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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kick-boxing draws fighters and fans

Kick-boxing draws fighters and fans

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Boxers Phal Sophea and Chea Sam Ath vie for supremacy

In a crowded hall leading to the ring, trainers massage their fighters with oil while

young fans draw close, staring in awe at their boxing heroes.

Moments before a bout is announced the fighters stand and stretch, throwing kicks

and punches in the air and scattering the throng.

After a quick prayer, the fighters enter the ring at Phnom Penh's TV5, then perform

the khun kru - a traditional dance paying homage to their spirit trainer - as the

sound of flutes, cymbals, and cheers fill the stadium...

The "four-faced Brahma" dance allows fighters to see their opponents from

all directions.

Every boxer has his own dancing style, says trainer Troeung Sohsay.

Dancing the "Ramayana" one boxer launches an imaginary arrow at an invisible

opponent, Krong Riep, the giant-king of the Hindu epic.

Not taking any chances, his real opponent drops to the mat as the invisible arrow

is released at him.

The relative serenity of the pre-fight ritual vanishes with the sound of the bell.

The fighters salute with a tap of the gloves and then unleash a frenzy of violence,

battering each other with knees, fists, and feet.

Eh Phu Thong, 22, from Koh Kong, is Cambodia's kickboxing champion. He began training

when he was eight, taught to survive in the ring by his father who toured the Thai

countryside as a professional.

"My early training was very hard. My father would beat me in the face until

I bled. I had to struggle," said Phu Thong.

He first entered the ring at 11, winning his first fight in Thailand.

Phu Thong's record since then is impressive. Of his 107 professional bouts he has

lost only five.

To reach Phu Thong's level as a fighter requires strict discipline. "I train

hard so I'm strong in kicking, punching, and using my knee and shins," he said.

To toughen his shins he soaks them in salt water and rolls bamboo across them every

morning. He then runs 20km and spends hours working out with a punching bag.

"In the ring I must have both strength and determination to beat my opponent,"

he said. "In the first round I study his technique, searching for his vulnerabilities

and deciding how best to confront him."

Phu Thong s fears no man. "I was scared during my first fight, but if you are

frightened, you can't win."

He has won so often it is now difficult to find worthy opponents. Nevertheless, rumors

are spreading that his power is waning - but these were put to rest at the January,

28 bout at TV5.

Phu Thong responded to the taunts of his critics by landing a blow which tore open

his opponent's cheek, ending the fight decisively. It was his 108th victory.

As his dazed and bloodied opponent grasped the ropes for support, Phu Thong skipped

off into the crowd to collect cash his thrilled fans were waving at him

"TV5 officials said if they hold a championship competition they will give me

the belt without having to fight because they are sure I will win," he said.

Anyone who thinks kick boxing is easy may well be dead wrong. In 1999 Phu Thong watched

an untrained fighter, a policeman, try his luck at a bout in Battambang.

"He was beaten in the face and his nose bled. He didn't lie face down to let

the blood come out. The blood reversed into his brain and he died in the ring."

Phu Tong has come a long way from the little boy who was struck by his father to

toughen him up, but he is still not satisfied. "I want to be the champion of

the world."

Another young veteran of the ring, Krak Samphos, 22, has some 200 fights to his credit.

Samphos says he has little to show for all the punishment he has taken and meted

out in the ring.

"Boxers are not paid enough to make a living. I barely make enough money to

buy a bowl of noodle soup in the morning and a glass of fruit drink at night."

He fears that kick boxing in Cambodia will stagnate unless more prize money is offered.

Samphos says boxing is a hard life and he is haunted by memories of two men he has

killed in the ring.

In 1997 he fought an illegal fight arranged by a gambling syndicate in Thailand.

"I knocked out my opponent in the fourth round. I landed three kicks on his

neck and he dropped to the floor dead. The Thai authorities wanted to arrest me."

In 1998 Samphos fought another deadly bout in Thailand. "I lost, but my opponent

died the instant he stepped outside the ring. I believe I broke his ribs with my

kicking. I feel very sad about these accidents."

Though the boxers aren't getting rich, the organizers of these bouts are making money

and large sums of cash openly exchange hands between gamblers.

