(NBCOlympics.com) — Amnat Ruenroeng speaks openly, even eagerly, about his years in a Thai prison.
His path out of poverty, crime and drug addiction began in a cell. He wants it to end in an Olympic ring with a medal around his neck, and he was willing to return from the pro ranks to try for that storybook ending again.
“There are some good parts of being in prison,” Ruenroeng said through a translator. “You get discipline. You learn how to know what’s right and what’s wrong. In the prison, they provide education, and they have boxing, football and martial arts. I’m good at boxing.”
Eight years after Ruenroeng fell just short of a medal in Beijing, the 36-year-old former IBF flyweight champion got his second Olympics off to another winning start Sunday night.
Fighting 11 kilograms above his professional weight after qualifying for the games just one month earlier, he still beat Argentina’s Ignacio Perrin by decision.
“I felt good, but I must do better because this is my chance,” he said.
When AIBA invited professional boxers to attempt to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Games earlier this year, no big international names accepted the offer, and only three pros are in the Rio field. But Ruenroeng eagerly seized the chance just a few weeks after losing his professional title, and he earned qualification last month.
He is hardly a man among boys in the amateur game, however: Ruenroeng decided to fight at the 60-kilogram lightweight limit, a whopping 11 kilograms above his flyweight professional limit. He was stopped during the qualifying tournament in Venezuela last month, and he will have to beat two more veteran Olympic-style fighters to get a medal in Rio.
“It’s difficult, because my opponents have an advantage,” Ruenroeng said. “They’re bigger, but I have the will.”
The risk was negligible to Ruenroeng, who still feels he owes a debt to boxing. He also shares many Thai athletes’ devotion to the King of Thailand, who pardoned him from a 15-year sentence after he showed boxing talent.
“That’s why I came here for a second time, to prove myself,” he said. “I have to find out whether I can get the Olympic medal or not.”
The second chapter of Ruenroeng’s life has been all about righting wrongs.
A grade-school dropout, Ruenroeng said he went to jail three times and was serving a 15-year sentence for robbing a tourist when he first discovered his knack for boxing through a prison athletics program. He soon had a national title, a pardon and a purpose: To win internationally for Thailand, which has a decent history of boxing success.
He earned a spot at the Beijing Olympics and won two fights, but fell one fight short of a medal in the light flyweight division. He lost a painful 5-2 decision to Mongolia’s Purevdorjin Serdamba, who went on to win silver.
Ruenroeng didn’t turn pro until 2012, but he had quick success. He won his title in January 2014 and defended it five times, even trouncing two-time Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming last year.
The amateur sport has changed since Ruenroeng and Zou left it. The fighters no longer wear headgear, and the Olympics are scored under a version of the 10-point professional standards instead of the punch-counting system used in Beijing.
Ruenroeng didn’t change much about his approach, sticking to the skills that had kept him unbeaten as a pro under Johnriel Casimero stopped him and took away his belt in May.
Ruenroeng misses his wife and son back in Thailand, but he speaks to them daily. He sounds like the very definition of a rehabilitated prisoner when he looks back at the path behind him and the possibilities ahead.
“(Prison) made me know the importance of the family, of my friends,” Ruenroeng said. “It taught me that whatever I do, I have to have a conscience. I have to think before acting.”