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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Silver lining clouds Khmer kick-boxing

Silver lining clouds Khmer kick-boxing


July 20, and in the first round of the 60-kilogram kickboxing championship fight,

favorite Oth Pouthong lands a series of vicious elbow blows that split the skin on

Pin Sophal's forehead.

Pin Sophal gets bandaged after his July 20 loss to Oth Pouthong.

The underdog tries to punch his way through, but only makes it two minutes into the

bout because the gash cannot be closed. As blood pours down Sophal's chest, the championship

is awarded to Pouthong.

Predictably, Sophal's fellow boxing club members are unhappy with the decision. Pong

Savrith, the director of the Municipal Gendarmerie Volunteer Boxing Association,

says his fighter wasn't seriously hurt, and the injury was not bad enough to warrant

interrupting the match.

"To stop him from finishing the first round was an irregularity, and I suspect

that the judges and referee made the decision because they took Pouthong's side,"

he says. "In international boxing matches, some fighters get so bloody it covers

their body, but those who are still strong enough fight on."

If blood is one side of the sport, money is the other. Savrith says gamblers telephoned

him during the fight and offered him $1,000 to tell his fighter to throw the match,

but he refused. He complains that favoritism of fighters such as Pouthong, the younger

brother of popular heavyweight champion Eh Bouthong, undermines the development of

kickboxing.

Savrith also feels that some trainers or kickboxing clubs try to get benefits from

their favorites rather than thinking about the quality of the fight.

"If they continue to take the side of certain boxers, we will never win a gold

medal in international competition," he predicts. "If partisanship remains

within the boxing federation, we will not improve the quality of our boxers."

Long Salavorn, a trainer at the Police Club and a fighter until 1998, has witnessed

the sport's rebirth from refugee camps on the Thai border ten years ago. He was never

approached to throw a match during his career, and says gamblers only really began

to influence the sport three years ago.

CABA vice president Okhna Oum Yourann.

"There's no evidence to prove it, but there is a problem between boxers and

gamblers," Salavorn says.

Given that neither Cambodia nor the fight business have a sparkling image when it

comes to payoffs, that's not too surprising. Boxers are generally from poor families

and are lucky to be picked to fight on Saturdays or Sundays. Pay per fight ranges

from 50,000 riel ($12.50) for the least experienced kickboxers to 300,000 riel ($75)

for celebrities such as heavyweight champ Bouthong.

Salavorn says poor fighters are offered bribes of 300,000 riel to throw a match,

and warns they can be confused by the conflicting draws of honor and money.

Renowned trainer Troeung Soh Say of the National Gendarmerie Club agrees. Despite

the lousy pay, the sport has a rich heritage that dates to the pre-Angkorian period.

He says kickboxing is even depicted in carvings on the wall of Angkor Thom temple.

So, do Pong Savrith's grumbling about the July 20 championship match have substance,

or are they just the result of a sore loser?

The first vice-president of the Cambodia Amateur Boxing Association (CABA), Okhna

Oum Yourann, insists the Municipal Gendarmerie's complaints about that particular

match are groundless since, in accordance with international boxing rules, it is

the decision of the attending doctor to stop the bout if a fighter is bleeding profusely.

"The clubs sometimes just take the side of their own boxers and don't respect

the judges," says Yourann. "But the worst complaints come from people who

bet money. People don't trust the result because they don't have the experience.

They don't know how boxers win points."

That sentiment is shared by the chief of referees and judges, Meas Sokry. He says

all complaints about match-fixing come from losing gamblers who attend the matches.

Although judges sometimes make technical mistakes or cannot see the fight because

the referee is in the way, they do try hard to ensure the boxers get a fair score.

And what about the rumored corruption?

"I dare not draw any conclusions about whether my judges or referees take bribes,"

Sokry says.

Khmer kickboxing has come a long way since the CABA's inception in 1990. It began

as a Western-style boxing organization, but evolved as people began to seek out those

who worked as kickboxing trainers before the Khmer Rouge. Yourann says there are

now 80 boxing clubs.

