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
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,"
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
"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
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."