A Muay Thai master whose formidable martial arts skills have dazzled action lovers in such films as Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector), Tony Jaa was first inspired to take up fighting when, at the age of 15, he first saw director Panna Rittikrai's classic action film Born to Fight. A breathtaking martial arts masterpiece that proved to Jaa there were indeed opportunities for a young action star in Thailand, Born to Fight would inspire the impressionable viewer to begin training harder than ever before. Nicknamed Tony Jaa by Ong Bak director Prachya Pinkaew (the "T" in Tony stands for Thailand, and the "Jaa" is the actor's Thai nickname), the talented martial artist is better known in his native Thailand by the name Jaa Panom.
A native of the rural Surin province which is located some 200 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, Jaa took a cue from his Muay Thai-boxer father and began training at the age of ten. It was shortly thereafter that a Jackie Chan movie prompted young Jaa to begin a rigorous training regiment that would instill him with the deadly dexterity of his cinematic idol, with a subsequent, junior-high-school viewing of Born to Fight offering a vivid vision of a future in film. Granted permission by his father to seek out Rittikrai and ask permission to become the filmmaker's student, Jaa traveled to the nearby Khon Kaen province to meet the man who could make all of his dreams come true. It was over the course of the next three years that Jaa truly immersed himself in the film industry, rapidly rising through the ranks from water boy to best boy while constantly practicing martial arts during his down time. When Jaa graduated from senior high and Rittikrai recommended that the rising star refine his skills at the University of Physical Education in Sarakam Province; a stint studying Taekwondo, Bushido, Ju-Jitsu, gymnastics, and stick- and sword- fighting at the school provided just the kind of well-rounded education needed to expand his skills and take his career to the next level. Weekend training sessions with Rithikrai soon convinced the veteran and star that his young protégé had the skills to truly shine on the big screen, with an invitation to join Rithikrai's skilled stunt team offering Jaa the irresistible opportunity to finally merge the artistry of film with the beauty of martial arts.
His eye-popping fusion of gymnastics and Muay Thai boxing resulted in the formation of a group that performed in various high schools in the northeastern provinces of Thailand, as well as a local sword team which eventually allowed the emerging martial artist to travel to China as an exchange student. Jaa was later named the official representative of the University of Physical Education throughout northeastern Thailand and Bangkok, and was awarded multiple medals in sword, staff, gymnastic, and track and field events. His skills as a performer steadily expanding thanks to his role as a stunt man in the Thai television series Golden Eagle, Jaa would soon bring his skills to the big screen when, in 1997, he appeared as an uncredited stunt double for Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It wasn't until the release of Ong Bak some six years later that Jaa would receive full credit for his remarkable martial arts skills, with the stripped-down brutality of Muay Thai offering a refreshing change of pace from the graceful wire-fu that saturated the international film market in the wake of The Matrix. The result of four years of Muay Thai training on behalf of Jaa, Ong Bak proved that the human body is capable of amazing things even without the aid of computer animation. A playfully placed invitation courting renowned French action producer/filmmaker Luc Besson eventually paid off when Ong Bak caused quite a rift in its native Thailand, with the highly regarded filmmaker subsequently agreeing to re-edit the film for international release.
By this point Jaa had been named heir apparent to the legacies of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan by nearly every film critic from Bangkok to Hollywood, and on top of that, the emerging martial arts icon developed a whole new form of Muay Thai (dubbed "Muay Thai Cochisai" for using the movements of an elephant) with which to woo audiences in the eagerly anticipated action entry Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector).