Behind any elite athlete you will find an inspiration. Often it is a person, but sometimes it is a situation or moment in time that forges a new outlook.
For Thai martial arts pioneer Shannon “OneShin” Wiratchai, what fueled his journey did not come from either of those traditional routes. In fact, what spurred him on the most was the derision of others.
Coming from middle-class Thailand, those in his social circles held martial arts in low regard, and as a career choice for those without options in life.
This led many to look down on his love for martial arts, and his desire to somehow make it his life’s work. His parents even openly disapproved.
However, his passion kept him on track, and if anything, the detractors helped more than anything to help him reach his current status at the top of the ONE lightweight ranks.
“When I first told people I wanted to be a martial artist, they were like, ‘You are crazy, you cannot do that,’” the 29-year-old reveals.
“They started to doubt me, and say it is not going to happen. I just thought to myself, ‘Why can’t this happen when I really love it? Martial arts is wonderful.’
“Something that inspired me was all the people around me saying I cannot do this, so I tried my best to prove them wrong.”
After being enamored with martial arts movies as a kid, that thirst for knowledge and deep appreciation of the various disciplines never left him.
In fact, thanks to his detractors, Wiratchai was able to walk his own road, which would eventually lead him to his position as a frontrunner and massive crossover star in ONE Championship.
The Thai did not tread the same ground as a many youngsters from his homeland, who dove headfirst into the famed art of Muay Thai.
Instead, he found judo, aikido, and kung fu, before getting involved in boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu through his cage endeavors.
“Any martial artist can be a combat sports athlete, and if you are open-minded enough and are willing to learn more, you can [compete inside the cage],” he said.
“That inspired me to show that you can come from any background, and if you work hard and really love it, then you can have success.”
There was one person in Wiratchai’s journey, in particular, that helped to mold his views on life. It was not because of his success, but because he embodied the true spirit of martial arts, which is something you can take with you throughout life to help you live as a better person.
This was the judo master he was introduced to through his school’s judo club, and he left a lasting impression, and enabled a teenaged Wiratchai to envision a path to old age with martial arts by his side.
“The first time I met my judo master, I was in high school. It was the judo teacher at my school who introduced me to him. He was a sixth-degree black belt, the highest level in Thailand. At that time, he was 70 years old. A muscular, in-shape guy, even at that age,” Wiratchai recalls.
“The first time I saw him, it showed me that you can live by martial arts your whole life, and it made me think maybe I could do the same. He would throw the young guys around, even right now he would probably do it! In the sparring, even on the ground, he would be beating the young men.”
He had physically seen the proof that life post-competition did not have to mean injuries and constant struggle. You could be prosperous, healthy, and engaged in your chosen style well into your golden years.
Now, “OneShin” could really begin to work towards a career doing the thing that made him happiest, and with a framework in mind.
Fast-forward to the present-day, and Wiratchai is well known both in his homeland and around the world as a cerebral, well-rounded athlete who has a bright future.
His upcoming bout against Rasul Yakhyaev in the co-main event of ONE: WARRIORS OF THE WORLD could see him earn a shot at the ONE Lightweight World Championship and, as the momentum grows, so does his desire to keep improving.
Before, it was only for himself. His own personal journey was his main focus. But as he realizes more people are watching and supporting him, he feels it is his duty to share with them the passion that has driven him from a young age.
He can show there are better, lifelong prospects within the martial arts realm to a generation of receptive young people, particularly in Thailand.
“Now more people start to talk to me and ask me how to be a martial artist, how to be like me. It is very cool. I feel like when I show them I can do it, it can be an inspiration for them, and that is a good thing,” he explains.
“Some people say I am a pioneer, but to me I am still just an athlete with lots more to learn in this sport. I want to be a better, more educated martial artist, and a better coach, and I try to work hard to have the most success in my career, so then more people can see me and it might help them learn.”
The doubters and naysayers were hoping they would dissuade a young Shannon Wiratchai out of a life of martial arts competition, but instead they only galvanized his desire to make it work.
With the position and star power he has now earned in the martial arts realm, those detractors that inspired him could have unwittingly given rise to a new generation of martial artists in Thailand.