The Sunday boxing competitions at TV5 are sponsored by M-150 'energy' drink. M-150

provides prize money and pays the expenses of the referees and staff.

Kanica, the fight manager, says they will sell anywhere from 700 to 2,500 tickets

a match. Ticket prices range from 3,500 to 4,500 riels.

He says gambling is becoming a concern. "We do not want betting in the hall.

Before they enter the hall, we ask fans not to gamble because we want to maintain

the virtue of the fights," said Kanica

"We are trying to tackle this problem in co-operation with the authorities and

the Khmer Amateur Boxing Association (KABA).

Kanica acknowledged that boxers have not been well-rewarded for their efforts, but

TV5 management and M-150 have just increased the prize money to 300,000 for the winners

of the top class bouts.

Lieutenant Colonel Tem Moeun, Commander of Cambodia Royal Armed Forces Sport Center

and 2nd Deputy Director of KABA, says the future is looking more promising for professional

kickboxers

There are now more than 60 boxing clubs throughout Cambodia with just over 300 professional

boxers registered with KABA.

Besides the Sunday bouts broadcast live from TV5, there are regularly scheduled fights

staged in Battambang, Siem Reap, and Banteay Meanchey. KABA is trying to find more

sponsors with the aim of creating job opportunities for young boxers, many of whom

are poor.

Moeun takes pride in Cambodia's kickboxing heritage. "Thai people said kickboxing

belongs to them. It does not belong to any nation. It has existed since Angkorian

times. Images of Khmers performing martial arts are carved on the walls of Bayon

and Angkor Wat temples.

"These arts were invented by Pre-Angkorean Khmers in order to defend themselves

from foreign invaders and wildlife. Its source originally came from Siem Reap and

Battambang provinces. I believe Angkorean kings trained their army in martial arts

to defend Cambodia from enemies."

Chhit Sarim, 53, a kickboxing instructor for the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces Sport

Center at the old Olympic stadium, has a lifetime of experience in the ring to share

with today's young boxers.

He is one of only a handful of professional boxers to survive the Khmer Rouge regime.

"I began fighting when I was 15. I traveled from pagoda to pagoda to box at

competitions during the water festival," he said. Pagodas were the traditional

venue for boxing matches.

Sarim trained alone at his village in Siem Reap before finding a trainer in 1960.

He went on to fight 110 times, losing only twice. He remembers villagers' tales of

a kick boxing tournaments held near his village during the early half of last century

"Coffins were placed near the ring ready for the possibility of a dead loser,"

said Sarim. "The boxers did not use gloves to protect from injury, they just

wrapped silk thread around their fists. On their arms they tied katei - magical plants

wrapped in red pieces of cloth that would cause their opponent to see multiple images

of their body in the ring. They were great boxers."

Sarin's fights eventually brought him to the pagodas of Phnom Penh in 1961. During

King Norodom Sihanouk's rule, Sarim could make a good living boxing in the city.

"When I won the contest, I always gave some money to my friends. I always celebrated

with them."

In 1973 Sarim moved to Pailin where people openly bet on the fights.

"I fought there till Battambang city fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

It was the last fight in Pailin. The boxing committee stopped the competition because

we were told the Khmer Rouge took over."

After the KR regime, Sarim worked as a driver for the Ministry of Commerce for nearly

10 years.

"I returned to kickboxing in 1992, but only as a trainer. I was very upset when

I saw Cambodian kick boxers fighting with Thais. They were so poorly trained, fighting

with no special technique," he said.

Though kickboxing skills are again on the rise, Sarim is not impressed by the behavior

of fans.

"They act inappropriately. They raise up their hands and scream noisily. They

gamble and do not respect the boxers. They think of only winning their bet.

"During my time, there was no such thing. Fights were organized nicely and were

very popular. Now fans have no morality," said Sarim.

At the close of the Sunday bout at TV5, the Post spoke to a battered young fighter

with the heart of a warrior, but the soul of an artist.

Wincing as a suture was pulled through his flesh, closing a gaping wound across his

brow, Nuon Soriya, 21, said he was ready to throw in the towel. "Now I am learning

to draw. I want to be a painter," he said.

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