Adrenaline fills the air as the crowd roars and a yellow spotlight illuminates two sweat-drenched men circling each other in the ring. There’s a calculating look in their eyes as they observe each other stoically.

The spectators do not have to wait long for the action to begin as the younger fighter throws the first punch. The second, bulkier man, distinguished by his thin forehead scar, blocks the punch effortlessly and charges at the younger man in blue shorts. The men clash, clinching, while the crowd bellows with every blow struck, egging the fighters on. 

Fighters prepare to face off for the first round at CTN studios. Photo: Alastair McCready
A coach keeps his fighter cool in between rounds. Photo: Alastair McCready

One of three weekly fights per week across Phnom Penh, Cambodians young and old gather at Cambodia Television Network (CTN) studios on a sticky humid Sunday afternoon to support their favourite Kun Khmer fighters. Also known as Pradal Serey, translating as ‘free fighting’ in Khmer, Kun Khmer is Cambodia’s traditional martial art and combat sport which centres itself on controlling and regulating violence, not indulging in it.

Like other combat sports, Kun Khmer encourages fighters to push past their boundaries, and overcome the gruelling mental and physical challenges of training. For fighters that compete professionally, the fight starts outside the ring.

A fighter lands a punch. Photo: Alastair McCready

20-year old Lon Pantha is among the several fighters awaiting their turn to enter the ring. He sits on the bench of a crowded locker room at the CTN studios, looking pensive as coaches around him fuss over their mentees, rubbing vaseline on their most likely areas of impact to stop skin tearing through the fight.  

“Being a Kun Khmer boxer is not easy,” Pantha tells Southeast Asia Globe. “We have to train very hard every day in order to compete. Even if we are injured, we have to persist through the pain. We don’t have time to relax or recover.”

Pantha is one of hundreds of young Cambodian fighters that have swapped their home in the provinces for Phnom Penh. At the age of seventeen, the Prey Veng province native set his sights on Kun Khmer, joining one of dozens of boxing gyms scattered around the capital, fueled by his passion for the martial art, as well as his need to earn enough money to survive.  

Lon Pantha prepares to take to the ring. Photo: Alastair McCready

A coach rubs vaseline on Pantha’s body in the locker room. Photo: Alastair McCready
Photo: Alastair McCready

At first, Pantha earned around $50 per fight – barely enough to cover food expenses. But as his reputation and prestige has grown with 65 fights under his belt, he now earns between $350 to $400 per fight, competing twice per month. 

A fighter has vaseline rubbed on him. Photo: Alastair McCready

“At first my family was not supportive of my decision to become a boxer,” reveals Pantha. “They thought it was a very hard profession to make a living, and they were worried it would seriously affect my physical health, as the sport can lead to bad injuries … but I have already come this far. My family cannot pull me back.”

The CTN camera crew ahead of the fight. Photo: Alastair McCready

Claimed by Cambodians as the original Southeast Asian martial art, the Kingdom’s national sport has made a comeback in the past two decades after being almost wiped out during the Khmer Rouge era – which saw the murder of nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Many intellectuals, artists and sportspeople were targeted during this time – including boxers.

Famed for its streetwise roughness, Kun Khmer is similar to Muay Thai in that it combines powerful kicks with the boxing-style punches, while drawing more emphasis on knee and elbow strikes. In Pradal Serey, the biggest decisive victory comes from the use of a proper elbow technique, with Cambodian fighters tending to use more elbow strikes than any other martial art in the region. 

Chan Rothana during an MMA bout. Photo: supplied.
Chan Rothana before an MMA bout. Photo: supplied.

Chan Rothana braces for impact. Photo: supplied.

I remember one fight, I was feeling extremely stressed out about it. I was representing my country, and I felt pressured. I would overthink and imagine what would happen if I won or lost the fight. That affected my performance and the results weren’t great

Kun Khmer fighter Chan Rothana

For people competing on a professional level, Kun Khmer is marred by mental and physical challenges, with the decision for a fighter like Pantha to participate in a competition is usually out of their hands. Even if they are injured, fatigued or unprepared, this comes secondary to paying their bills and supporting their families. 

