Klaew Thanikul (แคล้ว ธนิกุล) lived an exciting life of blood sport, gambling, hitmen, and much more. This underworld boss earned such esteem that he garnered the alias Chao pho Nakhon Ban, which means “godfather of the metropolitan,” signifying his sharp rise to prominence.
His early experiences of loss and survival in a severe environment played a role in shaping his path toward becoming a prominent and feared figure in Thai society. The hand of Klaew Thanikul was involved in much of the golden age of Muay Thai until his ultimate demise. Throughout his life, the lines between legitimate business, sports promotion, and underworld activities were frequently blurred.
Early Life of Klaew Thanikul
Klaew Thanikul’s early life was marked by personal tragedies. Born on September 13, 1934, in Tambon Don Manora, Amphoe Bang Khonthi, Samut Songkhram Province, Thailand, his life began amidst hardship. Tragically, Klaew’s twin was stillborn, and his mother died during childbirth. This event had a major impact on his life, as his name “Kleaw” literally translates to “avoid death.” Thus reflecting the circumstances of his birth.
When he was still but a boy, his father passed away as well. Following the death of his father when Klaew was about 7 or 8 years old, he faced increasing instability. The loss of both parents at such a young age meant that Klaew was brought up by relatives.
Later, Klaew Thanikul moved out of the countryside to Bangkok, where he lived with his elder sister in the Suan Mali neighborhood. It was here that he began to establish his reputation within the various outlaw circles.
Rise to Power in Bangkok
Klaew Thanikul’s rise to power is a story blending of legitimate businesses with underworld activities. His breakthrough in Muay Thai came with the establishment of the “Sor Thanikul” gym in 1977. This boxing gym quickly gained a reputation as a premier training ground for Muay Thai fighters. Under Klaew Thanikul’s leadership, the gym housed many notable champions, such as Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn and Boonlai Sor Thaniku.
In addition to running the gym, Thanikul became the number one fight promoter in Thailand during the 1980s, known as the “Golden Age of Muay Thai.” His success was not just in promoting local Muay Thai talent but also in bringing the sport to an international audience. This period marked his transition from a local figure to a national, and eventually, an international player in the world of Muay Thai, becoming the president of the World Thai Boxing Federation.
Klaew Thanikul played a major role in two ever-important matches in Muay Thai history. A battle of greats between Samart Payakaroon and Dieselnoi Chor, with each fighter earning an unprecedented 6 figure sum for the bout.
Thanikul also helped to showcase Muay Thai to the world by pitting Changpuek Kiatsongrit against Rick Roufus in Las Vegas in 1998 propelling the sport to the Western audience for the first time. Changpuek Kiatsongrit would recover to win by 5th round KO, defeating the American Kickboxer despite having his jaw broken within the first two minutes of the classic fight.
Klaew Thanikul took care of the fighters under his banner and put on some of the most iconic fights during the 1980s. In an interview, Chatchai Sasakul explained how much Klaew cared. He said:
“I won the amateur championship of Thailand [in 1985] in just three months, aged 15. Klaew said he didn’t want me to go back to Muay Thai, so he paid all my expenses … Yes, Klaew was mafia, but he was like Robin Hood – he gave everything to amateur boxing. The SAT [Sports Authority of Thailand, the state-run governing body for amateur sports] wasn’t giving us anything, but Klaew paid for many things. Everything was perfect at that time. Thanks to him, I could do my best, just fight and enjoy life.”Chatchai Sasakul
Klaew Thanikul’s influence extended far beyond the boxing ring into various illicit activities. In the days before playing online casino for real money were possible, Klaew was a casino owner and was deeply involved in gambling across Thailand, which was a significant source of income. His control over gambling operations allowed him to wield power in both the underworld and sporting worlds. Throughout his reign, Thanikul was known as the “No. 1 Jao Poh”, or “Mafia godfather”.
He was also implicated in the drug trade and prostitution rings. These alleged activities contributed to his wealth and helped expand his influence in the underworld. Thanikul was also alleged to be involved in protection rackets, demanding money from businesses in exchange for safety and security.
Klaew Thanikul had many attempts on his life and survived multiple assassination endeavors. In 1982, a grenade was thrown at his seats in Lumpinee Stadium, but he was absent at the time. This incident resulted in Thanikul’s bodyguards shooting automatic weapons into the sold-out stadium killing the want-to-be assassin, but also members of the public were killed and many were injured.
Another significant incident involved the murder of Ngu Hapalang, the owner of rival, Hapalang gym. Ngu was shot dead during Chamuekpet Hapalang vs Langsuan Panyuthapum at Lumpinee Stadium, Ngu was killed at the end of the fourth round of the fight whilst working Chamuekpet’s corner. While no one was ever officially linked to the murder, many suspected Thanikul was behind it, given their rivalry and his presence at the event.
Klaew Thanikul’s life came to a violent end. On April 5, 1991, Thanikul was ambushed and killed in a coordinated attack. His car was attacked by assailants armed with M16 rifles and grenade launchers. Klaew Thanikul and his bodyguard were both killed in the attack, and several bystanders were injured. This attack was notable for its use of military-grade weapons.
The identity of his assassins and the exact motives behind the killing remain a mystery. There has been speculation that his murder was either the result of internal mafia conflicts or possibly extrajudicial action by government agents seeking to curb illicit activities. However, these theories remain unconfirmed.
As a policeman at the scene of the crime said to the LA Times in 1991, “Once you become rich in that business, you’d better prepare to die.”
Klaew Thanikul is a controversial and polarizing figure. The leader had an important hand in Muay Thai during its golden age and helped the growth of the sport overseas. Additionally, he gave many talented fighters opportunities and made fights deemed impossible at the time, often cited as a Robin Hood-like character. Klaew is one of the most fascinating individuals in Muay Thai history and his influence in the sports development, is undeniable.
Timothy Wheaton is a combat sports writer who covers MMA, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai. Tim is the authority on kickboxing and combat sports journalist who has covered K-1, PRIDE FC, UFC, GLORY Kickboxing, Bellator, ONE Championship, and plenty more.