Comparisons between fighters and other sporting greats can be a fraught move, as with UFC commentator Michael Goldberg’s infamous comparing of Travis Lutter’s jiu jitsu skills to basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Such comparisons are apt, though, when it comes to Saenchai. There is not a Muay Thai fan, pundit, fighter or trainer in the world who would, or could, attempt to say that he is overrated or that his reputation is undeserved.
Muay Thai is a niche sport in the west so it will undoubtedly be the case that a lot of MMA fans, and even some kickboxing fans, won’t know who Saenchai is. So a few more comparisons are appropriate in order to give some illustration of where his skill level and reputation lies in his particular discipline.
His speed and reflexes are simply incredible. Coupled with his computer-like sense of distance and timing, they have made him extremely difficult to hit. Here you can indeed compare him to Floyd Mayweather Jr, and comparisons with Muhammad Ali are not inappropriate either. Saenchai is one of those fighters who evades blow after blow in seemingly impossible fashion, then punishes the opponent with a counterattack.
Another of his key skills is his ability to completely misdirect the opponent. Misdirection is a huge advantage in any sport; NFL coaches obsess over it and soccer players like Lionel Messi are so good at it they make their opponents look like amateurs. Saenchai is on that same level, feinting to send the opponent one way then attacking in the space created, or faking a defensive error to draw an attack out and then counter-attacking heavily.
In the boxing world, fighters are lionized for moving up a few pounds in weight for a fight or two. Conor McGregor was recently on the point of being canonized by his fans for fighting Nate Diaz at welterweight. Consider then that Saenchai has spent almost his entire career giving up weight.
Against Thai opponents, trained from their infant years like him, he generally gives up two or three pounds. Against “farang” (foreigners) who have nothing like the amount of training of the average Thai fighter, he happily concedes as much as 15 pounds. In his entire career he has almost never had an opponent of equal or lesser weight, yet he keeps winning and winning.
His opponents have not been of the handpicked second-tier variety either. He holds the distinction of having held four Lumpinee Stadium championship titles in his Muay Thai career, each of them at a different weight. In the hotly-contested world of Muay Thai in Thailand, that is an incredible feat – Lumpinee is the sport’s most venerable stadium and functions both as an arena and a sort of league. Getting the Lumpinee call-up is like getting the UFC call-up.
News of Saenchai’s signing with GLORY has been warmly received by kickboxing fans. The featherweight division is thin but talented; a fight with champion Serhiy Adamchuk or former champion Gabriel Varga would be very interesting. But there are caveats: Saenchai is 35, his speed a touch less than it was, and the transition to GLORY rules (no clinch, no elbow, no catch-and-sweep, three rounds instead of five) has caught other Muay Thai fighters out in the past.
That said, it must be noted that another of Saenchai’s most remarkable points is that he has spent two decades fighting at the top level, and is by no means faded. Muay Thai careers generally end in the fighter’s mid-20s, most of them turning professional in their mid-teens, yet Saenchai’s uncanny ability to evade damage has allowed him to remain consistent and competitive.
In Amsterdam he is matched with Eddy Nait-Slimani, a French national and also a Muay Thai stylist at heart. Slimani made a very impressive debut on the GLORY 28 Paris card earlier this year, outclassing the stoic Maykol Yurk of Brazil and showcasing an impressive array of tricks and kicks as he did so.
It’s a good match-up. Nait-Slimani is no walkover – he has ambitions towards the GLORY featherweight title – but his Muay Thai base plays into Saenchai’s hands somewhat; he will have a hard time out-tricking the master trickster. At the same time, he is not one of those European opponents who will be overawed by the name in front of him and simply roll over; Nait-Slimani will be looking for the win and that will make Saenchai click up out of cruise control.
It should be a good fight, although Saenchai is going to have to be careful that nearly thirty years of training for Muay Thai (he started at age eight) don’t lead him to repeatedly violate the rules, for instance by catching kicks and sweeping the standing leg.
Assuming both fighters bring out the best in each other there should be some highlight-reel moments, including the infamous ‘Cartwheel Kick’ which Saenchai is credited with inventing. Regular UFC watchers may remember seeing Alan Jouban deploy it against Matt Dwyer last year; afterwards he credited the move to watching Saenchai and urged fans to do the same.
GLORY 31 Amsterdam takes place Saturday, June 25 at the Rai Amsterdam, the same venue which hosted December’s GLORY debut in the city. The numbered card is headlined by Robin van Roosmalen defending the lightweight title in rematch with another Thai standout, Sittichai, and airs live in the US on ESPN3 and on ESPN2 via tape-delay.
Saenchai’s fight with Nait-Slimani takes place on the ‘Superfight Series’ card, which precedes the numbered card and airs live and exclusive worldwide on UFC Fight Pass. That card is headlined by a fight for the vacant interim light-heavyweight championship between Zack Mwekassa and Mourad Bouzidi after champion Artem Vakhitov pulled out of his fight with Bouzidi due to injury. He is expected to return around October.
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