Home News Classical Martial Arts How Don “The Dragon” Brought Muaythai to American Kickboxing

How Don “The Dragon” Brought Muaythai to American Kickboxing

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HONG KONGOn September 5th, 1984, Don “The Dragon” Wilson fought Fanta Petchmuangtrat at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the first muaythai bout sanctioned by a major American sanctioning organization. This historic East-West matchup has been steeped in mythical retellings and unrelenting controversy ever since.

Today, Don “The Dragon” Wilson has starred in over 30 cable-TV and theatrical feature films. He enjoys the adoration of movie fans around the world. And he pleasantly anticipates the upcoming release of “The Martial Arts Kid,” a touching family flick, in which he stars with longtime friend Cynthia “Lady Dragon” Rothrock.

Don “The Dragon” Wilson stars with “Lady Dragon” Cynthia Rothrock for the upcoming The Martial Arts Kid, produced by onetime WKA women’s world kickboxing champ Cheryl “Legs” Wheeler-Duncan and The Dragon’s brother James Wilson.
Don “The Dragon” Wilson stars with “Lady Dragon” Cynthia Rothrock in the upcoming The Martial Arts Kid, produced by one-time WKA women’s world kickboxing champ Cheryl “Legs” Wheeler-Duncan and The Dragon’s brother James Wilson.

But in 1984, Don The Dragon was the highest-rated prize fighter in the Western kickboxing ring as well as the latest inductee into the prestigious Black Belt magazine Hall of Fame. He had won 10 world titles in 3 weight divisions (at 175, 182 and 190 pounds) for 5 sanctioning organizations on 4 continents. Along the way, he had defeated an impressive who’s who of name contenders, including heavyweight champions Dennis “The Terminator” Alexio, Demetrius “Oaktree” Edwards, future kickboxing and UFC champ Maurice “Mo” Smith, future boxing and kickboxing world champ James Warring, and former Thai stadium champions Pongdienoi Prasobchai and Jaidee Pisnurachank.

Notorious Unsportsmanlike Behavior

Yet the year before, Wilson’s sense of fair play had been provoked when, as the first reigning Western kickboxing world champion to fight in Bangkok, he faced off against the reigning Lumpinee Stadium muaythai champion Samart Prasanmitr. Sadly, prior to a series of reforms in the 1990s and the influence of the World Boxing Council after 2001, the Thai fight community had been notorious for exceedingly unethical and unsportsmanlike behavior toward foreigners by the handlers of their sport.

The Wilson camp believed they had that particular problem contained by never eating at the same location and by never allowing The Dragon to order his own meals. His food and drink could not be laced with a debilitating Mickey Finn, a rumored Thai tactic often mentioned amongst American kickboxers.

Instead, on the morning of the bout, the Thai promoter informed Don that the Royal military authority, which oversaw Lumpinee Stadium, had overruled certain provisions of their fight contract: Rather than 7 rounds, the fight would run for the traditional muaythai 5 rounds. Also, The Dragon must drop 5 pounds that day by fight time or forfeit the bout and his purse. It was a record payday for Wilson and he needed the money. Wilson immediately hit the sauna – the most painful way to lose weight – spending every daylight hour in that dreadful dank heat until he had at last lost 5 pounds on the gym scales … just in time to leave for the event. At Lumpinee Stadium, though, The Dragon discovered that he had actually lost 8 pounds. The gym scales had been altered.

That evening, Don The Dragon entered the Bangkok ring after a severe 4.4% plunge in body weight!

