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Sam Tharoth celebrates victory over Vy Srey Chai by armbar at ONE: Rise of the Kingdom at the Koh Pich Theater in Phnom Penh on September 11, 2014.
Sam Tharoth celebrates victory over Vy Srey Chai by armbar at ONE: Rise of the Kingdom at the Koh Pich Theater in Phnom Penh on September 11, 2014. Sreng Meng Srun

Female MMA fighters standing tall

Although mixed martial arts is gaining popularity among women, it is still a very male-dominated sport with only a handful of professional women in the scene.

For a country as traditional as Cambodia, it is even harder for women to compete in such a sport, one that is perceived as unfeminine. However, that was what encouraged a ONE Championship’s Cambodian female MMA athlete to begin martial arts – to end gender stereotypes in her country.

“It was the gender barrier here in Cambodia that I was determined to break. I want to show the world and my country what Khmer women are capable of, and how powerful they can be. I wanted to prove that women can be just as strong and competitive as men,” Sam Tharoth said.

“At the beginning, my parents were not very supportive because Cambodian women aren’t suppose do anything remotely close to [MMA]. So I constantly competed in sport, especially in martial arts.

“I won a lot gold medals in national and international games and, after a while, my family saw my success in the sport and figured that they can’t stop me doing what I love to do, and so they started supporting me.

“Then I got into professional fighting, which I hid from my family for many years for fear of their disapproval. But soon they found out and gave me their full support,” Sam said when asked about her family’s perception of her getting involved in MMA.

“Little Frog”, as she is known because of her fondness for catching little frogs as food when she was young, is also an actress and has starred in many local Cambodian TV dramas and films. She is also to be cast in a big role in the next Angelina Jolie movie, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia, which is scheduled to begin production in December.

“Besides competing in MMA, I love performing arts. I sing, dance and act when I am not in the cage. It is difficult to juggle all three sometimes.

For example, in December alone I will need to be ready for my ONE Championship fight and then straight after that go on set to start filming. I don’t complain as I am grateful for all the opportunities, and I have a great support system around me that helps me push through,” Tharoth said.

Tharoth will be competing again in Asia’s largest MMA promotion, ONE Championship next Saturday in ONE: Kingdom of Khmer against India’s Jeet Toshi, who is also another strong female role model.

With her big eyes and charming smile, Toshi looks more like a Bollywood actress than a fighter. Her goal in life is to be a world champion and she has committed to that by making a move to Australia to concentrate on one thing – winning the world kickboxing title.

Growing up in Delhi, India, Toshi felt the need to learn martial arts to protect herself from the dangers of her city, which has been described as the world’s rape capital after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in New Delhi in 2012.

Rape is one of the many women’s rights issues faced by India’s female community, as they also contend with domestic violence and gender inequality, but Toshi has proven that women can stand up to defend and protect themselves if they stand up and fight (in her case, literally) for their rights.

“I started kickboxing for self-defence. I knew I couldn’t depend on my brothers to protect me, and as a girl I knew I had to equip myself with the necessary tools to defend and protect myself,” the 23-year-old said.

For Toshi, kickboxing started off as a means of self-protection but after years of involvement in the sport, Toshi discovered her passion for it and trained really hard before taking it on professionally. She gained fame across the globe by being the only world-ranked Indian kickboxer in a country of 1.4 billion.

Toshi’s transition to MMA is a testament to this young lady’s continuous pursuit of overcoming her obstacles and in being the best in the world of martial arts.

Just like Tharoth, she serves as an inspiration to many girls with her determination, as well as her courage, to overcome cultural and gender stereotypes by becoming the first ever Indian female MMA fighter.

Tharoth (2-1) and Toshi (2-2) are similar in that they have both traversed the norm of their cultures to prove that women have a place in the sport through hard work and determination. On December 5, they will enter the cage to showcase their skills.

ONE: Kingdom of Khmer is headlined by an exciting lightweight battle between Hawaiian fighter Lowen Tynanes and Russia’s Rasul Yakhyaev, and will take place at Koh Pich Theater. Tickets are available at NagaWorld.

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