To the ire of Cambodians everywhere, what the world knows about the sport of Southeast Asian kickboxing comes from exposure to its Thai brand name. Even most professional fighters know little of the sport’s origins.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand all claim kickboxing as national heritage. Yet over the last half century — largely due to the political tragedies that engulfed her neighbors — only Thailand found much success in marketing the sport to the world.
Cambodian boxing supporters grimace at the name Muay Thai. They point to bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, a temple that predates the Kingdom of Thailand by more than 300 years, as evidence that the sport is authentic Khmer martial art.
So to many Cambodians the revival of the sport now underway is not merely a hard-won victory; it’s manifest destiny, an inevitable step on the path to reclaiming the sport for its original masters.
In Cambodia the sport of kickboxing is know colloquially as pradal serey, or “freestyle boxing.” More formally it’s called Kbach Kun Boran Khmer. In the interest of marketing the sport to the world that’s been shortened to just Kun Khmer.
From the time that UNTAC arrived in Cambodia in 1991 until November 2006 the number of registered Kun Khmer boxers rose from roughly zero to about 600. A year later the number had spiked to nearly 1,200, increasing as much in one year as it had in the previous 15.
In Cambodia television stations serve as fight promoters. In previous years one and sometimes two stations would host weekly fight cards. Today there are three stations in the business, which together host some 35 professional fights every weekend, often times more.
The veteran of the scene is TV5, which has been holding and televising Kun Khmer matches for more than a decade. Until only recently TV5 held matches every Friday and Sunday at the famous Borei Keila stadium, where a generation of fighters watched Cambodian national champion Eh Phoutang smash foreign and local fighters with regularity.
Last month TV5 moved into the new Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Arena, located on the grounds of the Old Stadium. TV5 still holds fights on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
The newest player is Bayon TV, which held its first fights just three months ago, an all-day affair in the indoor arena of Olympic Stadium. By the time of the main event the 7,000 seat arena was virtually packed.
Since then Bayon TV’s regular Saturday afternoon cards have proven exceptionally popular. Like TV5, Bayon TV too has a brand new stadium.
Building on the success of their debut fight card Bayon has another afternoon of international fights scheduled for June 15th, this time at their new stadium about 2 kilometers past the Monivong Bridge.
The last of the three stations is Cambodian Television Network, which has done as much to help drive the popularity of the sport as it has ridden its current wave of success.
Over the last few years CTN has worked with veteran boxing trainer and promoter Paddy Carson to strengthen the marketability of its boxing programs. Carson and CTN have put together a national team of sorts — Eh Phoutang, Nuon Soriya, Vorn Viva and Meas Chanta — that regularly takes on teams from other countries. The pair’s most recent event, a tournament against New Zealand on ANZAC Day, was the most successful card yet, selling out hours before the gates even opened.
Almost as popular has been CTN’s latest reality series, Kun Khmer Champion, for which Carson works as the technical director. The 12-week program is based on Oscar Dela Hoya’s The Next Great Champ series. Twelve fighters live and train together for three months. Two fighter are selected to fight every week, with the last man standing declared the winner.
The show has just completed the quarter-final stages, and the semi-final and final matches are scheduled for Sundays in June at CTN’s boxing arena.
The sport is growing internationally too. Promoters in Australia regularly hold matches with fighters brought in from Cambodia. Kun Khmer fighters have fought recently in the United States, France and Greece. Although they have met with limited success so far, that is certain to change.
“We have the talent here,” says Carson. “A couple of more years and we’ll have a world champion.”