The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Thai Boxer Manus Boonjumnong

Manus Boonjumnong in Athens_Getty
Manus Boonjumnong (R) of Thailand and Ionut Gheorge of Romania compete during the men’s boxing 64 kg semifinal bout on August 27, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall in Athens, Greece. Getty Images

The light welterweight from Thailand was breezing through the bouts, handily beating boxers from Greece, Philippines, France and Romania with his superior ring movement and speed.

The final bout was against Yudel Johnson of Cuba. The tiny Carribean nation was the dominant power in boxing at the time. In fact, they entered boxers in all 11 weight classes and medaled in all but two, including 5 golds. Johnson was expected to win, but Boonjumnong raced to an early lead and then boxed defensively to victory and gold.

While the Johnson quickly complained about the refereeing, Boonjumnong took a phone call from the King of Thailand, praising the boxer’s achievement. Holding a picture of King Bhumpibol Adulyadej in one hand and a cell phone in the other, he listened in awe, taking a call he could only dream of. As he said in this AP report, “I fought for my king, who urged me to be strong in my final bout,” Boonjumnong said. “I dedicate the gold medal to my family and to all the people of Thailand. And, of course, to the king of Thailand.”

And with victory comes the spoils. Boonjumnong returned to Thailand a hero, seeing his six-week old son for the first time, aptly named “Athens”. The hero was also awarded 20 million baht in recognition of his gold-medal achievement.

In 2004, 20 million baht was about US$560,000, which in Thailand, still recovering from the Asian Economic Crisis that began in 1997, would have been an extraordinary amount of money, particularly for someone who came from modest means. In Boonjumnong’s case, the money meant freedom to do as he pleased. In short, the Olympian went on a boozing, womanizing and gambling spree that resulted in scandalous headlines, divorce and a return to modest means.

Still in his mid-20s, his supporters thought he had another round of Olympic glory left in him, but the only way they could get him back into a fighting mindset and ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was to show him some tough love. The Thai amateur boxing president through down the gauntlet, put Boonjumnong on a plane with no money in 2005, and sent him to Vietnam to train and get his act together.

Training away from adoring fans in Thailand, and feeling the heat of the competition, many who gathered from all over Asia to train in Vietnam, Boonjumnong began to re-discover his fighting spirit. At the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar, took gold as the light welterweight champion.

At the Beijing Games, Thailand had high hopes for two Boonjumnongs, as younger brother Non competed in the welterweight division. Unfortunately, Non, the 2007 world championship silver medalist fell quickly in the competition, leaving the elder brother to restore family and national honor. And gold was within Manus the elder’s reach, as he made his way through Japanese, Kazakhstani, and Cuban rivals. He was not as dominant as in Athens, and fell to an aggressive lefty from the Dominican, Manuel Felix Diaz.

Manus Boonjumnong in Beijing_Getty
Silver medalist Manus Boonjumnong of Thailand, gold medalist Felix Diaz of Dominican Republic and bronze medalists Alexis Vastine of France and Roniel Iglesias Sotolongo of Cuba pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Light Welterweight; Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Bronze, not gold adorned the now aging boxer upon his return to Thailand. Still, no Thai had, or has since, medaled in two different Olympics. As the 2012 Olympic Games, there were rumors that Boonjumnong would go for gold again in London. But at the age of 31, he said that he lost the fire for amateur boxing, and declined to be considered for a third Olympics. And yet, apparently he had enough fire for professional boxing, claiming his party days were long gone, and that he was aiming for champion Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines

Boonjumnong’s supporters got his professional career off to a wining start, ensuring his first six professional bouts took place in Thailand. They also ensured, as best as they could, victory. The first three fighters Boonjumnong faced, all in the second half of 2015, had records of 23-18-1, 10-11-2, and 23-26-5. The next two fights were against boxers debuting as professionals.

ryan ford
Ryan Ford

Finally, the promoters agreed that the two-time Olympic medalist had to fight someone of repute. Ryan “The Real Deal” Ford flew to Thailand in April, fresh off his fourth consecutive victory in his native Canada. Undefeated at that time with a record of 5-0, Ford was a former MMA fighter who had a record of 22-5 with 12 knockouts. Look at his picture. He was definitely a lean, mean fighting machine, reminding me of Mister T’s menacing persona in Rocky III.

On April 22 of this year, Ford stepped into the ring and battered Boonjumnong for four rounds. Overwhelmed by hard rights and let hooks, Boonjumnong remained in his corner, deciding that staying seated was the better part of valor.