The Real Tong Po?
I was around 11 years old in the mid 90s when I first saw a movie called Kickboxer starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Alexio.
Produced and directed by Mark DiSalle, Kickboxer (1989) is the story of a Belgian kickboxer named Kurt Sloane (JCVD) who fights a muay thai champion and mob henchman called Tong Po (Michel Qissi) to avenge his brother Eric’s (Dennis Alexio) brutal loss.
When it was first released, some believed that the story was based on real events and Tong Po was a retired thai boxing champion. In the pre-internet age, the lack of information to confirm this added to the movie’s appeal.
Years later, when I started training in muay thai, I found some old fight footage of Thai boxers taking on American kickboxers. These matches were very familiar.
Had I stumbled upon the inspiration behind one of my favourite childhood movies? Had I found the real Tong Po?
I’ll let you decide…
Changpuek Kiatsongrit vs Rick Roufus (1988)
Dubbed as ‘the fight that changed history', Changpuek Kiatsongrit vs Rick Roufus took place at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas in 1988 and was the first modified rules contest to be broadcast live on American TV.
Roufus was the undefeated World Kickboxing Super Middleweight Champion, making him a strong favourite in the eyes of the American people. On the other hand, Kiatsongrit was an unknown entity.
In the first two rounds, Roufus landed some hard punches, knocking Kiatsongrit to the canvas and breaking his jaw. The Thai rose to his feet and fought through the pain, delivering a series of hard leg kicks which eventually cut down Roufus in later rounds.
Like Tong Po, Kiatsongrit used dirty tactics on Roufus, such as throwing him from the clinch and stomping on his chest when he was down. This and the fact that Roufus was so badly injured that he had to be carried from the ring on a stretcher led me to me to believe that this fight could have influenced DeSalle to write Kickboxer.
In a post-fight interview, Rick’s brother and now famous MMA coach Duke Roufus said that, “It doesn’t take much talent to kick somebody in the leg”. Afterwards however, Duke Roufus went on to train in muay thai, becoming an excellent kickboxer in his own right.
Deiselnoi Chor Thanasukarn vs John Moncayo (1984)
This fight took place at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California in 1984.
Deiselnoi, nicknamed ‘Sky Piercing Knee Kicker’, was originally scheduled to fight Canadian kickboxer Pete Cunningham, who later pulled out for unknown reasons and was replaced by American Super Middleweight Champion John Moncayo.
Like Eric Sloane, Moncayo gave it his all, landing some hard punches throughout the fight, but he ultimately fell victim to the sharp knees and unfamiliar clinch work of the Thai.
Like Tong Po, Deiselnoi fought with a very traditional Thai long guard, walking his way into clinch range before tying his opponents up. Moncayo had likely never seen, let alone fought against, this style and was completely unprepared.
For these reasons I believe Tong Po’s fighting style may have been influenced by the legendary Deiselnoi.
Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez vs Prayout Sittiboonlert (1978)
Full contact kickboxing and martial arts legend Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez took part in several modified rules matches throughout his career, amassing an impressive professional documented kickboxing record of 49-1-1.
Urquidez’s first loss came in 1978 at the KATOGI event in Tokyo, Japan at the hands of fifth ranked welterweight Thai boxer Prayout Sittiboonlert. However, this loss was not recorded on his kickboxing record as it was recognised as a Muay Thai bout.
Urquidez later claimed that he had taken this fight with the impression that it was to be fought under kickboxing rules.
A rematch was scheduled for October in the same year, but Urquindez cancelled on the day of the fight for unknown reasons.
Although Sittiboonlert fought with a typical Thai style, which placed emphasis on balance and power over movement, I think this fight is the least likely to have inspired DeSalle's Kickboxer as it took place at an earlier time when video footage was harder to come by.
Having studied many early kickboxing vs Muay Thai contests, I believe that the movie Kickboxer and Tong Po’s character was most likely influenced by numerous events rather than one single contest.
In the modern era of mixed martial arts, people may consider old school movies like Kickboxer cheesy and outdated. I, on the other hand, love this timeless classic and would recommend it to anybody who is interested in how modern combat sports were shaped when East met West.