Inside the KiatKreerin Gym
Melodic birdsong echoes across the rafters of the KiatKreerin Gym. It’s unbearably hot on this particular Sunday morning in the Bangkok district of Samphanthawong. The shade of the gym roof offers a brief respite from the unrelenting Thai sun and inadequate protection from the passing mosquito that takes two hearty chunks out of my left arm en route to its next mealtime.
These premises are home to undefeated IBF flyweight champion Amnat Ruenroeng, the wily nemesis of so many in the 112lbs division, and residence to a number of aspiring fighters, many like Amnat former prisoners who have turned their lives around under the direction of promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang and his KiatKreerin Promotions banner. The gym is also the workplace of unsung British trainer Rian Munton who is introducing a stable of fighters steeped in the wars of Muay Thai to the finer elements of boxing.
“It’s hot. The weight just drops off you. The Thais cope with it because they are acclimatised to it," Munton, 41, told Boxing Monthly in reference to the stifling heat in the gym. “I do a lot of pad work but sometimes I go back to my room and I’ve just had it, I’m shattered. They have a big fan but in way it’s good - it helps the fighters get the weight off.”
Former Woking ABC product Munton’s path here is an improbable one. “I’d been over in Thailand on holiday and watched boxing here on TV and was surprised how limited they were,” said Munton who emigrated to Australia in 2004 where he coached amateurs and fledgling pros in Sydney. “Hands up, walking forward, aggression, no head movement, they weren’t blocking shots. It was Muay Thai without the kicks.
“So when I was back in Australia, I emailed a few promoters. I was going to take three months off work and volunteer. Most promoters said no. Jimmy had put an advertisement in a newspaper saying any young guy who wants to box, come to the gym; you will be fed, you will be trained, you can sleep here and, if you develop and you are hungry and you are good enough, we’ll get behind you.
“Jimmy emailed me back straight away, ‘That’s fantastic when can you come?’ So I came to Bangkok. I was thrown in the deep end but it was great. I started training the amateurs and, after a week, Jimmy said I want you training the pros. After my second month, Jimmy said I don’t want you to go home so I stayed. It was just through one email.”
After two years, Munton left Bangkok due to family responsibilities, but returned in late 2015 to train many of the gym’s principal fighters. The Brit now coaches leading 105lbs contender Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr, former Olympic Gold medallist Manus Boonjumnong, 140lbs toughman Patomsuk Pathompothong as well as world-rated super-bantamweight Mike Tawatchai.
“When Fahlan Jr first came to the gym, he was 16, 17 years old and just mucking around,” said Munton. “I didn’t know who he was so I took him on the pads and he picked it up very quickly. I’m thinking, ‘Who is this kid?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, his father was a good fighter but he just mucks around.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Get hold of him. This kid has got something.’
“His father [former IBF strawweight champion Fahlan Sr] was a very tough, fighter type whereas Fahlan Jr is almost the polar opposite. He is quick, he is agile, he comes in and out. He uses his jab more where his dad wasn’t as athletic and gifted. His dad was more of a blaster, though he had a few tricks. Fahlan Jr can punch. If you took him on the pads you’d be surprised how hard he hits. I’ve told him when you start setting your shots up you are going to be knocking guys out left, right and centre.
“I was upset by his loss against [then IBF champion] Katsunari Takayama [LDT9, in April 2015 – Munton wasn’t in the corner]. I know how he can box and perform. That first round I told him you took and held centre ring – that is where you had success. But as the fight progressed you let him back you up. You are sitting on the ropes, and okay you are blocking a lot of these shots, but the judges are seeing you on the ropes and this guy whaling away. I said you can’t do that in a world title fight in his hometown.”
The KiatKreerin fighters stop work to converse with the visiting farang (the Thai word for foreigner) who has by this point turned a shade best described as lobster red. Fahlan Jr fidgets like a teenager with his feet up on a gym stool prompting the physically imposing Patomsuk to take a gym towel and tie his legs to the bottom of the chair. A chastised Fahlan Jr deferentially obeys the senior fighter.
“Many people tell me my father was a great boxer and I can become one, too. It motivates me to succeed like my father,” Fahlan Jr (30-4-1, 15 KOs) told BM with promoter Chaichotchuang translating. “I fought for the world title but the preparation time was not good enough for me. I had about six weeks when I knew I would fight Takayama. I didn’t have the right trainer. I fought with heart. I felt I lacked control over my weight, technique, but I am now confident because I fight with Rian again.”
“In beginning he was not a good student or kid,” added promoter Chaichotchuang. “His father said, ‘Jimmy please take him to the gym’ because he was worried Fahlan Jr was hanging around with people who are no good and would lead him to bad things. I thought ‘okay, I’ll bring him to the gym’ but not that he would become a boxer. Just leave a bad environment with bad friends, but when he became a boxer he realised he loved it. He knows that his father is [well regarded] and wants to join him as a champ.”
