Long road to glory – The Amnat Ruenroeng story
Many of the best stories are about redemption. The fulfillment of a distant dream when chances are few and all hope seems lost. Not many lives have undergone the radical transformation of Thailand’s current IBF flyweight champion and former convict Amnat Ruenroeng. His story seemed destined for sadness until boxing took him down an unlikely path to salvation and ultimately glory.
The skillful Thai has emerged from a troubled past including three stints in jail and a struggle with drug addiction to become his proud nation’s only reigning world champion (the wonderfully named Knockout CP Freshmart holds the lesser WBA interim 105lbs title). Clever, unorthodox and blessed with lightning fast hands, Ruenroeng, 14-0 (5 KOs), enjoyed a breakout 2014, defeating OPBF champion Rocky Fuentes to win the vacant IBF crown, upsetting unbeaten two-weight champion Kazuto Ioka in Japan and rising from the canvas to repel dangerous mandatory challenger McWilliams Arroyo.
But the road to glory was not an easy one. Abandoned by his biological mother in hospital shortly after his birth, Ruenroeng was denied Thai citizenship (and therefore schooling) because of his exotic ‘African’ looks (his mother finally confirmed his heritage at 15 allowing him to become a bona fide citizen). The fighter from Sri Racha, Chonburi Province, shouldered this early adversity and limited prospects to become a Muay Thai champion at the Lumpini Stadium (described as Bangkok’s Madison Square Garden) before succumbing to the demons of drug addiction.
Crushed in the grip of poverty and drugs, Ruenroeng was sentenced to fifteen years’ hard time in Thonburi prison following the desperate, armed robbery of a tourist in 2006. Thoughts of winning world title fights in front of his adoring countrymen and conquering a noted champion in Japan would have seemed pure fantasy for Ruenroeng at this point. Then came a glimmer of hope amid the darkness. Ruenroeng took advantage of an innovative boxing programme behind bars and excelled in his new discipline. His rise was sudden and meteoric. In 2007, the prisoner represented the Thai Corrections Department and won gold in his country’s national championships.
“I did not see any opportunity to become a world champion when I was in jail, but I was very lucky,” Ruenroeng told Boxing Monthly over the phone from KiatKreerin Promotions’s headquarters in Bangkok (his promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang providing the translation). “At the time, there was an amateur boxing competition in prison. I won the tournament and represented the jail in a national competition. Suddenly, the Thai amateur team knew how good I was at boxing. I had a hard time when I was a kid. Boxing helped give me an opportunity in life and it also gave me a future. But I do not think about my past any more. I will only do good things now.”
This improbable success, allied with good behaviour and contrition, secured the rejuvenated Ruenroeng an early release from prison. He was immediately called up to Thailand’s amateur team for the 2007 King’s Cup and, as a late substitute in his first international bout, he astonishingly defeated reigning world amateur champion Zou Shiming. Intriguingly, Ruenroeng could now meet his old nemesis in a big money fight in the ‘Asian Vegas’ of Macao where Zou is a major draw.
“Zou has become a very good boxer as a professional,” said Ruenroeng, who was introduced in the ring with his IBF title belt after his old rival’s fourth pro fight in February. “I want to defend my world title against him because we fought three times as amateurs and developed a rivalry. I won once and lost twice [including a controversial reverse at the 2010 Asian Games final]. Shiming has very fast movement.”
A bronze medal in the Chicago 2007 World Amateur Championships at light-flyweight earned the Thai a berth in the Beijing Olympics and the following year Ruenroeng proudly represented his nation in the 2008 Olympiad where he lost narrowly in the quarter-finals to eventual silver medallist and future world amateur champion Purevdorjiin Serdamba of Mongolia. After missing out on a spot in the 2012 games, Ruenroeng opted to turn pro late at 32 years old – within two years he was the unlikeliest of world champions winning the vacant IBF title against Filipino Fuentes in Thailand in January.
“Amnat has a great style of boxing and he is my first world champion,” promoter Chaichotchuang told BM. “Thai boxing fans really want to see him fight. Amnat is very popular in Thailand. But our major sport is soccer, women’s volleyball then boxing. When I saw Amnat fight as an amateur, I saw his talent and potential and believed he would become world champion.”
In a proud fighting nation noted for many fine fighters in the lighter weights, including the legendary WBA 118lbs champion Khaosai Galaxy (who retired with his title intact after 19 successful defences), Ruenroeng stands alone as the country’s only reigning world champion.
“The championship belt is important to me and my country,” admitted Ruenroeng. “I am the only world champion in Thailand at this moment and I feel very proud to be an IBF title-holder. I was so excited to defend my title against Arroyo in front of my fans. But my dream is to become the undisputed flyweight champion of the world. I was already a Muay Thai champion [fighting as Bangsaen Por Burapa] before I went to the Olympics and became a boxing world champion. Muay Thai is the harder sport because you use the entire body as a weapon. Boxing is much easier using only two hands.”
Touted Puerto Rican Arroyo floored Ruenroeng in the sixth in their fiercely contested September bout at the Liptapanlop Hall in Nakhon Ratchasima, but the Thai is no stranger to adversity and was in no mood to relinquish his title. Arroyo’s camp protested that referee Pat Russell allowed the home fighter to spoil in the second half of the fight and subsequently petitioned the IBF for a rematch.
“Arroyo was a power puncher as I expected, but I did not feel his punch when I was knocked down,” said Ruenroeng. “It is a game of boxing and I am a good boxer. I fought like Floyd Mayweather against Marcos Maidana. The referee could not deduct a point from me because I was trying the best in the ring to win the fight. I have good boxing skills and movement. I feel I can control my opponent in the ring.”
“I believe the referee should not take any points away because Amnat did the right thing and fought within the rules,” added promoter Chaichotchuang, who outbid Arroyo’s more established promoter Golden Boy with a $202,000 purse bid to secure home advantage and preserve a lucrative defence against Chinese superstar Zou. “However, the IBF will investigate the truth and I accept all outcomes.”
The 34-year-old champion was also a significant underdog when he travelled to Japan to fight the decorated Ioka, a former WBA junior flyweight and WBA/WBC minimumweight world champion. Yet the unheralded Thai outboxed one of the finest fighters in lower weights over the last few years before settling for a split decision.
“Yes, I wondered if I would get the decision, but I thought I won the fight clearly,” said the rangy Ruenroeng, who humbly does not consider himself the number one flyweight yet in the division. “Ioka is superstar in Japan, just like Arroyo is a superstar in Puerto Rico. Both are great boxers. Only if I beat [WBC champion] Roman Gonzalez and [WBA/WBO champion] Juan Francisco Estrada can I be considered the best boxer in this division. Both Gonzalez and Estrada are great champions and I really want to fight them.”
With a troubled past behind him and a hard-earned world title in his possession, Ruenroeng can look forward to a far brighter future. “Now I enjoy spending time with my family,” said the married Thai, whose six-year-old son Nattapol is poignantly nicknamed ‘World’ (all Thais have a short nickname as well as their birth name). “But I tell my son about the hard times in my past. I want him to be a good person.”