Professional fighter and director of Phnom Penh’s K1 Fitness & Fight Factory, Francois Xavier Leal de la Torre, known as FX, tells Ellie Dyer how a trip to Asia aged 18 changed his life. Photography by Colorblind.

What brought you to Asia?
I grew up in Toulouse in Southwest France and started to practice Viet Vo Dao [an acrobatic Vietnamese martial art] at age eight. My mother is Vietnamese and all my uncles practice it, so it’s like a family tradition.

I first arrived in Vietnam when I was 18 years old. I went there with a few guys from France who practised Viet Vo Dao. I was supposed to stay for one month to train with some Vietnamese old masters, but when it was time to leave, I couldn’t go back. It was scary, but exciting too.

You met your K1 colleague David Minetti in Vietnam. How did that come about?
I started boxing with David and became his student a few months after I arrived. One day, I had a problem with the owner of my house, and he put me out. I lost my apartment, didn’t have enough money and had no job. David told me: “I’ll teach you how to be a kickboxing instructor.” I said OK, let’s do this. I went with my bag to his house and asked to leave my stuff there for two days – I never left.

After eight years in Vietnam we had three gyms – two in Saigon and one in Hanoi. Then David decided to come to Phnom Penh to open a new K1 centre. We opened here three years ago and are more focused on fighting sports, from English boxing to Thai boxing and Kun Khmer, grappling and mixed martial arts UFC style. We also teach Krav Maga. It’s an Israeli form of self-defense and very useful for woman. We also run cardio classes that are more focused on improving your condition, speed, explosiveness and losing extra weight.

You trained initially in martial arts, but now box. How was that transition?

In Viet Vo Dao, I didn’t really learn how to receive a punch, so it was very hard to keep my eyes open when I got hit, as it’s not natural. But after a few training sessions, I started to like it and enjoyed boxing much more than Viet Vo Dao, maybe because it was more real and effective.

You have fought Kun Khmer professionally. What does it feel like to enter the ring?
In Vietnam, I couldn’t fight as it’s a communist country and you, or your family name, have to be Vietnamese. When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I started to fight in Kun Khmer. I have fought professionally four times and won three. 

When the K1 instructors go to fight we always have our fan club, both Khmers and foreigners, behind us for support. They do it very well, trust me. That helps a lot when you go to fight – you have to give all that you have to make them proud. When you step in the ring, you can hear all the crowd scream. It’s you against him and nobody can help you. All the feelings you have are positive. Fear becomes excitement and the fight becomes a game.

What attributes are required to become good at fighting sports?
If you do it as a professional fighter, you must have fighting spirit – liking the contact and wanting to push your limits, even if it’s further than you think is possible.

The training is much more difficult than the fight. You have to be ready for a “war”. You can’t give up, as training starts when you feel pain. If you can finish the training, then that means it wasn’t hard enough. It’s better to suffer in training than in the ring.

Finally, what do you think constitutes a fighting spirit?
I think it’s something you have inside you. Some people have it naturally and some have it but don’t know it yet. You discover and improve, and the training helps a lot, along with the people around you.

My brother says that boxing is the most collective of the individual sports. Without your coach and training partner who suffer with you, your family and friends who motivate you when you feel down and want to quit, you can’t become better. It’s not possible. Even after 20 years of practice, I’m just starting to learn.

For more information on classes, visit the K1 Fitness & Fight Factory’s Facebook page.