The emerging star of the stable will be familiar with aficionados of amateur boxing. Former Olympic gold and silver medallist Manus Boonjumnong is also owner of one of boxing’s best nicknames - ‘Repentance Playboy’ - after allegedly spending $600,000 on drinking, gambling and ‘entertaining women’ - what some might call money well spent.
Manus told BM that this reputation was unjustified to the obvious amusement of his gym mates. “I became really famous and many women liked me,” said Manus, 35. “I only had one girlfriend at a time yet, when I changed my girlfriend, the media thought I was a playboy. Because I am famous many girls want to come to me, but I only have one girlfriend. Sometimes I change to a new girlfriend. That is why the media think I am a playboy with many girls. I spent a lot of money, but I also gave a lot to my family and to my ex-girlfriend who had a kid. I bought many things for them.”
The pro game has brought Manus a new hunger and promoter Chaichotchuang believes he can follow the Amnat blueprint and contest a world title in 2017 due to his Olympic pedigree and high standing in the Asian boxing scene (though these hopes were derailed, at least temporarily, by a fifth round loss to unbeaten Ryan Ford yesterday).
“When I started to box professionally, I felt like a new person because amateur and pro boxing are so different,” Manus (5-1, 3 KOs) told BM. “I didn’t think about my background in the Olympics because the [style of] boxing is new. It is thrilling to make a new career as a pro boxer and I will dedicate myself. Many people have told me that I am old to come back, but it is a new thing for me and I want to challenge myself. I want to be successful and become a world champion.”
Munton remains cautiously hopeful about the prospects of the former Olympic standout who retains a glittering star quality in his native land. “He lacks a bit of height [5ft 10ins, not the 5ft 8ins stated on BoxRec] and has got a way to go,” Munton told BM. “He is hitting me on the pads and showing something even at his age. He has got a very good eye. Manus was out for a long time and heavy at 100 kilos. He is down to 81, 82 kilos. Jimmy is smart and keeping him busy. For a Thai, Manus is big. He’s quick even though he is carrying weight. Once he drops it he will become more reactive. He has great talent.
“It’s like walking around with David Beckham. It’s ridiculous. The Thais see him as a national hero with his elevated status but also that he is flawed and they can identify with that. Even though he has that status, he is always on time, always smiles. He is a big star here but a very nice and respectful guy.”
Promoter Chaichotchuang added: “In his first pro fight, Manus fought with his old style but for the second fight he trained with Rian and it worked out very good. Manus has done a lot of things in boxing so it is hard for a trainer. If you don’t know more than him, you can’t control him. I had a Filipino trainer but they are all about stamina not technique. Boxers like Amnat and Manus know everything about boxing – they are like the Bible but they want to learn something new. It is important to have the new techniques from Rian.”
There is very much a second chance aspect to this gym with Amnat, Patomsuk and Patomsith Pathompothong, all former inmates of the notoriously tough Thai prison system. “Patomsuk [31-4-1 and 1ND, 19 KOs] was in jail for a long time,” said Munton. “He started boxing pro when he came out. I got hold of him when he had about three or four fights and he was quite crude. But he works and trains hard. He is a rough, tough guy. He has a backstory. Yeah, [boxing] is a saviour. Patomsuk was a very serious criminal, a heavy guy. If you said to him, you’re going to come out of jail, fight in Japan, Macao, Australia, it is just fantasy. What chance would he have got to go these countries and see these places? No chance.”
Another former inmate Patomsith (15-5, 5 KOs) is IBF Pan Pacific featherweight champion and ranked IBF No:14: “Amnat came from the poor, from zero, and worked very hard to become the best boxer in Thailand and one of the best fighters in the world. This makes him an inspiration,” the smiling Patomsith told BM. “Amnat is a great example for me because he came from jail to be a success. I can’t be the same level because he is a really good boxer, but I will try to reach for the same achievements. If I work as hard as Amnat, I believe I can succeed, too.”
A respectful kid who looks about 20 years old spots my dehydration and hands me a welcome drink – it transpires this is Nontachai Sakkreerin, the latest recruit off the KiatKreerin production line.
“This kid is only 15 year old. He’s a lightweight. He looks like a man, but he only just turned 15,” Munton told BM. “Very strong. He’s going to be a big guy. He is like a man-child. But he eats a lot, he can’t stop eating.”
“When he came here he was very small. If you see photos he was smaller than Fahlan Jr,” added Chaichotchuang.
“I like boxing. I’m not very good in studies so that’s why I box,” Nontachai told BM. “I come from the same hometown as Amnat. I saw his success so that’s why I want to learn boxing. I don’t want to go to school. Amnat is my inspiration because he made it from the same hometown.”
And this is the essence of boxing in Thailand and the legacy of Amnat – a hope for a better future from improbable beginnings through a sport that offers second chances. Maybe, just maybe, Nontachai will be a name to remember, too.