Earlier this month, Rodtang Jitmuangnon introduced himself to American fight fans. As much as he enjoyed his debut in the United States, he is even more enthusiastic for his return.
“I love the lifestyle in America,” says Jitmuangnon—who is known as Rodtang—speaking through a translator. “People can do anything and be themselves. It smells like freedom.”
Rodtang defeated Edgar Tabares by knockout three weeks ago at ONE Fight Night 10. With the win, he retained the ONE Flyweight Muay Thai championship, marking his fifth straight title defense. The event served as ONE’s first in the United States, and, despite the American cuisine (“I prefer Thai food,” says Rodtang), Rodtang found himself at home in a country very distant from his roots in Thailand’s Pa Phayom district.
“Once I stepped in the cage, it brought me back to my hometown,” says Rodtang. “I didn’t expect to hear the crowd cheering for me. I was so proud. I felt like I was back in Thailand.
“That opportunity meant the world to me. It was my chance to show Muay Thai in America. I was able to share it, and I took a lot of pride in that. I also put that pressure on my shoulders. I owe so much to this sport. It is my love, it is my passion. It gave me a new life.”
After finishing Tabares in the second round with a vicious elbow, Rodtang received a $100,000 performance bonus for his methodical victory. That type of money is entirely different from the money he earned when he began competing in the sport.
“I started when I was eight,” says Rodtang, 25. “My first time competing, I earned the equivalent of $10 American dollars. That was a lot of money. My family was quite poor, and it was pure excitement to bring that money home. Muay Thai is pure and beautiful. This sport gave me opportunity. It changed my life. I owe so much to this sport.”
Following the win at ONE Fight Night 10, Rodtang called ONE Bantamweight Muay Thai champion Jonathan Haggerty. They share a history; Rodtang has already defeated Haggerty on two separate occasions—once to win the flyweight title, then again in a title defense.
Another win against Haggerty would make Rodtang a two-division champion in ONE. That represents only the beginning of his ambition in ONE, which includes a transition to MMA.
“I want to be the legend of ONE Championship,” says Rodtang. “I want different opponents and different weight classes to prove I am legendary.”
“I want to try everything. I want to compete in MMA. The biggest challenge is every aspect that is not standing and striking. The techniques, defending, and attacking, I am relearning all those. That is the most difficult part of transitioning into MMA.”
ONE’s card in Colorado was headlined by the great Demetrious Johnson, who defeated Adriano Moraes in a flyweight title bout. Johnson and Rodtang competed in a mixed-rules bout last year, which consisted of three-minute rounds alternating between Muay Thai and MMA. The bout ended when Johnson applied a rear naked choke in the second round. That defeat left a sour taste in Rodtang’s mouth, and he is preparing to deliver a different result in a rematch fought under MMA rules.
“I have to train harder, and there is still a lot to learn, but that is my dream,” says Rodtang. “I want to compete in MMA and I want that rematch against Demetrious.”
The move to MMA will require patience. Fortunately for Rodtang, that is one of his strongest characteristics. Earlier this year, he was ordained a Buddhist monk, shaving his head and joining a monastery while fully committing to the process. He then married Aida Looksaikongdin, a fellow fighter, in a traditional Islamic ceremony and converted to Islam.
“Buddhism has taught me how to become patient in life,” says Rodtang. “The whole process, it taught me to become perfectly calm. It’s stopped me from being short-tempered. It gives me peace.”
Rodtang is a near certainty to be on the card whenever ONE returns to the U.S. His star is building, and he has the potential to be ONE’s first breakout star in America.
“I hope to compete again soon in the U.S.,” says Rodtang. “Showing Muay Thai to America is an honor.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.