Khmer boxing's ancient roots remain on display at weekend matches that are broadcast nationwide. The deep respect the fighters show their opponents goes as deep as the ritual dance that precedes each match.
The air is dense and still. It smells like hot skin with hints of tiger balm. Two small-framed, but chiseled young men walk in, wearing silk robes; one in blue, and one in red. They position themselves at opposing corners of the ring. They are Neak Pradals (Cambodian boxers).
On weekends, Cambodia Television Network (CTN) studio morphs into a sacred space filled with traditional Cambodian music played by a small ensemble, ritualistic overtures and a zealous crowd of locals dripping from the stands and sweeping into the entranceway just to get a glimpse of the feisty competition.
A praying ritual preludes each match; the fighters promenade around the ring, gracefully lifting their knees one by one in an almost choreographed sequence to the rhythm of a reed flute. With their eyes closed, they clasp their hands and bow into each corner.
Twenty-two-year-old competition boxer, Hang Ramon says he takes this time to honour the tradition of the sport, to thank his ancestors, family and trainers for the privilege to fight. “I just go into a trance” Hang Ramon says.
Kick boxing is often misconstured as a barbaric and gruesome sport. While injuries can certainly be sustained by its competitors, the game’s spirit, ceremony and sportsmanship are often overlooked.
Competitors share a profound respect for one another. In contemporary Khmer boxing, it is rare to witness deep-seated aggression between opponents.
If a boxer is knocked down, his opponent won’t strike, and while this is listed as a rule for spectators, it looks more like a gesture of courtesy. An amiable tap of the gloves signals the continuation of the round.
Twenty-four-year-old Vann Sullivan, a boxing enthusiast concedes that the sport is much safer than most people think.
“You learn how to strike properly, you develop strength and resilience. [Khmer boxing] carries pride and discipline and embodies good sportsmanship ... Cambodian fighters are too proud to make cheap shots,” he says.
Last Sunday at CTN studio, the final match – the one everyone came to see – saw seasoned fighter Ot Phoutong challenge neophyte Nuon Sophea.
Ot Phoutong has fought in 250-300 matches compared to Nuon Sophea, who has had about 19. Both fought with grace, bobbing warily to the beat of the drum; each strike was clean and purposeful as they eddied around each other, eyes locked.
As the final round drew nigh, the music tempo accelerated and the crowds’ energy pulsed with each cheer and clap until it erupted into a synchronised roar.
The whistle blew, and any feigned animosity transpired as Ot Phoutong and Nuon Sophear fell into a congratulatory embrace with big smiles. The referee parted the men, and raised one of each of their arms, declaring a draw. The men glowed.
While passion is most definitely synonymous with Khmer boxing and its trainers, many of today’s Cambodian fighters compete in the ring for purse money.
Paddy Carson, former fighter and champion trainer at Paddy’s Fight Club in Phnom Penh says that many competition fighters use their purse money to feed themselves and their families “depending on how many fights they win, and the size of the crowd they draw in, [boxers] might earn between US$25 and $90 per fight”
The spectators who visit CTN studio in Phnom Penh are predominantly Khmer, unlike the significant tourist crowd drawn to Muay Thai boxing in Thailand.
Muay Thai might be renowned in the mixed martial-arts scene across the globe, but mention it to a Cambodian boxer and he’ll grimace before passionately telling you the tales of Pradal Serey.
Pradal Serey means “fighting free” and it’s thought to have evolved in the ninth century. Numerous bas reliefs at Angkor temples depict ancient Khmer boxers. Cambodians assert that Pradal Serey formed the basis for Muay Thai.
As Muay Thai fights for international recognition in the Olympics, Pradal Serey remains somewhat enclosed in Cambodia’s cultural bubble; one which is slowly recovering from trauma as it aims to move forward.
Tourists flock to Siem Reap to admire Angkor Wat at sunrise. Perhaps it’s worth continuing the journey through history by viewing an Angkorian tradition that exists today: one that won’t require an intolerable six hour bus journey from Phnom Penh.
Next time you find yourself in a verbal wrestle with a tuk-tuk driver, quibbling over the cost to get to the Killing Fields, toss them a few extra Abraham Lincoln’s, and take a ride to CTN studio on a weekend between 1pm and 4pm and find yourself immersed in a truly Cambodian experience.
Entry is free.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nikki Majewski at [email protected]