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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Monday night's all right for fighting in Phnom Penh

Monday night's all right for fighting in Phnom Penh

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A group of French pugilists battle their Cambodian opponents to a draw in an exhibition match meant to spotlight the art of Khmer boxing

Photo by: Cornelius Rahn

Cambodian fighter Vorn Viva (left) takes a kick to the face from Frenchman Hicham Chaibi on Monday.

Kun Khmer gaining popularity in Europe

IN contrast to world-famous Muay Thai, Khmer boxing is still very new to France and to Europe in general. Those who know about the sport do so because of famous Cambodian boxer Ei Phouthang, members of the French delegation that fought here this week agreed.

The French Federal Commission of Kun Khmer was founded just last month to develop and promote the sport throughout France. Spain and Italy also have recently formed national Khmer boxing associations, and Belgium is currently in the process of setting one up, according to Commission President Luc Mensah.

Mensah said he was “very excited” about the chance for his team to visit the cradle of Khmer boxing.

To publicise the sport in France, it will be presented together with other aspects of Cambodian culture such as music,
dances and traditional cuisine. “Anyone who comes to us for two hours will feel like he is in Cambodia,” Mensah said.

In turn, he called the visit “a great way of showing the Cambodians that their culture is appreciated abroad”.

Delegation coach Philippe Sebire has been married to a Cambodia for 25 years, but he said he only fell in love with Khmer boxing in 2006 when he visited the country. The Kun Khmer tattoo that covers his upper arm attests to his devotion to the sport.

“In Europe, everybody goes crazy about Thai boxing, but it is all commercial. Khmer boxing is a true martial art with a long tradition”, he said.

To return the favour for the invitation and further strengthen the French-Cambodian partnership, Sebire said he plans to invite Cambodian fighters to France in 2009.

A MID a flurry of punches and a hail of kicks, Hicham Chaibi did his best to dodge or deflect whatever Chea Nick threw at him, but the sweat that glistened on the 24-year-old Frenchman's forehead revealed that he was straining to keep up the pace.

And this was just the warm-up for the real fight.

Chaibi and three other French fighters had come to Cambodia to challenge locals in Khmer boxing, in a visit that was billed as a deepening of ties between the two countries' federations and a bid to increase publicity back home, where Khmer boxing is still little known.

"You have to make sure they don't hit you," said veteran coach Chea Nick, who trained Chaibi for two days while the French team was staying at his house. "If you get hit once, you often cannot recover," he said. "But if you block a couple of times, you will know what they are doing. And then they will be scared of you."

Chea Nick said he used to accompany his brother, former Cambodian star boxer Chea Sarack, to his fights before he died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Now he trains young Khmer boxers for competition.

"The French guys, they think just because they are strong that they can just punch, punch, kick, kick," he said. "When I ask them ‘How do you block this?' they say, ‘I don't'.

"But this is not about strength - it is about technique," he added.

Chea Nick looked like he really wanted Chaibi to win, but he was obviously nervous. "If he listens to me, he has a chance to win. If not, he will lose. I am certain."

The first encounter between the two nations had European champion Alain Scheaffer facing off against Chlam Sor, or "White Shark", in the under-52kg category. After an uneven match, the Shark chomped down hard in the third round and forced a technical knockout on Scheaffer.

Next up were two women from the under 60kg class. This time, 20-year-old Ielo Page restored the French honour by pummeling her opponent Srey Touch so hard that the referee ended the fight after the first round.

The third fight was a highlight of technique, as French under 63.5kg triple champion Sofiane Derdega and Cambodian Nuon Sorya delivered an even struggle with some spectacular dodges. Despite a third-round elbow charge by Nuon Sorya, which left his opponent with a fiercely bleeding cut, the bout ended without a winner.

Then, finally, it was Chaibi's turn, and he knew he had a tough fight on his hands. His opponent was Vorn Viva, a stone-faced fight veteran whose countenance radiated invincibility.

In the locker room, Chaibi seemed aggressive, but in the ring, he stayed calm, while Vorn Viva also appeared to wait patiently for an opening.

But the Frenchman kept his distance, blocking sharp blows and landing a series of well-placed kicks of his own that appeared to surprise his opponent.

If he listen to me, he has a chance to win. If not, he will lose. I am certain.

In the seconds before the last round, Vorn Viva's stone face crumbled into an expression of deep thought, as if he was trying to figure out how to recover the ground he lost in the preceding rounds.
Chaibi, buoyed by his success, bounced up and down on the balls of his feet in the middle of the ring, waiting for the bell to launch his last attack.

The final round - a flurry of knees crashing into the fighters' sides - seemed to turn in the visiting Frenchman's favour, with the crowd cheering each of Chaibi's landed blows.

But Vorn Viva held steady through the prolonged clinches until the final bell, after which the referee raised both fighters' hands to signal a draw, much to the apparent disappointment of those in the crowd whose money was on Chaibi.

Meanwhile, Chea Nick stood by the ring, seemingly lost in thought. "He listened to me," he said, his face passive but his voice hardly hiding the pride he had in his student. "He should have won, but I guess [the judges] did not want to decide against the local talent."

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