For a country steeped in combat sports history and with its own trademark fight form, Thailand is very much a young upstart when it comes to mixed martial arts (MMA).
Muay Thai has been the kingdom's national sport for centuries, as children and men alike religiously practise the discipline that incorporates stand-up striking with various clinching techniques.
Thousands flock to arenas across the country almost every day to watch elite fighters - who earn up to $6,000 per bout - do battle. Tourists prize it as an experience alongside tasting authentic tom yam soup.
Yet, a major MMA promotion has yet to stage a card in Thailand, where locals are fiercely protective of Muay Thai and wary of so-called "foreign sports".
They fear that Muay Thai will be regarded as just one facet of MMA, as exponents also showcase karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling in unarmed combat.
But three-time Muay Thai world champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, who is based in Singapore, wants to change perceptions in his homeland.
As the first Thai to vie for an MMA world title, he hopes to inspire a nation when he battles for the inaugural One Fighting Championship strawweight (52kg) title at the Indoor Stadium on May 22.
The 36-year-old believes a win over Filipino hard-hitter Roy Doliguez will shine the spotlight on MMA in Thailand, possibly mimicking the sport's explosion as seen in Brazil, Canada and Britain.
"I am proof that no matter your age or background, you can excel in MMA if you put in the effort," said Dejdamrong who has won his first four One FC bouts by knockout or submission.
"I think we should be more open to MMA and not see it as a threat to Muay Thai or kickboxing.
"It is all martial arts in the end, whether for exercise or a professional career."
One FC owner Victor Cui, who has three Thai fighters on his 200-strong roster, views Muay Thai as a "fantastic platform" to launch an MMA career.
He said: "MMA celebrates the perfection of the various martial arts.
"We will work closely with the relevant authorities in Thailand to harness the explosive growth of MMA, and its growth will result in the resurgence of Muay Thai on a global scale."
Like most Thais, Dejdamrong picked up Muay Thai early - and out of necessity. The Trang native first fought at age 10, with his win bonus of 70 baht (S$2.80) going to support his family.
A technical fighter with quick hands, he went on to claim a professional record of 282 wins and 65 losses, earning countless cuts on the head and feet.
His ongoing training at the Evolve Gym in Singapore is just as brutal. In one workout, One FC lightweight champion Shinya Aoki punches his stomach repeatedly for one minute.
"If I can absorb hits from him, I can take it from anyone," Dejdamrong said with a toothy grin.
Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn - a Muay Thai icon with a stunning 285-15 record - believes his compatriot has what it takes to be Thailand's first true MMA flag-bearer.
"He has the will, the drive, the discipline and, most importantly, he thinks about helping others before himself," said the 35-year-old, now a coach at Evolve.
"With a world title, Dejdamrong could well be the spark that sees MMA go mainstream in Thailand."
This article was first published on May 14, 2015.
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