Nong-O Gaiyanghadao was born into extreme poverty in rural Thailand, but by dedicating his life to Muay Thai he became a martial arts legend and secured his family’s future.
Today, the 33-year-old is the ONE Bantamweight Muay Thai World Champion, revered around the world for his incredible success and peerless skills, but also his humility and integrity that makes him a role model and inspiration to people from all walks of life.
This is his incredible story of emerging from nothing to achieve unparalleled success in “the art of eight limbs.”
Growing Up In Thailand
Nong-O grew up in a small village in the countryside of Sakon Nakhon province with his two older sisters and their parents who were orchard farmers.
The family was happy, but lived “hand-to-mouth.” His mother and father later moved to Bangkok to work in construction so they could make enough money to send home to feed their children and pay for their education. That meant they only saw their son and his siblings – who were sent to live with their grandmother – once a year.
“It was tough back then,” Nong-O says.
“When I was young, we were poor. We planted vegetables and ate eggs almost every day. My parents were working in Bangkok. They sent money home monthly but some months it wasn’t enough.”
Though Nong-O says his circumstances did not upset him too much and helped him to become independent from an early age, he missed his parents and longed for a future where he could earn enough money to provide for his entire family.
Luckily he did not have to look far to find an outlet that would allow him to do just that.
Discovering Muay Thai
When he was about 10, Nong-O was intrigued by a neighbor who trained at a simple Muay Thai gym in the village.
He asked the young Thai if he would like to try kicking and punching the heavy bag, and though he took some persuading, he started to practice with his friends.
Despite limited facilities, Nong-O was in the perfect environment to hone his skills. After little more than a month, he booked his first bout and thrived in the ring.
“At first, I didn’t like boxing,” Nong-O admits.
“However, I made money from it that helped to improve my financial status, and I kept doing it.”
Nong-O made just 100 baht (about USD$3.20) for winning, then returned to the ring the next night to win again and pocket another cash prize.
He gave all the money to his grandmother, but his parents had no idea what he was doing because he thought it would be hard for them to accept his decision. However, he eventually revealed his secret, and when they saw his potential, they encouraged him to continue.
“I already had 10 matches before they found out,” he explains.
“They were scared to watch me box, but I still kept [going] and gave them money. After 20 matches, they decided to fully support me.”
A Lonely Life In Bangkok
Juggling his school life with Muay Thai was hard. He practiced martial arts in the morning, so he was exhausted in class in the afternoon.
Luckily for Nong-O, his teachers and classmates were supportive of his budding career. The school gave him a special pass that allowed him to juggle his training and education, and he remembers a time when his friends huddled up in front of his seat in class to stop the teacher from noticing that he was asleep.
By the time he was 14, he had grown out of competing at the temple fairs in his region and moved to Bangkok for bigger and better opportunities. His talents meant he was a star addition to his new team, but as a country boy, he was out of his element in the Thai capital and had a hard time adjusting, at first.
“My first trainer and my parents brought me there,” he says.
“When my parents went back, I cried because I had never been away from my parents. When they were away I was with my grandmother, but this time, it was with new people and they were all strangers.
“But after I finished crying, I got stronger. I had to go on. I had a goal.”
Nong-O had a few low points in Bangkok, but for the most part, his was a story of success. At the age of 15, he had his first big match at the iconic Rajadamnern Stadium and won by decision.
From then on, he crafted a legendary career by winning more than 250 bouts, Lumpinee Stadium Muay Thai World Titles in four divisions, a Rajadamnern Stadium Muay Thai World Title, and the prestigious Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter Of The Year award.
The Rise Of A Legend
Through his success, Nong-O brought his family out of poverty and earned recognition from around the world for his incredible ability in the ring. When he retired in 2015, his status as one of his sport’s modern greats was secure.
However, his story of martial arts excellence did not end there. Not long after he moved to Singapore to teach at the Evolve gym, ONE Championship launched ONE Super Series to showcase the best kickboxing and Muay Thai athletes in the world.
Nong-O’s desire to compete had never left him, so he jumped at the chance to help launch a new era on the global stage in April 2018.
He has not looked back since then. The 33-year-old has been the most dominant athlete in ONE Super Series with wins in all of his matches and more wins in World Title matches than any other competitor. His continued success has also further secured his family’s future and won millions of new fans around the world.
Now, retirement is a distant memory and Nong-O is looking forward to a long reign on the global stage, which he hopes to use to inspire people far and wide to discover what they can achieve by embracing the mentality he has gained from his beloved sport.
“If we want to do something we should expect the utmost result,” he says.
“If you want to look up to me as an example, I am patient, determined, and I am a hard worker. Even I feel discouraged sometimes, I never give up and keep doing whatever is taking me to my goal. It could enhance the living condition of my family, so I must fight and be patient.
“Muay Thai has taught me about life. When you fail, do not think that you will always fail. Whenever you fail, think that you your day will come. You must try and keep fighting. Do you best because Muay Thai teaches you to be tough.
“It gives you strength, makes you a fighter. Win or lose, you must keep fighting. If not for Muay Thai, I would not be sitting here. I wouldn’t be here today.”