In the last three and a half years, Nong-O Hama has knocked out or stopped every ranked contender in his division.
Not many combat sports athletes have been as consistently successful in recent times as Nong-O. Since joining ONE Championship in 2018, he is undefeated in ten fights, capturing the inaugural championship belt and beating every challenger. He is a lifetime competitor, first fighting at the age of nine, capturing the Rajadamnern title once and the Lumpinee title four times. He will turn thirty-seven years old this year, still ferociously successful in a sport where many youth athletes 'age out' at twenty-five.
The swaggering, explosive Thai is an adaptable fight finisher. Uppercuts in the pocket did for Saemapetch Fairtex and Felipe Lobo, but when faced with the much taller Alaverdi Ramazanov he was equally capable of breaking down his legs and closing the show with a body shot. He obliged specialist leg-killer Liam Harrison with a low-kicking contest and crippled him inside a round. Crushing rear-side power strikes flow from a consistent jab and teep, and he systematically probes and prods while also explicitly aiming to finish every fight inside the distance.
Here we highlight some of his core tactics and greatest hits before considering his upcoming matchup with Jonathan Haggerty.
Nong-O tends to start his fights defensively, testing his opponent for gaps in their armour. His neutral stance is back-foot weighted, with a rhythmic bounce and a high guard. His lead leg is poised to block kicks or stuff attacks with the teep, and if the opponent reaches down to parry, then Nong-O’s jab is there to punish them for it. Everything else he does in his fights usually grows from these roots: presenting opponents with few opportunities to hit him, and prodding them for useful reactions. While his opponents look for a way to score he sets a rhythm with his bouncing feet and swaying arms, ready to break the pattern and lunge forward on a half-beat. His surprising timing makes fighters uncomfortable, as it contains the threat of what comes next.
What comes next, more often than not, is a big kick. Nong-O is a veteran of the traditional Muay Thai scene where kicks are high scoring shots, and he’s among the best kickers of the last two decades. A significant piece of his success is his outstanding speed and power – a monster athlete in his youth, thirty-six-year-old Nong-O on a modern strength and conditioning program doesn’t yet seem to have fallen far from his peak. His kicks cover distance fast, and land hard.
The left kick is a relatively conservative ranged attack that Nong-O relies on regularly, particularly for orthodox opponents. It lands with more authority than the jab and the teep, and a quick switch step flows right out of his bouncing lead leg with a very narrow window in which to spot the difference. Once two or three of these have thudded into the arms or ribs, every switch step draws a reaction he can potentially punish.
Watch any of his fights and you also see a constant step-in feint: his head and chest come forward and down, while his stance lengthens and lowers. Suddenly Nong-O is in range, coiled like a spring. Often this is the tell that he's coming in with a powerful right kick, but many attacks start from the same motion – a jab, a 1-2, a switch step – and sometimes it’s nothing at all.
The uncertainty all this creates for his opponent, is what makes Nong-O such a difficult fighter to deal with at range. The opponent is forced to instinctively choose a response, any of which may tip their hand or leave them vulnerable to the unexpected. Every response is noted, doing nothing means allowing him to land at will, and even bracing for the impact can create a moment’s freedom for him to send his attack to somewhere more vulnerable. There is an underlying logic to Nong-O's dynamism.
THE WRECKING BALL
At some point in every recent Nong-O fight, whether hurt or just surprised, the moment arrives when his opponent is forced onto the defensive. He rarely wastes the opportunity.
The right hand is the major damage-dealing weapon in close. He will throw powerful looping shots around the guard, sometimes three or four times in a row, often using his left just to check the distance or stiff-arm away from the clinch. Small steps between punches change the angle on his hooks and uppercuts, and he has good eyes for a counter, finishing Felipe Lobo with a slip'n'rip uppercut as he came in behind a long guard.
Nong-O has a deep arsenal of offensive moves, all of which seem to flow smoothly into one another on demand. Three-to-five strike combos are common from him coming forward. He has great shot selection and variety, though the hurting blows come mostly from his right side: his left hand is most often just an initiator, or a quick uppercut to set up the right kick. Retreating opponents are chased backwards by round kicks that target all three levels.
Another arrow in the quiver is changing up the timing of his strikes during his combinations. He'll coil, pause, and fire, landing just as the opponent realises the shot didn’t come when they felt it would. He's also able to achieve this kind of surprise with unusual patterns: left-right-left-right combinations are the most natural way to deliver powerful shots quickly, but Nong-O is unusually good at doubling up his right hand and right kick in sequence. Big power shots delivered half a beat late, finding the target in the instant the defence is relaxed.
Nong-O is an exceptionally difficult fighter to defend against when he has the initiative. If he is vulnerable anywhere, in my opinion, it's when defending in place. He can and does move his head reactively to land counter shots, but mostly his head stays in one place and is protected only by a static high guard. The guard itself is a strong one, but in 4oz gloves, large gaps do exist: Ramazanov circled to the open side to shoot jabs between his gloves and was also able to draw up the guard with fakes and fire through it to some effect. Saemapetch a few years earlier was able to crack Nong-O hard by eating his punches and firing right back, finding his head open and right on the centre line. Traditional Muay Thai prioritises strong posture, partially for defending kicks, and so the kind of proactive head movement that keeps some high-level fighters safe in punching exchanges isn’t present in Nong-O. He did also take a lot of low kicks from Rodlek, but having recently beaten Harrison at this game I'm inclined to believe not many fighters can really threaten him that way.
Generally, his best defensive tool is distance. He has sharp eyes and quick reflexes and is often able to pull away or retreat from attacks in time. The threat of heavy counters does also help to dissuade people from reaching for him. Regardless, there are compromises inherent in every stance and approach, and Nong-O's basic stance isn't especially mobile on the retreat. Floating the lead leg means bringing it down not far in front of the rear foot before you can move backward, giving a poor base from which to absorb shots - Rodlek sent him stumbling backward with a jab and timed his retreating steps to land low kicks, and he can be seen losing his stance on the retreat from time to time. Nong-O was also unbalanced by Ramazanov catching him with a jab during his recovery from a kick. Even though in retrospect he didn’t seem to be hurt, live on the day it looked a lot like being rocked, and moments like this can swing scorecards.
By Nong-O’s own account, his most difficult opponent in ONE was the relatively unknown Bryce Delval – a tall and determined opponent. Thanks to the way Nong-O likes to play with distance a rangier opponent will always present difficulties. Delval’s teep won him some big moments, and Ramazanov was also able to score well with the jab by circling to the open side and shooting through Nong-O’s guard. In these matchups, Nong-O has leaned heavily on body kicks to reach his opponents at range. In the Delval fight, he found his opponent's length put him in the line of fire after kicking and responded by kicking into the clinch, which led him to a somewhat contentious decision - though any winning card for Delval is a big stretch. More recently he's punched more effectively against taller opponents and targeted the legs a lot more to great effect, beating up Lobo and successfully breaking down Ramazanov.
His upcoming opponent Jonathan Haggerty should be considered a heavy underdog. A talented young fighter and former Strawweight champion, he suffered two losses to Rodtang and only recently moved to Bantamweight. He's shown himself to be a creative and dangerous fighter in a strong first performance against Rodtang and his career best wins over Sam-A and Mongkolpetch, but was crushed by Rodtang in the rematch and squeaked by in a very close majority decision over Vladimir Kuzmin in his first fight at the new weight. He's also struggled a great deal with his weight cut, pulling out of two consecutive Strawweight bouts due to unspecified 'illness' before moving up to Bantamweight and managing to miss weight in the new division. I don't expect him to be blown out though – a fighter's first performance at a new weight is often underwhelming, and he still pulled off the win over a very sharp Kuzmin.
On paper he presents several obstacles that Nong-O has struggled with in the past. He's slightly taller and longer than Nong-O with an excellent teep, and he's highly mobile while also carrying significant power. Expect him to attempt to juggle Nong-O on the outside and hide step-in elbows behind front kicks. He's also shown a real interest in body punching since the second loss to Rodtang, hanging on in the third round of a tough fight with Mongkolpetch by hurting him with the left body shot.
Nong-O is likely to bring back the low kicking game from his recent performances as a way to cut down Haggerty's mobility and rack up points. Haggerty has also struggled visibly with forward pressure from Rodtang, Mongkolpetch and Kuzmin – Nong-O may be able to find significant success backing him up and smashing his leg as he chases him. After stopping the mobile Ramazanov with pressure and body punching against the ropes in his last fight, it would be very surprising if Nong-O didn’t look to rip from Rodtang and punish Haggerty’s torso when the opportunity presents.
The card will be live on the evening of Friday 21, U.S. time – don’t miss what’s bound to be one of the most exciting contests of the year so far.