Martial arts have formed part of Cambodian culture since Angkorian times, but now a new form of fighting – mixed martial arts or MMA – looks set to have the country gripped. As the world-famous ONE FC competition makes its debut in the Kingdom this month, Marissa Carruthers steps into the cage. Photography by Charles Fox.

A lean teenager throws a blow at a black punching bag hanging from a makeshift tin roof. Next to him, two younger fighters, gleaming with sweat in the oppressive heat, grapple on worn mats at the modest gym near Russian Market in Phnom Penh. 

As the training ground for a team of Cambodian mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, the one-room A Fighter Gym is a far cry from the elite complexes where opponents in Singapore, Malaysia and the United States spar day and night. Yet the simple surroundings have proved vital in spawning the MMA movement, which has been sweeping the country since former MMA star and coach Chan Reach moved to the Kingdom in late 2012. 

“I came to Cambodia because I wanted to introduce MMA fighting here,” says the American-born Cambodian. “They love fighting here so it made sense to try and introduce something new.” 

The sports’ popularity has since exploded, with a string of fighters switching from the traditional Cambodian kickboxing discipline of Kun Khmer to the more diverse techniques involved in MMA. The trend looks set to flourish further with Asia’s biggest MMA organisation, ONE FC, set to fly a string of champions – along with its professional cage, staging, lighting and camera crews – to the Kingdom for an international spectacular on Sep. 12.

“This is really putting the spotlight on not only the talent here in Cambodia, but the country itself,” Reach says, with a proud smile. Together with two fighters at the gym – female competitor Tharoth Sam and featherweight Prak Chansin – he will be among the seven Cambodians taking to the cage for the show, which will be screened in more than 70 countries.Traditional

Fighting
MMA may be the latest form of fighting to come to Cambodia, but the roots of the country’s inherent love of martial arts are steeped deep in history. 

Fighting arts were used as a type of weaponry as long ago as the Angkorian period, with Yuthakun Khom thought to be the original form of Khmer combat. Dating back to the late 12th century, during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, Yuthakun Khom – meaning martial art of the moon – was developed as a form of close-contact fighting. The aim was to fight to kill, with keeping the enemy at bay imperative in the era.

Yuthakun Khom is made up of thousands of moves that cover four disciplines: kicking, punching, wrestling and weaponry. Each of the moves is said to mirror an animal’s hunting stance, with fighters choosing a beast – such as a lion, tiger or eagle – to represent in the ring. 

“During Angkor, it was all close-contact fighting. This meant the martial art had to be effective and efficient in keeping the enemy away,” explains Chan Rathana, who has devoted the last decade to learning the ancient art, picking up more than 500 of the 9,958 moves. 

Following in the footsteps of generations of his forefathers, the fighter, who will be taking part in the ONE FC event, learnt the art from his dad, Lok Kru Chan Bunthoeun, who was one of just two grand masters who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. In 2013, the 29-year-old co-founded Selapak Living Arts School, which puts on performances and classes. “For me, it is important that we keep this part of my country’s culture alive,” he says.

Kun Khmer, or Pradel Serey, is a modern-day derivative of the traditional form of Yuthakun Khom. As an unarmed form of kickboxing, it is considered Cambodia’s national sport. As well as kicks, the sport involves punches, and elbow and knee strikes.

“Kun Khmer runs in the blood of Cambodians,” explains Reach, who began his martial arts career in the sport after being inspired by the skills of his father and uncle, who were also trained fighters. 

The 26-year-old went on to compete in Kun Khmer in America, winning 136 out of 137 fights, before switching his skills to MMA in 2001. With 13 professional MMA wins under his belt, four years ago he retired and moved to Phnom Penh. 

“I know the passion they have for fighting in Cambodia,” Reach says. “There was no MMA here and it seemed like a natural progression, so I came to Cambodia with the sole purpose of introducing it.”

MMA Movement
In 1993, television critic Howard Rosenberg made history when he described the debut battle of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as “mixed martial arts”. Little did he know that what he coined as MMA would become one of the world’s fastest growing sports and, more than 20 years later, fighters from the Cambodian countryside would be devoting their lives to gruelling training.

