With thousands of Muay Thai titles and belts given out every year, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out the good from the bad. While foreigners are often handed a trophy every time they compete, in Thailand awards are only handed out to the best fighters. You don’t get a medal for just participating, you get belts for winning real titles.
Outside of Thailand, the level of Muay Thai varies from organization to country. Some countries like France, the UK, and Australia have a strong amateur scene that helps develop fighters, while others don’t.
It also doesn’t help that there is no strong international organization that has unified ranking systems across the board. If you browse the list of WBC or WMC champions you will notice most of the belts are out of date. The fighters who get title shots have connections to the right promoters.
A few years ago, I remember a promoter put on a WMC show that handed out a lot of world titles to local fighters. While these fighters were all strong locally, none of them were actually the best in the world.
With no unified ranking system in Muay Thai and an amateur system that varies from country to country, the only way you can really tell the level of a fighter is to see them in action against good competition.
When you analyze competition, it is important to look at a fighter’s current skill level. I know dozens of guys who have beaten ex Lumpinee champs, but that doesn’t make them Lumpinee material. Beating a fighter who is ten years removed from the glory days of his prime is much easier than beating that fighter in his prime.
To help make it easier for people to understand the different levels of fighters out there, here is a level system to help determine the category of a fighter. The higher the level, the better the fighter. At the highest levels, you have the legends of the sport like Saenchai, while at the lowest level you have the untrained fighters.
This system requires you to put on your thinking cap and to analyze fighters based on their competition. Someone could be an extremely high-level fighter and very talented, but unless they fight competition at the higher level, you really can’t know. Any fighter will look amazing in the ring if you put them against low-level competition.
For example, when you look at this knockout from Jonathan Tuhu he looks like an incredible beast. That spinning kick got shared millions of times and made him famous. If you only watched that video, you would think that someone like that could compete with the top fighters in the world. However, when you watch this video of Saenchai destroying Jonathan, you will see that he wasn’t even close to being able to compete with top fighters from Thailand.
The level of competition a fighter faces can either make them look amazing, or they can look like a complete amateur. So when you watch a fighter viciously knocking out someone, ask yourself who the competition was. Was that opponent a high-level fighter who is currently in his prime or was it someone who was an average fighter?
Fighters can rise and fall in the levels over the years. A top Lumpinee fighter can end up being a Tuk Tuk driver after years of drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. Fighters can also climb the rankings as they progress in their career. So just because you start off at a lower level, doesn’t mean you can’t quickly rise to a higher level with enough dedication and hard work.
Level 1 – Untrained/Street Fighters
The bottom level guys you see enter competition are guys who step into the ring with no training. The only place you will see an untrained fighter enter the ring is typically at the boxing bars in Thailand where they will recruit random people to fight for a few buckets of whiskey.
These are typically drunk foreigners who think they have street fighting skills and want to test themselves. These fights are usually with amateur rules with no elbows and full padding on the shins.
The most likely spot you will witness these fights are at boxing bars that are located in very tourist areas. Some of these bars will recruit drunk members of the audience to test their skills against Thai fighters (low-level guys).
Example Fight: The guy in red is an obvious beginner who has never trained in a martial art in his life.
Level 2 – First Time Fighters
The next level of fighters are the inexperienced fighters who have usually been training for some time but don’t have any fighting experience. Getting in the ring with these fighters is like riding a bull, you never know what to expect until the bell sounds. Inexperienced amateur fighters would also fit into this category as well.
These fighters tend to either be very aggressive and swing wildly, or they are afraid to throw and don’t want to engage. The first round of the fight is often the most dangerous against an inexperienced fighter because they have the most gas in the tank and go hard.
Some first-time fighters are pretty good, while others are terrible. There is a huge range of skill level that you will see when these guys fight. There are some fighters who train for years before they enter the ring, while other fighters may have a couple months of training before they accept a fight.
Example Fight: Typically when you put two inexperienced fighters against each other it turns into a slugfest. They usually swing for the fences and gas out hard towards the end of the fights. You don’t even need to watch this whole fight to know which guy is going to be gassed in the last round.
