It was never even my intention to fight Muay Thai, let alone make history. But, that’s exactly what happened on August 8, 1997 ...
Back in 1991, I was a professional boxer with no experience in Muay Thai #kickboxing. Philip Wong, the founder of Fairtex, had this idea of expanding boxing in Thailand, so he built a million-dollar training facility in Chandler, Arizona. Mr. Wong invited me to come and teach a Western-style boxing class.
The Fairtex compound in Chandler was basically a camp: we could live there, we could train there, eat there, anything that we needed, we could do in the camp, so I agreed to do it. I just didn’t realize that I was about to be living with world champions.
We called them the Thai Boys inside the camp. Guys like Jongsanan Fairtex, Neungsiam Samphusri, Bunkerd Fahpimai, Ganyao Fairtex (real name Phicheat Deackboran Sitphodang Arunleung), Sakasem Kanthawong, and Ajarn Jakkit Sitsongpeenong, all renowned champions at Lumpinee Stadium, frequented the camp, flying back and forth as they fulfilled visa obligations.
In Chandler, the Thai Boys called me "Wayne Chung Lai," or Wayne The Bad Man. Eventually, however, I earned a new nickname, given to me by the most famous and accomplished of them all, Apidej Sit-Hirun. But that was still a few years away.
While at Fairtex Arizona, I developed a reputation as a practical joker, of sorts. The living quarters were set up dormitory style, and guests came from all over the world, so it became a ritual at the camp. I remember one time how Ganyao slipped the Thai Oil under my sweaty armpits.
It was around this time when I noticed an older man walking the halls and watching TV. I did my best to talk to him using my limited Thai and charades, but he wasn’t interested. My response was to show this guy how to have some fun, so I threw two fighting roosters in his room while he was sleeping. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the man was Apidej Sit-Hirun, arguably the greatest Muay Thai fighter to ever live.
Eventually, Bunkerd sat me down and explained, in detail, exactly who Apidej was, and what he meant to Muay Thai in Thailand. My actions were considered disrespectful, so I immediately went down to his room and begged for forgiveness. We quickly made up over a six-pack of beer and some World Cup soccer.
From that moment on, I looked up to Apidej in a way that has never been replicated in my life. He was a special man, and there was something very spiritual and unexplainable about him. We spent that entire summer talking about boxing, not #MuayThai, because Apidej was also a boxing champion and had great insight into my sport.
This was also about time that I had began throwing kicks for the first time in my life, and Apidej was not impressed with my form. In fact, I still remember the look of disgust on his face. It was priceless.
Not long after I began to learn the basics of the kicking game, Philip Wong invited me to continue my training and teaching at the Fairtex estate in Bangplee, Thailand.
After the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Philip became more interested in boxing. Somluck Kamsing, a boxer, became the first Thai to win a gold medal at the #Olympics, and the King gave him a million dollars. Philip went out and bought a bunch of boxers and wanted me to train them.
I was excited to go to Thailand and see how the Thai boys lived and experience their culture, just absorb all of that. By that point, we had already been living together for five years in Arizona, so going to Thailand was an important, life-changing experience. My family and friends had no idea what Muay Thai was. They thought I was joining some religious cult.
Getting off the plane, I still remember the smell of the pollution. It was hot and sticky, and it hits you in the face. It was going to be a slow process to adjust to life in southeast Asia, but at least Apidej was there waiting for me.
In Bangplee, I lived at Philip Wong’s estate -- he had a ring there and a dorm for the fighters and trainers. Philip actually built an American-style apartment for me with a full bathroom and air conditioning. We traveled everywhere by Rolls Royce, complete with bodyguards, and even by American standards it was like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
But then things started to change ...
A boxer I was training at Fairtex finally got a big fight at #LumpineeStadium, the Mecca of Muay Thai and the country’s most famous venue, and he broke his hand. Then the economy crashed.
The boxing thing in Thailand just didn’t seem to be working out, so Jongsanan, “The Wooden Man,” and Neungsiam, two of my fellow trainers, suggested I start to fight Muay Thai. They had big-money fights at Lumpinee coming up, and they said they could find a fight for me.
That’s when I really started training with Apidej. That’s when I learned what it was like to live like a Thai, train like a Thai, eat like a Thai, and fight like a Thai.
As an American, as a foreigner, you can’t begin to understand the difference in training unless you’ve done it. In the eyes of the Thai boys, I was lazy. I had to be willing to do whatever they told me to do, and do it their way. Only then could I start to understand how conditioned these guys were, from their toes, to their hair. It was unbelievable, like they were all made of steel.