 “Combat sports have always had a strong following in Cambodia due to the popularity of Khmer Boxing,” explains Victor Cui, chief executive officer of ONE FC. “We love Cambodia’s passion for combat sports and, with the growth of MMA, it’s apt to bring Asia’s largest MMA event to a country rich with a combat sport culture.”

The CEO believes that the upcoming event, which will see flyweight Geje Eustaquio of the Philippines take on Brazilian Adriano Moraes and Singaporean star Radeem Rahman fight Taiwanese MMA pioneer Sung Ming Yen, will throw the spotlight on both Kun Khmer and Cambodian culture.

And behind the shuttered doors of A Fighter Gym in Phnom Penh, sportsmen and women are practising the diverse range of fighting forms – including boxing, Muay Thai and wrestling – that make-up MMA in preparation for the much-anticipated ONE FC bouts. The air is heavy with humidity as Cambodians as young as eight spar next to a line of shirtless men, who thrust their feet above their heads in unison before launching a flurry of sharp jabs.

For the determined fighters, the event not only offers an international platform to showcase their skills on home turf but also the chance to secure life-changing sums of money. “Being given the opportunity to fight for ONE FC is a really big thing,” Reach explains. “For local fighters it really can be life-changing financially.” 

With local matches offering as little as $25 and up to $200 for a win, the popularity of international MMA fights brings with it the big bucks. ONE FC offers an attractive package to those it recruits to its ranks, negotiating high-paying contracts. 

“These are usually in the multi-figure deals, with the top end being six digits, plus sponsorships and endorsements on top,” says Loren Mack, head of media at ONE FC. “This isn’t small money, certainly not when you compare it to the average earnings of fights in Cambodia.”

Fighting Champs
This month’s ONE FC extravaganza isn’t the first time Cambodian fighters have taken to the international stage. Bursting with pride, Long Sophy recalls his stomach churning with excitement and nerves when he made his debut with the organisation. 

A year ago, the 23-year-old stepped into “the cage” with renowned Indonesian fighter Max Metino in a bout in Jakarta – making Long, who made the transition from Kun Khmer, Cambodia’s first professional MMA fighter.

“I was very happy,” he says, remembering being blown away by the enormity of the event, which attracted a crowd of around 15,000. “I’d never fought at anything like it before. I was also very proud because I was the first one to stand on the international stage and represent Cambodia.”

With his toned, willowy physique and passion for the sport, he was destined to be a fighter. It was as a 13-year-old living in Battambang province when his career began. “All my family are fighters so it was natural I would be too. I loved the rush you get when you step into the ring, the atmosphere, the training,” he says. 

It was those elements amplified that made him decide to switch to MMA. “I wanted to learn more martial arts, push myself more,” the featherweight, who was defeated in his MMA debut, says. “MMA seemed to be the perfect way to do that.” 

Long has been helping to spur on fellow hopefuls who have been recruited to the ONE FC ranks. The Sep. 12 event will see Reach take on Chin Heng, while Sam Chansin will fight Chan Rothana. Tharoth Sam will face fellow female Cambodian fighter Bun Srey Moa.

 “I’m really excited because I came to this country with the aim of introducing and developing MMA and now I’m here making history,” says Reach. “This is the first time a major event has come here and to be part of it along with those I train is incredible.”

Future of Fighting
With MMA’s popularity likely to soar, the future looks bright for the country’s fighters. With their natural strengths in striking and stand-up fighting, MMA coach Barry Guerin believes that with more training, funding and awareness, Cambodia could well create waves on the international platform. 

“Here, people start kickboxing at a young age and develop a body that can take the grind and punishment of an MMA fight,” Guerin, who moved to the Kingdom last year to train local fighters after spending eight years in Japan, says. 

But more focus on grappling skills and combining different fighting styles are essential components in equipping local fighters with the skills needed to survive on the international stage. 

