Fancy a fight with Chael Sonnen? The moment that forever changed fearless Hong Kong Shaun’s life
The 23-year-old Hongkonger reflects on the night he made a name for himself in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and how he strives for greatness
Without an opponent on the eve of last year’s Oregon Open Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Shaun Kiatvongcharoen was expecting a quiet night.
“Hong Kong Shaun”, as he is known, had signed up for the elite category despite being a purple belt, and unfortunately for him, nobody had joined the same class.
Then came a life-changing phone call from the event organisers.
“They said, ‘Hey, Chael Sonnen and Fabiano Scherner are two weight classes above you but I can put you in a bracket with them – are you interested?’” recalled Kiatvongcharoen.
That’s right – Chael Sonnen.
The man who talked his way into fighting the legendary Anderson Silva in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and held pay-per-view records only Conor McGregor would eventually break.
The 40-year-old purple belt surely wasn’t expecting to meet his match in a 23-year-old Hongkonger.
“I thought, ‘Wow, am I really going to fight Chael Sonnen?’ before saying, ‘Screw it, sure’,” said Kiatvongcharoen. “I never back away from competition; I take every opportunity.”
With the American up first, Kiatvongcharoen put Sonnen in a kimura – a double joint arm lock – and swept him on top.
“Everyone stopped to see; all eyes were on us,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m never going to let go’.”
Kiatvongcharoen went on to win via points (6-0) in front of an astonished crowd, though he came back down to earth with a quick loss to Scherner – a third degree black belt, multiple world jiu-jitsu champion and Sonnen’s professor.
“One of my teammates said Chael told Fabiano he didn’t expect me to be that tough,” said Kiatvongcharoen. “It’s funny because that’s exactly how I felt grappling against Chael.
“I am still somewhat in disbelief … just thinking about it gives me chills. I’ll remember that day forever.”
Hong Kong Shaun instantly became the toast of the jiu-jitsu community on social media.
His professor, Michael Chapman, rewarded him with a teaching job at the gym he trains out of, Impact Jiu Jitsu.
An impressed Sonnen even invited Kiatvongcharoen to compete in his fledgling grappling event, Submission Underground (SUG).
Headlined by UFC megastars Jon Jones and Dan Henderson, the second instalment, SUG 2, was a sell-out.
With raised expectations and under increased scrutiny, Hong Kong Shaun landed another mismatch against black belt Joe Baize – but, again, he wasn’t fazed.
“I was supposed to fight a purple belt initially,” Kiatvongcharoen said. “He made this little excuse about a tweaked leg but I saw him walking fine that day. I think he ducked on me because he knew what was up.
“They gave me [Baize] and I didn’t think about it too much because it was my first main card opportunity.
“I would never turn down an opportunity just because someone might beat me – it’s all or nothing.”
He went on to lose to Baize by leg lock but established himself as a Submission Underground mainstay.
“If I’m consistent with my wins, the events manager is always asking if I’m down,” he said.
Now a brown belt, Kiatvongcharoen reflects on where his journey began.
“I was doing a bunch of sports at school,” said the former Sha Tin College student. “I was also in the Hong Kong junior triathlon team – that definitely helped my cardio.
“This was at a time where UFC was getting pretty big, so one day my buddy and I discussed which martial art would be the most effective of them all.”
They agreed on jiu-jitsu and signed up for a class at Kowloon BJJ – where they studied under black belt Takizawa Keisuke.
“That was probably the best thing to happen for us,” said Kiatvongcharoen. “Taki was definitely my role model in jiu-jitsu. He showed me all the basics – I still use some of his movements today.
“He said I was pretty talented because I picked up on things really fast. I’m able to adapt quickly – doing other sports like basketball helped.”
After 18 years in the city, Kiatvongcharoen flew to Los Angeles, California and acquired his blue belt from Sammy Garcia, a black belt who used to train with MMA legend Ronda Rousey.
He then moved to Portland, Oregon in 2013 and won the Pan-American Championship blue belt category one year later.
“That made me realise I could go far in the sport,” said Kiatvongcharoen, who got his purple belt soon after.
But what did his Chinese-Thai father and Japanese mother think of their nomadic son’s career path?
“My parents are traditional,” he said. “They support me but just don’t see it as a career. Their mindset was – and is – that I have to find a corporate career … that 9 to 5 life.
“I don’t think they’ll ever fully understand, but I can always look back in life and say I pursued something that I always wanted to do. I definitely see opportunities in jiu-jitsu.”
Hong Kong Shaun picked up his nickname early in his Impact days thanks to teammate and black belt Andrew Wong, who needed a way to distinguish his new gym partner from the various other Shauns or Seans.
The name now acts as a constant reminder for Kiatvongcharoen, amid his increasing overseas success, of his hometown roots.
“It’s funny. I grew up in Hong Kong but I’m an international kid,” he said. “I think everywhere is my home now, but the nickname stuck; even the SUG announcer introduces me as Hong Kong Shaun.”
He now trains six days a week and aims to compete full-time next year, and is expected to receive his black belt in two to three years.
It all goes back to that fearless attitude he took to the mat against Sonnen.
“I had a lot of role models when I was a white belt, but kids my age are competing against the people I used to look up to,” he said.
“It puts things into perspective; why look up to them when you could beat them one day?
“I will be a world champion and there’s nothing stopping me from achieving it. The world is yours. Jiu-jitsu every day.”