Before I arrived in Bangplee, the Thai boys had little respect for American fighters. To them, we were a joke because Americans would train once a day, then they’d go out at night. We were never considered serious about, or committed to, training. Out of respect, I learned to do things their way, regardless of the culture shock and homesickness.
At the time, I still missed fresh coffee, American food, and the comforts of home on a daily basis, but I was finally learning how to train and condition my body to be able to compete with the Thai boys.
As a boxer, the first thing I needed to do was convert my stance for Muay Thai. My stance became more wide, but there were times where I literally limped around for a month because of my inability to check the leg kick.
It was a crash course, and I suffered quite a bit from the damage those leg kicks inflicted. I knew I needed to adapt because my strength was still my hands and no one would be able to deal with them. I developed a good clinch, then an exceptional cut-kick game (if you kick me above the waist, I will catch your leg, I will take your leg out from underneath you, and I’ll do it over, and over, and over again).
At the time, I thought I knew what hard training was. I weighed about 165 lbs. and was pretty lean, but by Thai standards, I was soft as butter. The veteran trainers would actually walk up and squeeze my muscles and laugh. You’re expected to feel as if you’re wearing body armor.
I remember throwing up, not being able to breathe, and basically feeling like a pathetic waste of time. The trainers would just laugh and say “tomorrow, same same.” I was so banged up that little scratches became wounds and sores, and nothing ever seemed to heal. Still, I was the first one to arrive at the gym every morning and the last one to leave.
Apidej and the Thai boys saw my commitment and believed in me. They put time into me, and I never, ever wanted to let them down and have them think less of me. There were plenty of days where I had dysentery, I was leaking out my back end and throwing up, but I never stopped training because obviously I didn’t want to disappoint them. Even if I was throwing up or going into a full-blown respiratory panic, under no circumstances would I turn away, look away, or walk away. The Thai trainers relished in making you quit. The found it amusing.
I had to earn their respect, and when I did, that’s when the real training started.
To this day, I still train people the same way: I put my time into my fighters and prove to them that I believe in them, and that we’re gonna work on valuable skills. Hopefully it all flies into the ring, but if it doesn’t, I’m still here for them. It’s the same way Apidej believed in me, and I could never find the words to express how much he meant to me, or how much I miss him.
After training with the Thai boys for six months, Apidej felt I was ready to start fighting. But, he wanted me to fight in Lumpinee, where no American had ever won.
Before me, a guy named Don “The Dragon” Wilson became the first American to fight at Lumpinee. He lost. Then there was a kid named Jerry Iacuzio, who I knew from Chandler. He fought on “Beginner’s Day” at Lumpinee, but he got stopped with an elbow.
I would be the third American to try and win at Lumpinee, but before I could fight on the big stage, however, Apidej had to take me down to the World Muay Thai Council for the green light from General Veerawut.
Apidej vouched for me with the council, and his endorsement was all I needed to be granted a license. It was at this time that I became known as Apidej-Noi, which means “Little Apidej,” or Apidej-Noi Fairtex, since it’s customary to fight under the name of the gym you represent.
There was some animosity that I had that name because Apidej was considered like the Muhammad Ali of Muay Thai in Thailand. But, he said I was more than welcome to have that name, as a sign of mutual respect, and he took me to meet members of their Hall of Fame. It was an unbelievable experience.
Then came the weigh in. I was required to strip down, completely, to make weight. It’s a ritual and tradition there, so it did little to phase me. By then I was already used to the Thai way of life anyway. Whatever they were willing to do, I was willing to do.
I was 100-percent ready, and down to 147 pounds. I had been training the whole time, my body had never been so ready, my shins were healed, and everything was solid. Still, I was in a foreign country where everybody came to see me lose.
When I finally got a look at my opponent, he looked like the Terminator. I just figured I was being fed to the wolves, and fight stress started to sink in. Then, just like that, I got an adrenaline rush. If I think about it, I can still close my eyes and smell the Thai oil, and feel the atmosphere, all the screaming people, and all the craziness. It was intense, probably the most intense thing I’ve ever been through, and a highlight of my life.
The fight ended up being really short. I knocked my opponent out in less than a minute. At the end of the fight, a ton of people came up to me and congratulated me. No one was expecting an American to win in Lumpinee, no one except me, Apidej, and the Thai boys.
Eight weeks later, my year in Bangplee came to a close. The ride to the airport to go back home was very emotional, everyone from the camp came, it was a royal send off.
In the years that have passed, I’ve helped a ton of guys get over to Thailand, although I have not been back myself. All the trainers that were there when I was there are still around, except Apidej, who passed away in 2013.
Still, he continues to be a big part of the person I am; his belief in me is one of the greatest honors in my life, and my win at Lumpinee was solely his doing.