Out of the ring: how encounter with prize fighter led to family

Out of the ring: how encounter with prize fighter led to family

Chan Rothana, 27, is a champion Yuthakun Khorm fighter from one of Cambodia’s leading martial arts families. Bokator’s lesser-known cousin, Yuthakun Khorm is fought without gloves and harks back - so its exponents claim - to the 14th Century Angkorian Empire. About a year ago they opened Yuthakun Khorm tournaments at Beeline Arena.

French-born Cindy Coupon, 24, is the daughter of a restaurateur and speaks fluent Khmer. Four years ago she walked into Rothana’s gym to for a lesson from the fighter, and fell in love with both the art form and the athlete.

The pair now has two daughters, aged four and two-and-and-a-half, and recently opened Selapak, a school teaching Yuthakun Khorm and Apsara dancing to tourists.

They are co-owners, along with another French-Khmer couple.

Cindy Coupon, 24
“He is famous in Cambodia. A lot of people know “Chan Rothana” because he does a lot of fights on TV in Bokator and Kun Khmer [another traditional boxing]. I had seen him on TV two or three times before and my friend told me about him, but I was not interested in that.

My friend Theo trained at Rothana’s father’s club and he brought me to see it - I saw Rothana and I decided to train there. It’s a physical sport, but I like it.

Rothana was just friendly, it was easy for us. I speak Khmer so he was very surprised: ‘Oh! She can speak Khmer’ - So he started to play and joke around with me. I’ve never studied Khmer, I just talk with people and it comes.

It’s funny because though he is a fighter but he’s very…he’s not nasty. He always smiles and doesn’t like to hurt people. I get worried about him (in the ring) all the time! He’s never KO (knocked out), but sometimes there’s a very strong serve. [I saw him fight live] maybe one or two months after I met him. I was sweating – I was afraid something would go wrong.

Cindy and Rothana fell in love at the gym, where he was an instructor
Cindy and Rothana fell in love at the gym, where he was an instructor. Scott Howes

We are just fiancées. His family want us to marry but it’s up to us - it’s OK. When my parents met Rothana for the first time, we were not yet together. My mother organized a show for the Chinese New Year [at the restaurant] and I told her I knew people who did Yuthakun Khorm, who could come to do a demonstration. It was the first time she saw [Khmer boxing].

Sometimes I want to go back to France but when I do go back, I always miss it here. I’ve been here for nearly ten years, it’s my second home. I would like to go back for one or two months and maybe later live there.

The first time Rothana went to France it was for fighting competitions. I went to see him for three days in Paris…the second time was for Christmas and we went with my family, to my grandmother’s house. He was very surprised we could go out walking at night - that the streets were clean and the cars were fast but not dangerously so.

My older daughter learns Apsara dancing, but she also likes Yuthakun Khorm and when I go to training, she stands near me and does the same.

Before [we opened Selapak], I had told Rothana it would be good if we could have a boxing club, but I didn’t think we would open a school with Benoit and Sen, teaching Cambodian arts.”

Chan Rothana, 27
“I learned Yuthakun Khorm from my father and my father learned it from my grandfather. Before I met Cindy I was running a boxing club, where I taught for three hours a day. It depended on the season, but sometimes we had six or seven foreigner students and some seasons we’d have just one or two come to study Bokator. We didn’t have women study though – we had four Cambodian women, but no foreign women. It was a little bit strange when women came to study but I could see [Cindy] really loved to learn it. Even though society thinks it’s not good for women [to learn martial arts] they still do it because they enjoy it.

Rothana’s moves make him a national celebrity
Rothana’s moves make him a national celebrity. Scott Howes

I appreciated Cindy [learning to fight] because Yuthakun Khorm is a kind of exercise and is important for the body, and women who learn it can use it to protect themselves. I didn’t know Cindy before, I just knew her friend, who brought her to the club. I was happy to meet her – he introduced me to her and told me she wanted to study Bokator. I wasn’t that surprised that she spoke fluent Khmer because my friend Theo spoke it fluently too.

It was probably 15 days afterwards [that we started dating]. We sent texts and chatted a lot.

I know everyone in Cindy’s family - they’re very kind and gentle. We’re not married yet, but we’re waiting to save some money before we marry. For me, I want my daughters to study Yuthakun Khorm too, but if they want to do anything else, it’s up them. But in my mind, I’d really like them to study it too.

This is my first business. Before, I was a teacher in my father’s club. I want to teach both foreigners and Khmers.

I’ve been to France two times and it was really good: the weather, traffic - better than Cambodia’s. I think I want to go to France again but first we have to save money in Cambodia - she wants to go back and live in France for good eventually. I’m happy that she’s happy to live with me in Cambodia, though France is nicer. It’s probably because she loves me.”