Level 3 – Tuk Tuk Drivers (Tomato Cans)
In boxing, they use the term Tomato Can to describe fighters who are considered “guaranteed wins” for upcoming fighters. These guaranteed wins help to build up a fighters record before they get a shot at a more difficult opponent.
Their role in the fighting world is to help upcoming talents get experience, without suffering an unexpected loss. Boxing and MMA promoters will use the Tomato Cans to build up a fighters record so that they start to build hype and attraction of a potential fighter. This is a common practice. Look at any top level boxer and you will notice the early fights in their careers were all quick knockouts.
One of the benefits of the Tomato cans is that it allows good fighters to get highlight reel knockouts. Take any average fighter and put him in the ring with a Tomato Can, and he will look like a beast.
In Thailand, the Tuk Tuk drivers are the Thai equivalent of the Tomato Cans of Boxing. These are the part-time fighters who get paid a bit of money to go into the ring and fight. They don’t train properly and are expected to lose. They fight inexperienced foreign fighters who don’t have the skills to compete with good Thai fighters.
These fighters occasionally put on good fights against inexperienced fighters who are not ready to fight. Tuk Tuk drivers typically have a significant weight disadvantage, which makes it even harder for them to win.
Fight Example: The fighter in blue is a “Tuk Tuk” that is putting on a strong performance. You can tell from his technique he has never been trained at a proper Thai camp (his technique is terrible). His only experience has probably come from fighting foreigners.
Level 4 – Upcoming Prospects
Upcoming prospects are newer fighters that show a natural ability and have potential to reach a higher level. They have typically been training Muay Thai for a few years before they enter the ring for the first time. These fighters tend to be a bit younger and have potential if they keep on fighting.
Good amateur fighters who turn professional can also fit into this category. Even though some amateur fighters may have 0 professional fights, having 20+ amateur fights is enough experience to put them ahead of the curve.
Watch an amateur tournament and you will see a lot of upcoming prospects who have potential in the sport.
Example Fight: This fight features a young Jayy Tonkin who is only 16 years old at the time of this fight. He is facing another young fighter from Thailand who is at a similar skill level. You can see from the fight, that Jayy would become a good fighter if he kept on training and fighting. (Jayy ended up knocking down Singdam in the Toyota Tournament and fought main events on Max Muay Thai).
Level 5 – Amateur Champions and Tough Pros
The next level we enter are the guys who have a lot of amateur experience but have little professional experience (under 10 pro fights). These fighters tend to be the fighters who travel down to compete in the IMFA tournaments to represent their country and have a shot at a medal.
At the IMFA tournament, there are also a number of high-level professionals that represent countries like Thailand, Russia, and other Eastern European countries. I am not talking about these type of fighters. These are high-level pros who are sandbagging to win medals. These guys have no business fighting against amateurs and do it because they can bring home the medals.
One of my Thai trainers told me that he entered an IFMA tournament many years ago, and said it was the easiest competition he ever faced. He ended up winning a gold medal for Thailand, but he had a few hundred fights under his belt when he competed. If that isn’t the definition of sandbagging, then I don’t know what is.
Also featured at this level are the tough professionals. These are the guys who don’t have the most skill or professional experience but are tough fighters. They will give a hard fight, regardless of the opponent. Typically, these fighters have under 20 professional fights.
The undercard on a typical Lion fight card would feature fighters who would fit into this category also. They are good strong fighters but most of them don’t have too much experience facing good competition outside of their country.
Example Fight: This is an example of an amateur title fight. The skill level demonstrated here is about a level 5 in terms of ranking.
Level 6 – The Journeyman
These are the Muay Thai fighters who have adequate skills in the ring but are not of the same caliber of fighters who are gatekeepers, champions or elite fighters.
In Thailand, there are a lot of foreign fighters who have loads of experience, but never achieve a high level in Muay Thai. These fighters may have 50-100+ fights, but they don’t have natural talent or ability to ever become a champion or contend for a belt. Don’t get me wrong, these guys can end up going the distance against good competition, but the outcome of the fight is almost never in doubt.