“Fighters here need to take more of a Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do [a martial art created by Lee] approach, and simply take the best of judo, jiu-jitsu, wresting, boxing, karate, all styles,” Guerin adds. “They need to take what works for them and implement those techniques to fit their physique.”

More funding and sponsorship deals are also essential to improve training facilities, and ultimately the quality of local fighters. This would bring the sport up to an international level and enable the country to tap into the multi-million dollar global MMA market. 

“Here, we don’t have the luxury of being able to train for MMA every day,” Reach explains. “The fighters here have to fight in order to feed their families, even if that means taking part in a $25 boxing match.” But hopes are high that the international spotlight that ONE FC brings will propel the sport into the mainstream, bringing with it a new chapter in the country’s long history of martial arts.  

ONE FC: Rise of the Kingdom will bring the battle for the flyweight world championship to Phnom Penh on Sep. 12 at 7pm at Koh Pich Arena. The fight will be screened live on STAR Sports and at onefc.livesport.tv. Tickets cost $20, $50 and start at $80 for cage-side experience. They can be bought from sponsors NagaWorld and My TV on National Highway 5. 

Mixed martial arts in the Kingdom. Martial arts have formed part of Cambodian culture since Angkorian times, now mixed martial has arrived in the kingdom Female Fighters

Baggy boxing shorts and a sports T-shirt are the only giveaway that Tharoth Sam is seasoned in MMA. The petite 23-year-old’s sweet smile and warm eyes are a world away from the grizzled stereotype of a female fighter. 

As feisty outside the cage as in, Tharoth went against her parents’ wishes to pursue a career in martial arts, after falling in love with Khmer boxing while watching a friend fight. 

In 2007, she began training under the supervision of grandmaster San Kim Sean and went on to become one of the country’s top female kick boxers, travelling across the globe to showcase the sport through choreographed performances in Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

Despite being given the chance to travel the world, Tharoth‘s dream was to swap the stage for the ring and start fighting. Six months ago, she took up MMA and has proved to pack a punch in the cage to date. “My parents don’t like me being an MMA fighter,” she says. “They worry it will ruin my face.” 

Now she has made it her mission to let the world know about Kun Khmer. “I want to represent Kun Khmer and Cambodian martial arts to the whole world,” says Tharoth, who was born on the Thai-Cambodian border before moving to the capital aged three. “Everyone seems to know about Thai boxing but not ours. I want this to change.”

She is encouraging more women to take up fighting, with only a few currently attending MMA training sessions at Phnom Penh’s A Fighters Gym, and hopes her debut international cage battle with ONE FC will help push her message.  

“This is an opportunity I have always dreamed of. To be able to show my culture and my passion to so many people and show that as a Cambodian woman I can do this is amazing,” she says.

Get involved

Trying out martial arts is easy, with the capital full of classes exploring different techniques and styles.

Selapak Living Arts
The centre holds adult group sessions in Yuthakun Khom daily from 5pm, 6pm and 7pm. Children’s group sessions take place at 4pm every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Private classes and demonstrations can be made by reservation. To find out more, visit the studio at 117 Street 110, Phnom Penh. Tel: 089 793 239 or email info@selapak-cambodia.com.

Aikido
The Japanese martial art of Aikido is taught by expert Lance Jackson every Wednesday from 4.30pm to 7pm at the Royal University of Law and Economics, Monivong Boulevard, and at the Olympic Stadium, Monday to Friday from 5.45pm to 7pm and from 8am to 10am on weekends.

Krav Maga
Classes in Krav Maga, the form of fighting developed for and used by the Israeli military, take place every Tuesday and Thursday from 4.45pm to 6.45pm at K-1 Fitness Factory, 131 Street 199, Phnom Penh.

Live Kickboxing
Kun Khmer fights take place at numerous TV stations. Check listings for confirmation. TV5 usually hosts boxing on Fridays and Saturdays, with Bayon and CTN screening matches on Saturdays and Sundays. The CTN Arena, north of the Japanese Friendship Bridge, is packed out for Sunday afternoon fights from 2pm.