Buakaw – hero of the common people

Thai hero and K-1 Champion Buakaw does a stint as a taxi driver. Before you have a panic attack… Buakaw is NOT giving up his day job!  It’s actually a clever promotion with a Thai bank promoting their loans, which turns out to be quite heartwarming, comical and insightful.

In this video, Buakaw’s job is not only to drive people places (duh), but at the same time interact with the Thai public and find our their dreams and aspirations, while revealing a little bit about his own struggles. It’s quite a fitting role for a Thai athlete who came from a humble background of a family of poor farmers.

Having Buakaw as a spokesman for a Thai bank shows how much he has achieved to change the Thai public’s perception of Muay Thai.   Until recently, Thai fighters were looked down upon as people who had no other options but to use their fists over their brain.

In reality, most Muay Thai fighter’s choice of career had more to do with coming from a background of poverty and lack of opportunities (a topic we wrote earlier about here) rather than being stupid or lazy at school. So to have a genuine Thai fighter like Buakaw, giving advice to non-fighters on their careers is modernization at its best. Especially when he’s a spokesman for a bank, not as a comical character, but as a hero and inspiration that hard work can make dreams come true. 

While the Asian mentality of working hard to earn an honest living to support your family  remains current, until recently, this did not include Thai fighters – despite the fact they literally sweat blood and tears for their careers. Buakaw himself came from a family of poor rice farmers, and started his career at the tender age of eight, solely to contribute to his family’s welfare.  Before he found fame overseas, Buakaw (White Lotus in Thai) and other Thai fighters were often looked down at by regular city-folk who viewed Muay Thai as old-fashioned and uncouth.

Even as a successful fighter in Thailand, he was not given anything close to the admiration he has now. The “White Lotus”, as he is known was called the “Black Dog” by some people who still believed in the lower-caste of Thai fighters. The derogatory nickname was in reference to his dark skin (associated with working class individuals because of the time spent in the sun working in the fields) and the fact he was probably uneducated and uncultured, not unlike an animal.

Look at the average Thai movie star, male or female and the first thing that stands out is their porcelain smooth skin, so fair that it would be is physically impossible for the majority of the Thai people to achieve – even if they never saw the sun. Big muscles are not a requirement for the male stars – coming from a good background with connections or money are admired more than a sporty physique.

Thai movie stars are fairer than 99% of the Thai population

Thai movie stars are fairer than 99% of the Thai population. Their features are also a lot more European than the typical Thai person.

The darker skinned actors were relegated to supporting roles (such as the maid, rapist or thief) or gained fans in other genres such as slapstick comedies or talk-shows, where they made up for their lack of “looks” with their wit.

Mum - known for his comic roles and hosting

Mum – known for his comic roles and hosting

So how did it become that the a dark skinned Muay Thai fighter because the hero of the everyday man and woman, and even now admired by Thai celebrities, who have taken up the sport because of him?

Buakaw’s skill as a Muay Thai fighter are admirable. But ask any Muay Thai purist whether he represents the pinnacle of Muay Thai, and they will probably name at least five fighters they deem as having greater technical prowess (and be able to back up their claims). In many ways, Buakaw isn’t especially different from your top Thai Muay Thai fighter. He’s been beaten by Thai fighters (including our own trainer Wimbledon), isn’t the most eloquent speaker and has his fair share of bad management.  But unlike a lot of other Thai fighters, he has been in the right place at the right time.

When he entered Japan’s K-1 World Max tournament in 2004, it was as the underdog, who under K-1 rules, had his most deadly weapons, the elbow, clinch and knee severely limited. He wasn’t expected to get far, but by beating the current champion, Masato The Silver Wolf, who had rock star status (and was married to a Japanese celebrity), the game started to change.

His fame stems more from his opportunity to fight on a worldwide stage in front of an international crowd of millions which has thrust him and his sport into a whole new spotlight. And what he lacked for in technical skill, he made up for in charisma, determination and almost-superhero strength. The fact that he came from a distant land and looked different from the fighters who had previously dominated the press added to his mystique and appeal. And so, Buakaw begin his ascension to become the face of Muay Thai and K-1.

10 years later, Buakaw today has changed not only the Thai public’s perception of Muay Thai fighters, but their attitude to the sport as well. He is an in-demand celebrity spokesman of advertisements which now transcend sporting goods, and can also be seen on posters and commercials for day-to-day products like paint, noodles and tires.

Although notoriously shy about his love-life, he has also become somewhat of a heart-throb to locals who now appreciate his rugged dark looks, bolstered by the fact he is now a “successful businessman”. 2.15 minutes into the video clip, a young Thai lady jokes about his popularity with Japanese ladies while her boyfriend compliments a mortified Buakaw for his “hot” looks. In fact, it is not unusual for busloads of tourists to pull up at his gym in the remote part of Surin Thailand, simply for a chance to meet the legendary fighter.

It has also changed the market for gyms in Bangkok. Once viewed as the mecca for serious fighters, there are new fitness-focused Muay Thai gyms co-existing with the traditional fight-oriented gyms.

In the last five years, gyms catered an almost-strictly to a fitness crowd, but using proper Thai fighters have sprung up in Bangkok like wildfire. They are flashy, expensive, centrally located, female-friendly and heavily populated by local models, actors and actresses, who now view it as a fashionable and fun way to get fit. These include RSM Muay Thai Academy (a chain), Jaroenthong Muay Thai (owned by a former champion),  Kru Dam (a chain),  Kongsittha (owned by a Thai celebrity) and  Legend Thai Boxing.

Any of these gyms would salivate at the idea of having Buakaw pay a visit.

buakaw champion

 

 

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