach George Hickman. But Topnoi was fortunate enough to find himself rubbing shoulders with Muay Thai royalty from a very early age.

“I started when I was 11 years old, I wanted to try after watching the fights on Channel 7 on Sunday afternoon and I told my father who took me to train at Sit O camp in Buriram town. The camp produced a lot of top fighters like Chanrit, Fasuchon, Yodwanlop, Palangpon, Khaimukkhao, Khaimukdam and Jomthong. I had my first fight and liked it so I carried on.”

Topnoi became something of a weekend warrior because he lived too far away from Sit O to train every day. But when the camp closed down he made the decision to move to the country’s capital in order to pursue his Muay Thai ambitions more seriously.

“I trained and fought out of Sit O for three or four years. I could only train there at weekends though as my village was a long way from the center of Buriram and I had to go to school in my village, so I would get a bus down on Fridays after school and then go back home Sunday after training. After the owner of Sit O gym passed away, I travelled down to Bangkok and trained and fought full time out of Chuwattana gym.”

It took Topnoi a while to adjust to life in the metropolis. But Chuwuttana was home to some of Buriram’s best Muay Thai fighters and boxers so he was surrounded by familiar faces.

“At first I was very nervous as is a totally different world to the countryside and I didn’t know who to trust, but it didn’t take me too long to adjust as there were many people from Isarn at the gym and fighters like Jomthong and Palangpon who was at my old gym originally.”

Topnoi was highly ranked at Rajadamnern, but despite beating a few champions in non-title fights he never managed to win one of the stadium’s sought after belts.

“I had over 200 fights. I fought and beat Petchthasin Sor Sommai two times, he was Rajadamnern featherweight champion, and I beat Lomtalay Sitso-ung too. I was a technical fighter and liked to fight hard punchers as they would come forward looking to fight but I was too technical for them and never got hurt. I didn’t like to fight strong clinch and knee fighters as they never stop coming forward and really tire you out.”

Right place, right time

At 26 years old Topnoi could conceivably return to Muay Thai, or even try his hand at kickboxing. Former teammates Jomthong and Palangpon have both forged successful careers inside the squared circle but he has his sights firmly set on MMA glory.

“I want to keep fighting MMA; I have had 9 fights now and I want to go on to become a champion. Unless you are a superstar fighter in Muay Thai it is very difficult to earn money and become well known. I would like more Thais to get into MMA as I don’t actually think it is as dangerous as Muay Thai and the opportunities are better.”

For Topnoi it was a question of being in the right place at the right time. He was fortunate enough to find himself working at Tiger Muay Thai, a gym with a world renowned MMA program, and Full Metal Dojo kept offering him fights despite suffering that setback on his debut.

After years of intensive road running, clinching and hitting pads in Buriram and Bangkok, Topnoi’s routine in Phuket is completely different.

“I do a lot more weight training now and always work on my ground game, with wrestling and BJJ and takedown defence. I don’t really work so much on my stand up as after 200 fights it is already second nature for me,” he says.

His record currently stands at 6-2 but Topnoi doesn’t feel he’s had any real tough fights so far in his MMA career.

“To be honest none of them have been too difficult for me. I still haven’t been training 100 percent yet and am starting to really train hard now and I should fight again on Rizin before the end of the year.”

Muay Thai is rarely a job for life. We’ve seen 15-year-olds establish themselves among the sport’s elite but it is rare for anyone to continue being competitive at Lumpinee or Rajadamnern once middle age approaches. MMA offers a different type of career opportunity and it’s something that Topnoi is conscious of.

“As long as my body can handle it, I really think I can carry on for a long time. I want to try to fight until I am in my 40s,” he said.

Topnoi has been training MMA for less than three years but has already achieved an incredible amount. He believes he’s got at least another decade in him, and with Rizin set to feature him on a card for the third time this year the sky is the limit for this exciting Thai prospect.