As fighters are thrown in the spotlight, with television cameras broadcasting their every move on national television, extra pressure is added for fighters to provide their fans with a ‘good’ show. This can often override the person’s concerns for his own wellbeing or that of his opponent, leading to severe injuries, according to one of the Kingdom’s most popular mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters and Kun Khmer champion Chan Rothana. 

The 34-year old One Cambodia Featherweight Grand Prix Finalist recalls a time when he felt extreme pressure to perform in front of the cameras. 

“I remember one fight, I was feeling extremely stressed out about it. I was representing my country, and I felt pressured. I would overthink and imagine what would happen if I won or lost the fight. That affected my performance and the results weren’t great. Later I focused less on that. Now I just try my best during the competition.”

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand in the years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Rothana grew up in a low-income household where martial arts were a way of life. His father, a master of the ancient Khmer martial art Yutakhun Khmom, could not afford to finance the rest of Rothana’s education, so he withdrew from school in the eighth grade. 

Recognising that his son had a gift, his father led his training, encouraging him to pursue Kun Khmer full-time as a way to earn money. By the age of seventeen, Rothana entered his first competition.  

In a boxing gym named Selapak he co-owns with his wife Cindy Coupon, Rothana sits on the mat with his dog curled up at his feet. Along with balancing his responsibilities as a husband and father of two children, managing his business, training and preparing to compete professionally twice a year, the professional fighter is somewhat of a multitasker. He’s also a passionate advocate of the sport, working to fight mainstream perceptions of it as excessively violent. 

“People might think we professional athletes are bad people … they might perceive us as very rough and don’t want to get involved with us. But to me, I’m different when I’m on stage competing and offstage. I am just a regular person too,” Rothana says.

At the professional level, an athlete’s career depends on his ability to train hard and ultimately perform. Like other professional fighters, Rothana rarely has a day off. He has to constantly watch what he eats and keep himself in shape, and in the run-up to a big competition he typically spends between four to five hours training per day – consisting of running, cardio, Jiu Jitsu, and Kun Khmer.  

So with this level of daily physical training, which is essential to the life of a fighter, when injuries occur they can be catastrophic in terms of lost earnings and performance.

It took me more than a year to get back to training. I paid for the medical expense with my own money, there was no support from anywhere else

Kun Khmer fighter Ung Chamreoun

“When I practiced Kun Khmer before, I sustained common injuries that required five to six sutures. I injured my ribs once, and I was bedridden and could barely move for almost a month,” Rothana says.

A month might not seem like long, but for amateur fighters barely earning enough to survive, a month out of action can stall a career, or even end it. 

When 26-year old Kun Khmer fighter Ung Chamreoun was at the beginning of his career, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his ankle during a fight live on Southeast Asia TV in 2018. He was rushed to hospital and underwent surgery. 

Ung Chamreoun recovering from surgery after his ACL injury in 2018. Photo: supplied.
Photo: supplied.

“It took me more than a year to get back to training. I paid for the medical expense with my own money, there was no support from anywhere else,” Chamreoun says. 

Without a contract or health insurance, Chamreoun’s injury almost cost him his career, as well as placed him in a crippling financial bind. Like Rathana, Chamreoun’s side-family business saved him from complete financial ruin while he was unable to earn money from competing. 

While he will make a full recovery and will return to competition in three to four months, Chamreoun’s story is a reminder of how few protection mechanisms there are for Kun Khmer fighters, unless they can land contracts, something generally reserved for the sport’s elite performers. 

As the sun swelters, retired Kun Khmer champion and coach Thun Sophea runs around the running track of Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium – a crumbling 5,000 seater built in the 1920s that now plays host to community-run sporting events. His body is wrapped in tight plastic, disguised under the thick fabric of his tracksuit, as a way to sweat more and speed up his weight loss. 