Medical doctors in the United States and Canada regard a loss of 2.7% in body weight on the day of a fight as more pernicious than a performance inhibiting drug. Indeed, such rapid water loss is deemed life-threatening and commission doctors will bench any fighter suffering from its consequent dehydration. In fact, most athletic commissions prohibit weight loss altogether commencing 24 hours prior to fight time. The reason for so much vigilance about water weight is that the immediate effects of that much dehydration include:

  • Substantially elevated risk of unconsciousness, brain hemorrhage or death from blows to the head
  • 20-30% reduction in overall athletic ability, speed of execution and coordination
  • Involuntary muscle stalls and cramping of the limbs
  • Wobbly, staggering or drunken balance
  • Negligible physical endurance
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to sweat
  • Feverish body temperature
  • Blurry vision
  • Dizziness
  • Diminished memory
  • Heavy headache pain
  • Unquenchable thirst
  • Agonizing dry mouth

Don Wilson exhibited each of these symptoms. Still, despite his enormously diminished capacity, he survived all 5 rounds of his stadium debut and even dominated two rounds convincingly. His smaller Thai opponent simply could not hit hard enough to hurt him. Samart merely took advantage of Don’s wobbly balance to appear dominant. By the final round, the Bangkok crowd booed their own champion for failing to go all out for a knockout. At least, that’s what the ringside gamblers thought.

Of course, they weren’t the professional inside the ring with The Dragon.

For his part, Don had begun to feel progressively stronger in that last round and thought he could have dropped Samart cold with just one or two rounds more, as had been originally contracted. Later, he learned that under muaythai rules he had not won a single round. The Dragon could not fathom the muaythai scoring system.

Maybe it was just the bias of hometown judges.

WKA champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson contends with Lumpinee champion Samart Prasanmitr in their disgracefully administered 1983 muaythai bout in Bangkok, Thailand.
WKA champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson contends with Lumpinee champion Samart Prasanmitr in their disgracefully administered 1983 muaythai bout in Bangkok, Thailand.

Don Wilson has never complained about his treatment in Thailand. He had invaded their world knowing that he would have to play the game according to their likes and their officials; he probably could only win by knockout. He looked upon the last-minute weight loss ploy as an ill-informed and misguided attempt to even the odds for a lighter local champion. He did not take it personally. Muaythai was a different sport. Still, the experience left him with a bad taste.

The WKA Rules for Thai Boxing

Not surprisingly, Don wanted an immediate rematch under Thai rules at a major Bangkok stadium against Samart or any other stadium champion. But the Thai promoters were not interested. Don’s manager, brother James Wilson, privately suspected that without the dehydration trick, the Thais feared the next stadium champion would lose badly before a domestic audience. For the Thais, a hometown defeat at the hands and feet of a foreign fighter would constitute a suicidal career-crushing loss of face.

Some months later, while training for his December showdown against longtime championship rival Jean-Yves “The Iceman” Thériault, The Dragon received an offer from WKA promoter Russelle Choi to fight another Bangkok stadium champion in Hong Kong. He happily leaped at the opportunity. More importantly, Don insisted that they fight under Thai rules.

The California-headquartered World Kickboxing Association (WKA) was then the foremost international sanctioning body for Western kickboxing. But the WKA did not sanction bouts that allowed muaythai hit-and-hold clinch-fighting and, legally, could not do so for network television bouts in the US. In those days, national telecasts required every athletic commission in every state to acquiesce to the bout rules. Clinch-fighting was just too alien for universal acceptance.

Determined nevertheless, Don The Dragon and Russelle Choi separately pleaded their case to the WKA for sanctioning muaythai bouts in Asia only. The bouts would never be seen on US television. The WKA relented and commissioned this reporter to pen the WKA Rules for Thai Boxing. I had previously written the WKA rulebook. It required only a few days to confer with senior WKA officials and crank out a rules addendum to include muaythai competition. The matches would be treated as 5 and 7 round non-title contender bouts. Unrestricted clinch-fighting and footsweeps would be permitted, although groin strikes and throws would remain prohibited. The standard WKA 10-point-must scoring system would not change.

Quite honestly, at the time, neither the WKA nor I had any idea how the major stadium judges scored muaythai bouts. It would not have mattered if we had. Scoring had to conform to the established international criteria based on round effectiveness.

The Bangkok matchmakers then handpicked recent Rajadamnern Stadium champion Fanta Petchmuangtrat to fight The Dragon. Although the Thais had several fighters at Wilson’s weight, they felt Fanta’s successes in Europe against world-ranked Dutch and French kickboxers best equipped him to rise to the challenge. The Thais also provided a stadium referee while promoter Choi arranged for the WKA Hongkonger judges.

Don “The Dragon” Wilson won a vigorous 7-round decision over an exceedingly scrappy Fanta Petchmuangtrat on September 5th, 1984. Thereafter, over the course of many years, every major American kickboxing organization gradually established muaythai divisions and eventually titles.

This bout was the first.

The Dragon scores a knockdown with this side kick against Rajadamnern and European champion Fanta Petchmuangtrat in their 1984 WKA muaythai bout in British Hong Kong, China.
The Dragon scores a knockdown with this side kick against Rajadamnern and European champion Fanta Petchmuangtrat in their 1984 WKA muaythai bout in British Hong Kong, China.
Controversy in the Aftermath of Wilson-Fanta

Throughout the decade of the 1980s, every bout between an American and a Thai champion that went the distance concluded in controversy. Passions ran high. Each side would accuse the other of cheating in some material way. Sometimes the accusations were accurate, sometimes not.

In the aftermath of the Wilson-Fanta bout, complaints slowly emerged from Asia claiming that the outcome of this bout had been a “no-decision”, never mind that the WKA did not allow no-decision outcomes. As the years passed and Wilson became a film and television action star, a whisper campaign began spreading rumors within international kickboxing circles that Wilson had actually been knocked down multiple times in the bout and that the WKA had conspired to hide the true facts.

After a few more years, selectively-edited snippets of the bout began to appear on the Internet which seemed to corroborate the notion that Fanta had won the bout and that the WKA concealed his victory.

To the World Kickboxing Association at the time, however, what really happened was a series of administrative hiccups: a failure to secure a neutral referee as well as a failure to understand each corner’s sporting traditions.

Throughout the fight, for example, the Thai referee appeared to be in collusion with Fanta’s corner. The referee never called Fanta’s fouls, neither when Fanta held the ropes while striking nor when Fanta threw Wilson to the mat with illegal judo throws on multiple occasions. The referee never acknowledged that Wilson had scored a clear clean and indisputable knockdown and never administered a standing 8-count for Fanta. The referee never prevented Fanta’s corner from splashing Fanta with excessive water between rounds, deliberately creating a small slick lake in one section of the ring. And the referee never ordered the water dried up, even after the referee himself slipped and fell.

Apparently, the Thai referee allowed these unsavory tactics to enable Fanta to survive.

Naturally Wilson was not bothered by the water; the Thais did not realize that The Dragon’s mobile style easily neutralized that threat. The throws only irritated Wilson because he could not respond. He had been a collegiate wrestler and could easily have returned fire with Greco-Roman body slams. But instead, he abided by the rules because Don anticipated that the referee would call him for that foul even though he would not call it against Fanta.

Regardless, the controversy about the bout has raged for long enough!

To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of this landmark sports event, the entire fight has been presented for the first time ever in the accompanying 1-hour video: The Champion’s Last Strike: Don “The Dragon” Wilson versus Fanta Petchmuangtrat.

Every mystery is exposed. Every dispute is explained.

And the official outcome is revealed with undeniable clarity.

Don “The Dragon” Wilson himself, together with his favorite cornerman and older brother James, provide fight action commentary. Fellow kickboxing hall of fame world champions Steve Shepherd (USA), Fred “The Gladiator” Royers (Netherlands) and Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham (Canada) offer expert analysis while this reporter, the contemporaneous STAR world ratings kickboxing commissioner, supplies round-by-round statistical summaries.

After the fight, the differences between WKA and muaythai scoring are explored with research assistance from muaythai coach, author, scholar and international officiating authority Tony Myers of Britain.

Finally, Wilson and his brother offer their unique perspectives on the fight and the contrasting fighting techniques.

Attapong Buaban, Fanta Petchmuangtrat’s real name (like pro wrestlers, Thai fighters typically use stage names), was invited to participate in this video. He declined. Don Wilson has never complained about Mr. Buaban’s tactics during this bout. Mr. Buaban followed his corner’s instructions. The Dragon continues to respect and esteem Fanta as the most talented stadium champion he ever faced.

Now watch the video and decide the fight for yourself!