Martial arts

Family feuds far from Tanet ‘Jacky’ Puangngoen’s mind as Muay Thai fighter has unfinished business in Hong Kong

The 29-year-old quit a lucrative coaching job in Hong Kong to return to Thailand against his family’s will and train for two years after devastating loss 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 11:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 9:55pm

Tanet “Jacky” Puangngoen’s journey to being a full-time Muay Thai fighter has almost been tougher outside the ring than in it. 

His mother told him never to return home if he ever signed up for a fight; his culture viewed the sport as low-class and a one-way ticket to brain damage; and his family members still plead with him to stop fighting and return to Hong Kong to make money.

“It’s funny because none of my family supports me,” said the 29-year-old Thai-Chinese fighter, who has a professional record of 19 wins and nine losses. 

“They say it’s like being a labourer with no future. They see former world champion boxers retired with nothing, just permanent injuries. Some can’t talk or are blind.

“I don’t care.”

Until the age of 10, Bangkok-born Puangngoen had been living with his aunt in Thailand who “had a full-time job and no time to take care of me” before he moved to Hong Kong with his mother. 

He could speak neither English nor Cantonese but soon adapted to his new surroundings – he found Muay Thai aged 15 and signed up for his first fight two years later.

“Muay Thai was the only thing I liked so I didn’t care what people said. If I wanted to do it, I’d do it, and they know they don’t really have the right to stop me,” he said.

Watch Jacky train in his native Thailand

“Hong Kong means a lot to me because I spent most of my adult life there, but if you want to experience the best [Muay Thai] you have to go to Thailand.”

It is in his homeland that Puangngoen has been sharpening his skills as he prepares for the Hong Kong Muay Thai Championship in June.

The tournament is a sore topic for Puangngoen, who lost in the final two years ago after coasting through the preliminaries. He  calls it “unfinished business”.

“It was haunting me for a year,” he said. “I thought I was so much better and that [losing] could never happen. Even if I lose again, I’ll go again next year. I need to win the Hong Kong championship before I retire.”

Despite  his Thai ancestry, Puangngoen’s fighting style is Hong Kong influenced – and he gets no special treatment from his old-school coaches, either.

“It took a long time for my coach to accept me because he thought I was a foreign fighter,” said Puangngoen. “He knew I was a Thai but I didn’t fight like one so he gave me a really hard time.

“He trained me until I was throwing up in between rounds.  I didn’t take it personally; I just showed him I don’t give in.”

Following the devastating loss in the championship final, Puangngoen left his stable job in Hong Kong for what has essentially been a two-year training camp.

“I’m pretty much spending my whole life savings on these two years,” he said. “Prize money is basically nothing in Thailand – you earn more working at McDonald’s in Hong Kong. 

“I had a good job coaching at Pure Fitness in Soho – I was getting so much money, so from that to full-time fighting in Thailand, it’s pretty much no income.

“People are very realistic in Hong Kong. If they get good [at Muay Thai], they go on to work in a gym or open one of their own. To them, money and [stability] comes before Muay Thai – that’s why we don’t see many Hong Kong athletes on the world level.”

But with age and experience, Puangngoen feels he has changed from being a cocky showboater to an “aggressive brawler” in the ring. 

“The standard of Hong Kong fighters was not as good as it is today,” Puangngoen said. “I had too much ego – on six- or seven-fight win streaks – and everybody around me was telling me the title was going to be a walk in the park. I was very naive.

“If you get a fight in Hong Kong, normally you know who you’re fighting against – you can look him up and prepare for him. In Thailand, the [opponent] can change five minutes before you fight. There are a lot of unknown factors, but hey, high risk, high return.

“Now it’s very different. I believe I am not yet the fighter I want to be, and it’s not about becoming the best, but becoming the best I can be.

“I didn’t come to Thailand to prove anything to anyone. I did it because I don’t have many years left to fight but I still believe I can get better. The day I realise I can’t improve is the day I will stop.”