These are the type of fighters that are the definition of all HEART. The typically push forward and don’t ever quit. They never back down and are always game for a good bloodbath. They also tend to be very strong in one particular area of fighting and will focus on pushing the fight into that area.
They give you consistent hard effort every time. You know what you get from these fighters. These are typically the foreign fighters who live in Thailand and fight often. When you look at their progression throughout the years, they typically don’t evolve much as fighters and don’t make many improvements after their first few years of fighting.
Promoters love these fighters because they are always willing to fight anyone they are matched up against. These are typically the lifer Muay Thai fighters who literally eat, sleep, breathe Muay Thai.
Example Fight: I’m not going to give any specific video examples of these fighters because I don’t want to insult anyone.
Level 7 – The Strong Foreigners
Once we move past the Journeyman, we get into the stage of strong foreign fighters. These would be the headline fighters on the MAX Muay Thai, Rebellion Muay Thai, Thai Fight. They have experience, they have the skill and they put on good fights.
A lot of these fighters have potential to compete for local titles and win championships. In countries like France, the UK, Russia, and Australia, there are a lot of professional fighters who fit into this category.
These fighters can beat half decent Thai fighters, but if you put them in the ring against a real skilled Thai they are certain to lose. They don’t have the skill and experience to beat the better Thai fighters from Thailand.
Example Fight: This fight features two strong foreign fighters in Samuel Bark and Alexis Petroulias. Both fighters have a good amount of experience and this fight comes down to heart and determination.
Level 8 – GateKeepers
The next level of fighters features guys who are stadium champions and contenders for local belts in Thailand. These would be the best Thai fighters who fight out of local stadiums in Phuket, Pattaya, or Chiang Mai. They typically have fought previously in Bangkok, but have fallen out of the Bangkok circuit.
These would be the fighters that promoters use to fight the best foreigners in a local area. The Thai fighters that would fight Lumpinee champions like Rafi Bohic or Damien Alamos when they were fighting in Phuket.
The gatekeepers are usually relatively close to their prime, even if they don’t fight in Bangkok anymore. What they lack in cardio and conditioning, they make up for in years of experience. While they don’t train nearly as hard as they used to, they still have the experience and skill to beat a lot of good fighters.
A lot of ex Lumpinee champs who become trainers turn into gatekeepers. These guys can beat almost all of the best foreigners, even though they barely train anymore. The only type of foreigners who can beat these fighters are good foreigners or elite fighters.
Example Fight: This battle features a very strong foreign fighter Popov Grigory versus Nai who was an ex-channel 7 fighter. Even though Nai worked as a trainer and barely trained for the fight, he still has the skills to beat a very strong and tough fighter in Popov.
Level 9 – Elite Foreigners (Lumpinee Fighters)
Once you move past the local gatekeepers, you get into the realm that features the best foreign fighters and good Thai fighters in the top stadiums of Bangkok.
These are the top-ranked foreign fighters around the world. These are the fighters who compete for WMC championships and headline big international events. They typically have 50-100+ fights and have foughten a lot of big names in the sport. Fighters like Youssef Boughnamem, Fabio Pinca, Rafi Singpatong, Liam Harrison, and Antoine Pinto would be examples of elite foreigners.
Elite foreigners are well rounded and have a diverse set of skills that allow them to compete with the different competition. You can make an argument who should be included in this list, but generally, a fighter needs to beat the best fighters internationally to be considered elite.
The Thai equivalent would be the good Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, and Channel 7 fighters. The level of Muay Thai is so good in Thailand that even non-champion Thais can easily beat the best foreigners in the world in the same weight class. When you watch foreigners compete against Thais, they almost always have a huge weight and height advantage to help balance the playing field.
An elite level foreigner like Youssef Boughnamem can beat high-level Thai fighters. However, in his weight class (160+ lbs) the level of Thai competition is weak. Because Thais are naturally small, any weight category over 150 lbs+ is going to be won by foreigners. You could make an argument for putting a fighter like Youssef in the next level given his resume.
