The original version of this story incorrectly stated the dates for the Cambodian National Championships. The tournament begins October 9th.
For more Cambodian kickboxing photos, see Ian Taylor’s kickboxing set at flickr.
Cambodian kickboxing champion Eh Phoutong takes a quick breath and then explodes with a high kick. The champ’s opponent, a foreigner who no one has ever heard of, sees the kick coming and throws up his left arm to block.
The bone shatters. Eh Phoutong, a titanic source of Cambodian national pride, takes another easy victory.
For his loss and his troubles, the barang will pocket $125. Average Khmer boxers get a fraction of that for winning, about $25, less if they lose.
As a nine-to-five it’s brutal, brain damaging, and one of the toughest ways a person can make a living. But there’s no shortage of fighters.
This year, the national tournament that ranks Cambodian boxers will double in size to two rings instead of one and take place over five days instead of three. Beginning October 9th at TV5, the 2006 Cambodian National Championships will comprise 100 fights and culminate in the official ranking of dozens of fighters and crown belt winners in every weight class.
As a country, Cambodia claims 100 fight clubs, 300 registered fighters and untold thousands waiting ringside for a chance to break into the ranks. The stage of the national championships represents the crossroads for every up-and-comer in the country. Winners will go on to more fights and, with any luck, more money.
The losers? Nobody ever talks about losing. Losers don’t get anything except another year to try and come to their senses.
“I had been a professional boxer back in my village, but you can’t make any money in the provinces so I came to Phnom Penh,” says Dara, a veteran boxer who everyone knows as Boss. “A fighter earns $25 for winning a fight. How can we live on that?”
“I wound up living on the streets. And without proper food to eat, winning got harder and harder.”
Cambodia is a country full of guys like Boss. They typically come from rural families out in the provinces and are drawn to the sport by dreams of wealth. Prospects can be dim in the countryside, and subsistence farming is a way of life for many. Twenty-five dollars can represent a month’s wages or more.
If a fighter can earn a name for himself, winning stakes can jump to $50 a fight. Fight sponsors often give product too. It is common for sponsors to ceremoniously hand fighters a bottle of wine or a carton of cigarettes before their fights. The occasional big-ticket item, such as a television or a new moto, comes along every now and again too.
But a fighter’s real interest isn’t with any silly gift packs or a narrow stack of ten-spots.
The real money comes from tips. After each fight, fans in the audience will give a little congratulations money to the winner, a buck or two for up-and-comers, $50 or $100 for well-ranked fighters. Those watching on TV can call in and pledge. The better the fighter, the better the tips. Reportedly, Eh Phoutong can earn as much as $7,000 for a single 5-round fight. Prime Minister Hun Sen, an ardent boxing fan, often tips as much as $2,000 or $3,000.
To a country boy back on the farm, that’s an incredible sum of money.