Sam-A Gaiyanghadao was born into poverty, but his hard work and dedication to Muay Thai from the age of 9 ensured his family will live a prosperous life.
Now 36 and the ONE Strawweight Kickboxing and Muay Thai World Champion, he has secured his status as one of the greatest martial artists of all time, but he is not done yet.
This is how the Thai hero transformed his fortunes and became an icon for millions of fans around the world.
A Simple Life In Rural Thailand
Sam-A was born into a simple life in Buriram, Thailand, where he lived with his older brother, younger sister, mother, and father.
“As a child, my life was difficult for me and my family because we just lived in a wooden stilt house,” he says.
“There wasn’t even a proper door or anything like that. We didn’t have rooms, just a divider. My parents sleep on one side, and us three kids on the other side under a mosquito net.”
Though he admits he could be a difficult child and cause trouble at home and at school, Sam-A had a big heart and recognized the efforts his parents made to put food on the table.
They could not afford anything other than bicycles to travel to their jobs at the sawmill for days of exhausting labor for little pay, so he and his siblings tried to make life easier for them.
“We would divide the chores amongst ourselves to help so that when my parents came home it would be easy for them,” he says.
For a while, this was the only life he knew, so he believed he was destined to follow in their footsteps.
“I was just a small child, I didn’t think it was possible to make money,” he adds.
Discovering Muay Thai
When he was 9, Sam-A discovered an outlet that could change his life – Muay Thai – though he did not know what kind of an impact it could have on him at first.
His first brush with the sport came at local fair. He was so excited to see the bouts in the weeks leading up to the event, he filled a bag with rice husks and hung it from a mango tree to create his own heavy bag and practice while he waited to see the action.
Two weeks later, Sam-A watched on in awe, and then had no fear about competing when the promoter asked for volunteers.
“The promoter was actually my uncle, and told me I needed to ask my parents first,” Sam-A continues.
“I was so excited. I ran from the match-ups directly home. It was over a kilometer. I went to tell my parents. They were working at the time. I asked them if I could fight and they said no. I started crying and throwing things around. My parents gave in and let me fight.”
Sam-A admits he did not really know what he was doing, but he had a lot of heart and won his match. He won another soon after, during which a referee noticed his potential and recommended he compete again in the next village.
This time, his lack of knowledge caught up with him and he lost. However, by now, his passion was clear, so his mother and father got behind him and put him on the path to a better future.
“I was so upset, I was crying and wouldn’t talk to anyone,” Sam-A says.
“It was then that my parents made the decision to support me, and helped find a trainer for me. I started training again, and had a trainer there to help me for about a month. I fought about six times. I started to become known locally. As I started to learn about Muay Thai, I realized that I could make a career of it and take care of my family also.”
Ups And Downs
Sam-A was dedicated to his training and soon earned the chance to move to Bangkok and test himself at the world’s most famous venues for “the art of eight limbs.”
Though he had plenty of experience, he admits his debut at Rajadamnern Stadium made him uneasy, but he soon found his feet and started to become a star.
“I was just so nervous. I couldn’t sleep at all. It was my first time competing in a big stadium,” he recalls.
“I just kept training and fighting. I started to win and made a name for myself. People started to know who I was. I was happy but it was strange for me too. Wherever I went, people knew who I was. It gave me motivation to train, fight, and do my very best.”
Leaving his family behind to live, train and compete in the capital was sometimes hard, and Sam-A went through plenty of ups and downs in his career, but he was dedicated to succeeding and providing for his loved ones.
For more than two decades, he faced the best in the business and built one of the most remarkable records in martial arts history. More than 350 victories helped him to win multiple World Titles and become recognized as one of the best athletes of the modern era.
In 2018, he put the icing on the cake by making history as the first man to win a Muay Thai bout in ONE history, before moving on to win the inaugural ONE Flyweight Muay Thai World Title.
“I was both happy and honored to become the first [ONE Super Series] World Champion,” he says
“I never thought that I would reach this point in my career. Every fighter wants to make it to this point, but it is very difficult.”
A Better Life
Sam-A, who trains at Evolve in Singapore, continued his success and created more history by winning the ONE Strawweight Kickboxing World Title – in his first kickboxing bout, no less – and the ONE Strawweight Muay Thai World Title.
However, he seems most proud of the way he has lifted his family out of poverty.
“Now [my parents] have a comfortable life, they don’t have to work anymore, and get to spend time with their grandchildren,” he says.
“Now my family is very comfortable. They have a house and a car. It is easy for them to get around.
“I’ve been able to set my daughters up with a better future too. My life was difficult, and I don’t want that for them. I’ve created a better life for my daughters, and have created a very strong family… I do everything for them so that they can have a happy, carefree life. They are my anchor. It is okay for me to be tired, as long as it is for them.”
Though he has achieved success beyond his dreams and competed for more than a quarter of a century, Sam-A shows no sign of slowing down, even at the age of 36.
His motivation to train hard and compete against the best is as strong as ever, and he believes he still has more to show fans.
“I’ve been fighting for a very long time now, and have competed a lot, but I have never stopped training, or learning new techniques,” he says.
“Muay Thai doesn’t have a highest peak. I can’t stop, and must continue to be a student because Muay Thai as a martial art doesn’t have an end.”