Combat sports have always required strong leading characters, at times similar to domineering fathers with personal stories at the limits of the picturesque and often linked to the organized crime:
Looking at the decade of the 80’s whether in the boxing made in the USA we got to mention Don King, in Dutch kickboxing Jan Plaas, in Thailand of Muay Thai the main character is without any doubt the formidable Klaew Thanikul.
Leaving aside the gossips and the rumors that at times enlarged the name of Klaew to bring him to a legendary aura, we come to know the facts that outlined the life of this eclectic character that shone like no other in the world of muay thai and professional boxing made in Thailand.
Klaew was born in 1934 to a Sino-Thai family in Samut Songkran, a town about 40 km from Bangkok and interesting curiosity is that his name literally means ‘escaping a danger’, a name that will somewhat portrait his life full of twists.
He quickly built a major financial fortune through real estate speculation to then become the owner of a casino; many linked his rapid rise to success in a developing country such as Thailand in those years as a result of ties with prominent figures of organized crime and high spheres of government and the military elite, and at a certain extent, he got himself mentioned by many as the actual leader(Chaopo in thai language)of the most powerful criminal syndacate of the Thai capital.
In 1977 he opened a small gym in his name in the Phrakanong area of Bangkok: this marked his entry into the world of muay thai, which during his ‘reign’ known a development and wealth never equaled.
The little Sor. Thanikul Gym guided by Klaew’s attitude, who immediately began to promote both muay thai and traditional boxing fights, will become a renown factory of boxers, producing, under the expert guidance of Ajarn Peng, nothing less than 20 champions between Lumpini and Raja: among the others the legendary twins Boonlai and Boonlung, Banklanoi, Sombat, Kongkiat and many joined from other camps, like superstar Dieselnoi who will be trained by Ajarn Peng and his staff for 5 years until his retirement.
Klaew immediately shown that he was at the forefront of boxing promotion, realizing that Muay Thai needed a turning point towards foreign markets to make the decisive leap of quality and become himself a proponent of the foreign boxers’s integration into his own camp.
Sor. Thanikul gym soon became synonymous of ‘know how’ among some of the most prominent foreign boxers of the period, such as Dida, Kerner and Kader Marouf who will continue to attend the camp over the years.
Klaew also shown his force as a promoter since the beginning: by granting boxers rich and never-equalized money prize, he has beeen able to organize shows that lead to the clash of the main public favorites bringing incredible results: box office records and stadiums often sold out, popularity of the sport at its peak and a cashflow never seen before.
Klaew thus obtained the absolute monopoly of the promotion of muay thai, eventually cutting off the smallest organizers.
The risky activities in which he was engaged led him to be protagonist in the front pages of newspapers for violence-related crimes.
He was himself the victim of two bloody assassination attempts at Lumpini Stadium, which costed the life of many spectators (a handgranade has been used in one occasion) and he got broadly accused to be the mastermind behind several murders, including that of Ngu Hapalang(owner of the rival Hapalang Gym which hosted among the others, Dieselnoi and Chamuekphet), who got shot dead by a gunman while cornering one of his boxers during an important match at Lumpini Stadium.
Leaving aside for a moment the criminal background in which Klaew was operating, we draw our attention to the activity related to the promotion of combat sports:
In the mid-1980s he was appointed as president of the boxing amateur association of Thailand and he is the man that made possible the most famous match-makin thai vs foreigner of the period, as example Changpuek vs Roufus in the states and Phetdam vs Kerner.
The life of this great character was interrupted abruptly in 1991 when, despite his lucky name, he wasn’t able to survive the ambush of a commando made of ten hooded men that attacked his convoy with a grenade launcher and machine guns in front of dozens of witnesses near a restaurant in Sam Phram, killing all his bodyguards and leaving the body of the 57 years old Klaew disfigured by 60 bullets.
Many speculations have been made on the actual masterminds and killers of Klaew Thanikul, also considering his activity with the Seri Niyom National Party and his decision to run in the next election for a high public office, but his execution remains without responsibles.
Sor. Thanikul gym survived until 2003, while the place as number one promoter got taken by Songchai Ratanasuban who rapidly followed the footsteps of his predecessor with great success until the end of the so-called golden age of muay thai in the late 90’s .
The name Klaew Thanikul remains to date synonymous with the apex reached by muay thai, and has entered into Thai society’s folklore through numerous publications, documentaries and television inquiries about his incredible ascent and death.