Example Fight: This fight features Fabio Pinca, who is one of the best Muay Thai fighters in the world, against ex Lumpinee champ Nong-O. Even though Nong-O hasn’t fought professionally for 3 years, he easily beats Fabio Pinca. This is an example of an elite foreigner versus the next level Thai champion who is not even in his prime.
Level 10 – Bangkok Champions (Ranked Thai Fighters)
Once we move past the elite foreigners, we reach a level reserved for the best Thais. While there have been a few foreigners who have won stadium belts, those matchups were not against the best Thai competition. I won’t get into the politics of Lumpinee belts, but let’s just say that if you have the right connections, you can get title shots.
Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, and Channel 7 Thai Champions possess the skill, technique, and timing that are second to none. If you see a top-ranked Lumpinee fighter like Superlek go against an elite foreigner his size, there is no comparison. Superlek would easily cruise to victory.
Elite Bangkok fighters are at another level when you compare them to their foreign competition. This is the difference between being born into Muay Thai and fighting since you are 7 years old or deciding you want to be a fighter in your late teens. Those thousands of extra hours of training end up paying dividends in timing and technique.
These fighters are either Thai champions or in the top rankings of their weight categories.
Example Fight: Lumpinee Champion Littewada is an elite fighter who possesses next level skills and abilities.
Level 11 – Muay Thai Superstars
To reach the Muay Thai superstar status you need to compete internationally to gain worldwide exposure. Fighters like Yodsanklai, Sittichai, and Saenchai have all reached this status.
One of the defining features of a Muay Thai superstars is also consistency. These fighters have similar skills sets to the top Lumpinee fighters, but they have the ability to win a lot of close fights. Being able to consistently win at a high level against the best in the world, sets these fighters apart.
The Muay Thai superstars are able to compete in non-Muay Thai events like Kickboxing, and still beat all of the competition. Generally, these Superstars have next level striking skills, that allows them to adapt their styles to beat the best Kickboxers in the game.
Superstars can achieve the highest purses when they fight and have a cult following among Muay Thai fans. Casual fans who don’t know much about the sport can often name these fighters. Since foreigners tend to weigh more, you will typically only see heavier Thai fighters become superstars because the lighter ones are too small to face international competition.
Example: If you want to see what a Muay Thai superstar looks like, watch this highlight of Yodsanklai Fairtex.
Level 12 – Muay Thai Legends
Legendary status is only achieved by being the best of the best. Not only does a fighter need to be a Lumpinee Champion, they need to be the best of the champions. For the Next Level fighters who showcase skills and techniques that are at a next level.
Look up a list of the top fighters of all time, and they would make this list of legendary Muay Thai fighters. These are the fighters like Saenchai, Somrak Khamsing, Samart Payakaroon, and Dieselnoi.
In their prime, these fighters were nearly untouchable by anyone.
Example: Even though Saenchai isn’t the same fighter today as he was in his prime, he’s still a living legend.
After reading this article you should have a better understanding of the different levels of Muay Thai fighters. The next time you watch a Lumpinee champion like Littewada in the ring, you should understand the difference between him and the main event of a Max Muay Thai card. There are good fighters and there are next level fighters.
If you don’t have a lot of experience watching fights, it can be difficult to determine how good a fighter is. An amateur fighter can look amazing if you put them in the ring against an inexperienced fighter. The level of competition that a fighter face is going to determine their level in the sport.
It is important to also understand that just because someone was a Lumpinee champion at one point in time, doesn’t mean a win over a Lumpinee champion puts a fighter in that category. There are a lot of ex-champions in Thailand who don’t train and can lose to inferior competition on any given day.
The goal of this ranking system is to help provide some clarity on the differences between the levels of Muay Thai fighters. Outside of the top levels of competition, some of the rankings will be subjective. But the more experience you have seen what top talent looks like, the easier it will be to tell the difference between the thousands of title holders around the world and the real champions.
Let me know in the comments what you think about this list.