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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lords of the Ring

Lords of the Ring

It's the final day of fighting at Cambodia's national team selection tournament and

the 21inch color TV sets are disappearing out the back door fast.

Fighters stand on the podium after the final bout at the national team selection tournament held between October 20 and October 31 in Phnom Penh's TV5 arena. Winners will represent Cambodia internationally.

The first-place prizes are being hauled through the rear exit of Phnom Penh's TV

5 stadium by satisfied supporters of newly crowned champs, and even by some sweat-drenched

fighters themselves.

Chan Samrith has one. The repeat champion and 2004 Southeast Asia (SEA) Games silver

medalist in the Western boxing style has just won his fifth national title, this

year in the 69 kg weight class, and carrying the cumbersome trophy is an honor he

can handle.

"I'm happy that I won and can compete again for my country," Samrith, who

hails from Phnom Penh's Talei Damrei Prich boxing club, told the Post on October

31. "I'm happy to get the prizes, too."

The exodus of electronics marked the end of 11 days of combat. The national team

selection competition began on October 20 with 876 entrants from 37 boxing clubs

and organizations from across Cambodia. Those left standing, like Samrith, will have

earned a place on the national squad to represent the country in international competitions.

The finale, which brought more than 1,000 onlookers to the cramped confines of TV5

and riveted television audiences all over the country, crowned 36 champions, 36 runners

up and 72 third-place finishers.

The atmosphere surrounding the fights is a unique sensory assault. Even the most

casual of observers would be stirred by the intensity, the clamor and the crowd.

Bullhorns call the competitors to the ring and the fervent crowd urges on - and wagers

on - their favorite fighters.

The 2006 national boxing team selection tournament featured 876 competitors from 37 fight clubs across the country. The entrants competed in both kickboxing and Western-style boxing formats for 36 coveted championsips. The first place finishers were awarded 30,000 riel and a 21-inch color TV.

Cigarette smoke curls to the ceiling with the lilting notes of the traditional musical

accompaniment and refreshments are sold by children who clamber among the spectators

seated on the creaking wooden bleachers. Sponsors' advertisements boldly proclaim

the benefits of "muscle wine" and American tobacco. Gamblers brazenly crowd

the ring, gesturing to other punters in the stands and speaking hurriedly into cell

phones. It's the premier fighting event in Cambodia - and, organizers say, a proud

national tradition.

"From beginning to end, the whole tournament has run smoothly," said Mel

Kado, secretary-general of the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Federation. "This year

we've seen improvements in the quality of fighting and the numbers of competitors

increased as well."

Kado said the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) contributed more than

$75,000 for the annual event and TV5 pitched in the prizes. The finale was presided

over by Bun Sok, secretary of state at the MoEYS. First-place winners were awarded

30,000 riel and the color TV, second-place finishers received 20,000 riel and a VCD,

third-place fighters brought home 16,000 riel and a fan.

The competition is arguably Cambodia's most popular sporting event and, for many

entrants, it is an opportunity to slug their way out of poverty, unemployment or

rural isolation.

Beuth Kham, 19, from the Salavorn Keila Club in Phnom Penh, spoke to the Post just

minutes before he received an award after winning his 60 kg final. He'd won four

consecutive fights to reach the championship and was now sitting alone, wrapping

his fists nervously, deep in the mud-stained locker rooms of the raucous arena. Kham

is a popular, up-and-coming fighter with many knockouts in his more than 50 televised

fights.

"I am just hoping that God will give me the power to fight hard and beat my

opponent," Kham said. "I have trained very hard every day to come here."

Kham emerged from the training room determined, and with a flurry of kicks and brutal

combinations advanced to a decisive victory.

"Many fighters don't have many opportunities to show their skills in competition,

and Cambodia doesn't have many chances to show its fighting styles to the world,"

said Troeung Sosay, coach of the Military Police Club in Phnom Penh. "The government

and the boxing federation should look for more opportunities to assist our fighters

and send them abroad."

Sosay said that the popularity of kickboxing could be harnessed to keep young people

from drugs, alcohol and dissolution. When youth become involved in the sport, he

added, they learn discipline and respect for Khmer traditions.

"The Khmer martial arts, like kickboxing, are a reason to be proud of being

Cambodian," he said.

For competitors from distant provinces, the competition is also an abrupt introduction

to the capital. Most travel to Phnom Penh with the members of their fight clubs,

bring their own food and sleep in the bleachers for the length of the tournament.

At last year's event, which featured more than 600 competitors and was presided over

by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, fighters who were defeated in their first fight were

given money for a return bus ticket home.

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