"The skill in Khmer kickboxing here is now improving because it gets support

from TV5 and TV3," he says. "Each boxer can fight for money twice a month

if they're good, but usually they can't afford to do that because usually they don't

eat enough and don't sleep enough."

The matches are broadcast on TV3 on Saturdays and TV5 on Sundays. Marketing staff

at both stations say the fights consistently rank as their highest rated programs.

The nationwide Saturday audience usually ranges from 3 to 4 million people, while

1.5 million in and around Phnom Penh watch the live Sunday broadcast.

But a recent study of gambling activities shows that only 3 percent of bettors prefer

to wager money on kickboxing, compared to 48 percent who will bet money on international

soccer games. Given the sheer volume of people watching kickboxing, the difference

could well be down to people's lack of faith that the local sport is clean.

Even Yourann agrees that results of kickboxing matches often aren't trusted, and

he acknowledges that corruption still exists in the sport. He says some high-rolling

gamblers who watch the fights on television try to buy kickboxers at the weekend

fights for $500 to $1,000.

He also talks of national hero Eh Bouthong being told by gamblers if he lost in a

certain round when he fought a foreign kickboxer, he could get $20,000.

Bouthong says Yourann's comment is true, except for the size of the bribe.

"I was offered a bribe when I was supposed to fight a foreigner, but turned

it down after I ran along the street and was cheered on by motodops," he says.

"I decided I had to win, and turned down the offer of a brand new 2002 motorbike.

[Gamblers] took it to my house in Koh Kong but I told my wife not to accept it."

Yourann asserts that a push by the CABA to bring back a sheen of purity to the sport

has improved the situation in recent months. Now if a fighter does not show enough

effort, the match is stopped and he is declared the loser.

"We're trying to improve the judges so they can examine the boxers," Yourann

says. "If they don't want to show their abilities according to their experience,

judges will expel them from the floor so people won't get any money."

By not demonstrating his ability, the fighter is then suspended for two months. Yourann

says a kickboxer can even be banned from the association if there is tangible evidence

he took a bribe.

So have the CABA's measures made a difference? All the interviewees, including champion

Bouthong, agree they have.

"There used to be a lot of buying of kickboxers last year. Young boxers accepted

bribes of $50 to $200 because they are poor," Bouthong says. "But now I

think that bribery in the sport has decreased because of the very strict rules the

trainers and judges and president of the boxing federation have taken action against

boxers. There is still some, but it is difficult to accuse them."

So far this year ten kickboxers and five referees have been suspended. There is a

discipline committee to keep watch over boxers, and monthly meetings between the

association and clubs.

The vice president says the association even conducts investigations at coffee shops

where gamblers gather to watch the televised bouts. Yourann says if investigators

catch a whiff of anything suspicious, they warn judges to stay on guard during certain

matches.

"There's gambling everywhere-it's a world issue," he says. "[But]

we try to improve this because it's one part of our national culture."

One of the suspended fighters is Long Kimsen, who is now back at the National Police

Club and training hard for his comeback. He was given an eight-week suspension for

a perceived lack of effort in a mid-June match.

"It isn't fair to suspend me from fighting when there was no investigation-if

I took a bribe I would admit it," Kimsen says. "In the first round I fought,

but in the second and third round I tried not to fight. I was waiting for my partner

to lose energy during the fourth and fifth round. But in the third round they ejected

me and told me that I didn't show enough of my ability and was only pretending to

fight."

The winner of 270 bouts adds that another kickboxer named Veng Peo was also unfairly

suspended. Kimsen says although he has heard that some fighters take bribes for up

to $300, kickboxers also sometimes don't sleep or eat enough. When they really don't

have required energy to fight, he says, they get accused of tanking on purpose.

Yourann sympathizes with the lack of support for kickboxers, but is certain Kimsen

took $500 to give less effort. The Police Club's Salavorn says he will welcome his

fighter back into the fold regardless.

"I don't know what was the reason behind it, but I don't think my boxer showed

enough of his ability to beat his partner," says the trainer. "I feel that

I can accept that my boxer simply made a mistake."

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