A badly dislocated shoulder nearly ended Sen Bunthen’s career. Only surgery in Germany made his return possible, and he has won both of his comeback fights in Cambodia over past two weeks. Photo by: Robert Starkweather
After being sidelined with a dislocated shoulder late last year, Sen Bunthen announced his return to the light-middleweight division at the weekend with an upset decision over local fight great Thun Sophea.
The top-ranked light middleweight a year ago, Sen Bunthen went five rounds to earn a points victory Friday night at the TV5 boxing arena in Takhmao, in just his second ring appearance since October 2009.
The victory continues a string of high-profile wins that began in March 2009 and has catapulted Sen Bunthen into the highest echelons of the division. Last year he beat Outh Phoutang twice, once in their initial meeting in March and again in a rematch a month later. In May, he outpointed Chey Kosal.
At the time, Sen Bunthen appeared unbeatable.
But then, seemingly at the pinnacle of an all-star career, he lost to Mai Chaimov in the final of the 2009 National Championships when he dislocated his left shoulder near the end of the second round.
His two corner men, Pov Soksut and Nuon Sorya, tugged and yanked, trying to snap his arm back into socket during the rest before the round three, but they could not, and Sen Bunthen was forced to retire.
He was to lose a K-1 title fight in Charleroi, Belgium, the same way three weeks later.
Both times, doctors had to sedate the 28-year-old Kampong Cham native to reset his shoulder. And as 2009 ended, it appeared that injury was going to rob boxing of one of its most promising new stars.
Sen Bunthen underwent shoulder surgery in Germany in March. The procedure, known as a Bankhart repair, has allowed him to return to ring. But the long-term prospects are anything but certain. With every clinch, every blocked kick, comes a degree of doubt about whether, and for how long, the new shoulder will hold.
“I do a lot of pull-ups,” Sen Bunthen said. “The doctor said they are good to help streng-then the shoulder.”
He got his first test two weeks ago, when he stepped into the ring against Vung Sithai, the eldest veteran of the Brigade 70 club. Sen Bunthen scored a knockdown in the first round with a straight right and finished it early in the second with a series of right middle kicks.
Friday’s bout with Thun Sophea provided a far greater test. Widely known for his thunderous low kicks, Thun Sophea wasted no time putting all his kicking power into the arm least likely to take it.
“No low kicks with me,” Sen Bunthen said with a laugh.
Within seconds of the opening bell, Thun Sophea kicked hard to the shoulder, beginning a long exchange of body kicks, and he easily won round two behind a barrage of right roundhouses to the shoulder.
“He was kicking me right here all night,” Sen Bunthen said, making a chopping motion into his left shoulder. “He knows I have a bad arm.”
After sharp opening exchanges in the third and fourth rounds, the pair settled into a low-action battle of head games.
“He’s an excellent counterpuncher,” said Sen Bunthen. “I knew that if I struck first he would counter me, so I had to be patient.”
Each side flinched and feinted, trying to provoke the other into striking, and heading into the final round, the pair appeared mostly even.
Sen Bunthen was busier though the final three minutes. “I knew I would win,” he said. “I have to win.”
Thun Sophea blamed a lack of preparation for the loss.
“I didn’t have enough time to train,” he said. “They only confirmed the match on Sunday, and then you fight on Friday. That’s only four days. Bunthen’s been training all along.”
A rematch seems likely, since neither fighter has many options in terms of local opponents.
For Sen Bunthen, a rematch with Outh Phoutang or, perhaps, a date with ISKA World Middleweight Champion Vorn Viva remains his only credible options beyond Thun Sophea, at least for now.
The other two big names, Bheut Kam and Chey Kosal, are both involved in the light-middleweight tournament at the Bayon TV boxing arena, which is likely to last into the new year.
Both would make for tantalising bouts. Sen Bunthen has never faced Bheut Kam, who for years dominated the lower weight divisions and is now making a run at his sixth career title in a fourth weight division.
And Chey Kosal has long wanted a rematch. “Chey Kosal is waiting for me, I know,” Sen Bunthen said.
Both matches will certainly be made after the tournament is over.
In the meantime, Sen Bunthen will turn to imported talent. He is scheduled to face an unnamed foreigner on September 25 at the TV3 boxing arena.