When the 40-year old retired champion stops to catch his breath, he gestures towards his beat-up boxing gym, set up in a corner of the colonial era stadium, complete with strewn mats, punching bags dangling off coarse rope, and black tires used for training peppering the ground. His grin serves as a warm and wide invitation to observe his afternoon session training some of Cambodia’s most promising Kun Khmer fighters.

Thun Sophea at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium watching his students train. Photo: Rachna Thim.

Students trickle into the gym one-by-one, some as young as eight, quietly taking their positions kicking sandbags, wrestling, punching and jumping on the black tires. Sophea circles around the gym with a thin black wire, gently slapping his mentees lightly on the arms if their pace slows.

Sophea’s career hit its peak in 2006 when he won the CTN Traditional Khmer Kickboxing championship. In 2011, he was labelled as one of Cambodia’s highest paid athletes, making roughly $30,000 per year – a modest sum when compared with his Western counterparts. But behind Sophea’s success, lies a story of perseverance and financial struggle. 

Thun Sophea coaching his students. Photo: Rachna Thim.

“[When I was a boy] the Kun Khmer industry was diminishing in front of my eyes, so I decided to start training seriously in 1993. At first, the sport was not widely known. Most of the human resources were lost during the Khmer Rouge, and afterwards people were more focused on survival. They did not have time to think about entertainment at all,” Sophea tells Southeast Asia Globe.

In his early days around 1995, he says that he had to persevere through food shortages, poor equipment and live off fees of around $20 per fight.

“Back then, the facilities to practice were not well-equipped for training, and there wasn’t enough to eat. Still, we competed out of passion. But it barely left us with anything,” the former champion says. 

The picture looks vastly different now. Sophea’s mentee, Thun Chandak, earned $2500 from his championship win in 2016. 

Thun Chandak practicing his kicks. Photo taken by Rachna Thim

Thanks to the establishment of Cambodian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Federation in 2018 and the Kun Khmer International Federation, fighters like Chandak now embrace a mix of martial art techniques, not limiting themselves to Kun Khmer alone, and therefore have the opportunity to compete at an international level. 

Soreasmey Ke Bin, Cambodia MMA Federation Vice President, looks back on how far Kun Khmer has come in Cambodia, but says if the Kingdom’s fighters want to flourish, they need to diversify their skillset. 

“Kun Khmer is the true Cambodian martial art. It has already been a victory to see the ONE Championship listing Kun Khmer among their martial arts, and more is coming,” he says. “Every Cambodian knows it, but internationally speaking we are nowhere close to Muay Thai fame … We believe that the MMA scene, with its international fight promoters such as ONE or UFC, is where we should stand and raise our flag.”

Kun Khmer is the true Cambodian martial art. It has already been a victory to see the ONE Championship listing Kun Khmer among their martial arts, and more is coming

Ke Bin, Cambodia MMA Federation Vice President

But Kun Khmer’s prominence is growing. The majority of the weekly matches held are now televised live on national, and occasionally regional, television. There are also over a hundred boxing clubs nationwide, with new gyms opening up in droves and growing amounts of students, mostly local but some foreign, looking to train in the Kingdom’s national sport. 

Last year alone, between 10-12 Cambodian fighters went overseas to compete on an international level, according to Bin. For organisations like Cambodia MMA Federation, it’s about gathering victories and promoting local fighters. These victories are already happening with Chan Rothana, and other successful fighters like Nou Srey Pov and Em Sovannhary.

So as local fighters rise up, overcoming financial struggle and the gruelling mental and physical challenges related to the sport, Kun Khmer becomes something much more than a competitive martial art. 

Behind this national sport, lies a struggle for survival and exposure, a story of how fighters must sacrifice and work hard for the hopes of not just making it big, but merely subsisting. 

“Training is not easy. I have some scars and injuries from training and competing. People who do not know that I am a boxer usually misunderstand and think that I am a bad person,” says aspiring Kun Khmer fighter Chandak. “But I persevere through the hardships due to my love for the [sport].”

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