Eaktawan plans Viking raid
Named after his sponsor, a Thai fertiliser company with a Viking longboat as its logo, Eaktawan BTU Ruaviking is aiming to plunder the IBF flyweight title from Donnie Nietes this weekend. On a break from training he spoke to Mark Butcher...
Thai promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang is aiming for a unique treble when his rugged flyweight contender Eaktawan BTU Ruaviking contests the vacant IBF crown against Filipino maestro Donnie Nietes in Cebu City on 29 April. Chaichotchuang has already masterminded upset world title wins on the road in Japan and Macao with the uncompromising Amnat Ruenroeng and hopes ‘Thai Viking’ Eaktawan can conquer another local hero in the Philippines.
The 44-year-old is something of an innovator on the Thai boxing scene, having started promoting at 23 before working with Don King in America and later initiating the ‘Zero to Hero’ programme which recruited aspiring Thai boxers (including Amnat) via a newspaper advert with the promise of food, board and potential glory if they had the talent to match their dedication.
“I feel if a Thai boxer fights overseas they have more focus,” Chaichotchuang told BM on a recent visit to his Kiatkreerin Gym on the outskirts of Bangkok. “In Thailand, they always think they will win and it’s easy, but when they box abroad they work double time. Other Thai champions don’t travel overseas. They try to keep the title in Thailand and their promoters protect them but we know if we win and return our fighters will be higher profile. Yes, it’s very hard to win in the Philippines. We know that, but Eaktawan is coming 100% for the knockout.”
The accomplished Nietes, however, last tasted defeat in September 2004 and has not lost in 14 world title fights (one draw) in twin reigns as the WBO’s champion at 105lbs and 108lbs. Eaktawan’s British trainer Rian Munton, who has added a dose of Western boxing philosophy to the usually insular Thai fight scene, is acutely aware of the task ahead yet remains cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a massive test,” Munton told BM as we chatted by the ring in the baking hot Kiatkreerin Gym. “Eaktawan knows it. He’s quiet but hungry and very ambitious. I keep saying to him, ‘If you stand off, you’re not going to beat Nietes. He’s older, make him work, make him use his legs.’
“Nietes might just get old overnight. He can box, he can fight, he can go backwards and forwards. He’s got a bit of power. He’s really, really good, but he’s almost 35 and Eaktawan is a very strong fighter and he hits hard. He’s got a good engine, good work-rate and that’s what you want against the older guy. It could be [a case of] timing.
“Eaktawan hits so hard to the body,” continued Munton. “Even when I have the bodyshield on – his body punches really hurt. It will be hard against Nietes, but Eaktawan is not fazed. He’s very cool and unflustered. I’m hopeful.“
The fighter himself is quietly spoken and sports the wafer-thin moustache favoured by so many young Thai men (it’s a ‘gangster look’, apparently). After training at Thonburi University gym as part of a sponsorship, Eaktawan left its largely Muay Thai coaching environment to join the Kiatkreerin set-up in 2016 and has since adapted from a rigid, pressure fighter to employ greater mobility and a tighter defence. After another tough training session in stifling heat, Eaktawan sat down with BM to discuss his chances.
“Nietes is a good boxer, but I can beat him,” insisted Eaktawan (22-3, 15 KOs) with promoter Chaichotchuang translating. “I’m coming to win. There is no pressure on me. I’m not worried about fighting in the Philippines. I feel better winning the title abroad. It can make me famous.
“I’ve improved since I’ve arrived in this gym. It’s like a brotherhood here and we all help each other,” he continued. “I used to fight Muay Thai and was a very good fighter in the sport. I had a happy family life, but when I was kid, nine years old, I decided to start Muay Thai. I travelled all over the province to fight and never stayed at home. I was just, ‘fight, fight, fight’. I loved Muay Thai like many kids here.
“It was very difficult to change [sports]. In Muay Thai you become very strong, very tough, but in boxing you have to move quickly. In Muay Thai, you just stand there. So I’m very happy to train with an English coach because he’s taught me new techniques I didn’t know already.”
In his early career under a previous promoter, Eaktawan was matched tough, travelling to the Philippines and Japan for losing assignments against puncher Albert Pagara (now a super-bantam contender) and the rangy Sho Oshida (still unbeaten and currently mandatory contender to WBA 115lbs champ Kal Yafai). The experiences can be filed under the painful but useful category.
“When I fought Pagara, I had only just started boxing and didn’t know much,” confessed Eaktawan, 27. “At the time, I was new to the sport and Pagara was much bigger. But I gained [valuable] lessons and understood what it was like to fight in the Philippines. Maybe the Filipino [camp] will underestimate me, that I’m not good enough. Maybe this is an advantage for me.
“Amnat won the title abroad and it makes me feel I can do [the same],” he continued. “When he returned back he was really famous across Thailand and in the world of boxing. I want to bring that IBF belt back to Thailand and, if I win in the Philippines, I will be very famous, too. It would have a great affect on me. We have a new king and the Thai people will be really happy if they have a new champion, too. I promise I will do my best for them.”
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
An intriguing aspect of the Thai fight scene is its tradition of naming fighters after sponsors. This is essential in a country without a lucrative pay-per-view vehicle and where shows often provide free admission.
Flyweight contender Eaktawan BTU Ruaviking and rising 140lbs hope Downua BTU Ruaviking both bear the name of a Thai fertilizer company which carries a Viking ship on its emblem. Shortly after his impressive blowout of the more experienced Japanese Yuto Marouka in February, rising star Downua (6-0, 4 KOs) posed in the ring with over a dozen advertisers, one after the other, holding company logos – it might seem surreal to the Western eye, but this unusual advertising is essential for the survival of boxing in Thailand.
“In Thailand we need this sponsorship,” Kiatkreerin promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang told BM. “I proposed these two boxers to Viking because I told them they had a future and it would help bring their company a big name like [former WBA 115lbs champion] Khaosai Galaxy. Galaxy is a very rich, top class restaurant company in Thailand.”
These sponsorships are often quite bizarre. Kiatkreerin co-trainer and former pro Fahsai Sakkreerin was, for a time, known as Fahsai Big Cola after a popular carbonated drink. Elsewhere, reigning WBA 105lbs champion Knockout CP Freshmart (born Thammanoon Niyomtrong) has been named after a thriving convenience store and trains at the superbly titled Five Star Chicken Gym (Five Star Chicken kiosks sell a variety of fried poultry products and, like CP Freshmart stores, are part of the omnipresent 7-11 franchise in Thailand).
“It’s boxing in Thailand,” added Chaichotchuang, who also teaches sports management at degree level at Bangkok’s Thonburi University. “If KFC wanted to sponsor our boxing then we would become the KFC Gym! McDonalds Gym, Burger King Gym? No problem!”
The Kiatkreerin Gym was unsuccessful in a previous title tilt in Cebu City last November when Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr dropped a competitive decision to Filipino Milan Melindo with the IBF’s interim 108lbs crown on the line. The Thai team will, therefore, be on familiar territory in a tough city troubled by the drugs and gang culture currently plaguing the Philippines.
“Where Jimmy [Chaichotchuang] and I were staying in Cebu City, every shop, convenience store, café and restaurant had a guy with a gun,” recalled Fahlan’s English trainer Rian Munton. “We were like, wow…that means this place is dangerous. The hotel we stayed at had two guys with guns strapped to their hip. They had guys with shotguns outside the 7-11. It’s crazy. McDonalds, KFC, even hole-in-the-wall cafes had an armed guy [outside]. So when Fahlan was doing roadwork in the morning - I would run with him. I didn’t know if someone was going to push Fahlan over and hurt his legs or something so I ran alongside in the bodyshield just in case.
“The fight was there to be won. It was close,” added Munton. “Fahlan really pushed himself. He got hit and hurt and fired straight back, but if he had done a bit more, he could have taken it. I think he’s kicking himself afterwards, put it that way. Melindo was shocked how hard it was. The [Filipino camp] thought they would bowl him over. They even said at the [pre-fight] presser, ‘He’s getting knocked out’. It wasn’t talk. They believed that. Melindo said afterwards that he was surprised how hard Fahlan hit and how strong he was. It was a good experience but a bitter one. We knew fighting there we would have to knock Melindo out or hammer him for 12 rounds, it wasn’t quite enough, but Fahlan is still young and I think it will have made him a better fighter."