French-Cambodian MMA fighter Tevi Say is in Phnom Penh to find women willing to follow her into the cage
Tevi Say has been in Cambodia for approximately 24 hours when we meet at her father’s office on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It’s her fourth trip to the Kingdom, and as with her previous visits, she isn’t planning to get out much.
“My dad’s scared I’ll get lost or something,” she says. “And crossing roads is so hard. Apparently you have to walk slowly, you don’t run.”
This nervous trepidation will raise a smile amongst the French-Cambodian’s legions of fans, who know the 38-year-old as one of France’s toughest female fighters. Originally trained in kung fu, Tevi took up mixed martial arts, better known as MMA, 15 years ago – the first woman in her country to do so. Because it is illegal to fight professionally in France, she moved to Japan to compete for a few years, then returned to Paris to establish the country’s only “all-girl” MMA training class.
Now she’s in Cambodia, the country her parents left before she was born, to run a training session for women interested in getting into the MMA cage.
MMA is a combat sport that allows fighters to use striking and grappling techniques from any discipline to knock their opponent unconscious or force them to submit. Fights often end in a “technical submission”, which means the referee deems one participant medically unfit to continue. Injuries are expected, and fatalities not unheard of. In Cambodia, where MMA is legal and increasingly popular (there are currently two televised events per week) fighters receive 5,000 riel for every stitch they receive after a bout. Earnings are so paltry, one coach said that fighters sometimes encouraged their opponents to “rip me open a bit more”.
Inside Phnom Penh’s Prokout gym warehouse where Tevi’s introduction to MMA session was held on Wednesday night, the woman who greeted the 10-strong group looked more like an enthusiastic cardio coach than a warrior raring for a bout of what US Senator John McCain once derisively referred to as “human cockfighting”.
It was only when I found myself on the floor with my partner (who happened to be Tevi’s sister) maneuvering me into a choke hold from behind that I remembered what this pleasant few hours of conditioning was really about.
“It’s supposed to hurt,” Tevi told her sister encouragingly as she held my neck in a tentative vice. “She’ll tell you to stop if it’s too much.”
Saying “stop” isn’t quite so easy for professional fighters. Tevi recently had an operation on her neck to stem incremental upper-body paralysis. “Training with men is good to strengthen your mind and your body, but it’s very tiring,” she said. “They grab your neck, choke you and stuff – for 15 years, that’s a lot.”
When asked whether they could see themselves actually fighting, the women at the seminar giggled nervously. “I like fighting, but it’s just exercise moves, not in the ring,” said 25-year-old Mok Sokunthea.
Tevi is unsurprised and undeterred. “In France, I waited 10 years to have my class busy,” she said. “Only now some of the women who train with me get interested in fighting.” She explains that it’s a question of breaking the cycle. “Women get interested now because they see other women fight.”
Ask anyone with even a passing knowledge of the local scene where that role model can be found in Cambodia and the answer is unanimous: Tharoth Oum Sam, or “Little Frog” to her cage-side supporters. Tharoth originally trained in Bokator fighting, where her talents were so considerable that her instructor let her train for free while the boys had to pay. For a while, she travelled internationally, giving demonstrations in the ancient style. When it became apparent that people believed that as a woman she was only capable of performing, not fighting, she took to the ring as a Kun Khmer fighter to prove them wrong.
Even the grand master who had let her train for free had his reservations, but Tharoth persisted. When she travelled to Europe, she was heartened to meet female fighters facing the same kind of opposition she was at home.
Then in September last year, Little Frog made her MMA debut in triumphant style when she defeated compatriot Vy Srey Chai at Rise of the Kingdom – the first international MMA event held on Cambodian soil, organised by regional behemoth ONE Fighting Championship. Her face lights up when she remembers the surprise victory. “She’d beaten me before in Kun Khmer and was three kilos heavier,” she recalls.
The footage of Tharoth’s only other fight to date, which took place in December, is harder to watch. In a packed Manila arena, the first round ends with her being repeatedly slammed to the ground by her opponent. Soon after the second round commences, Little Frog loses her mouthguard. Her nose starts bleeding and, egged on by the hollering home crowd, Jujeath “Bad Girl” Nagaowa knees her repeatedly in the hips. Little Frog tries to kick her off, but Nagaowa pummels her in the face until the referee steps in and puts an end to the carnage.
Tharoth sighs with frustration when she remembers the fight. “I’ve watched it back so many times, and I don’t know, maybe it happened when she threw me on the ground?” I ask her what the “it” refers to. “I was fighting the second round with a dislocated shoulder,” she explains.
Tharoth has a pragmatic reason for wanting to encourage more women into MMA: she needs opponents and, like Tevi, has discovered the difficulties posed by sparring only with men.
But she also has a deeper motivation. “Ancient women were warriors,” Tharoth says forcefully, referring to the Angkorian carvings that seem to depict women with their hair cut short carrying spears. “I want to be strong.”
Chan Reach, Tharoth’s trainer and the man credited with bringing MMA to the Kingdom over the past two years, agrees. “Females pretty much ran this country before. They were really tough,” he said. “To make them proud, [the women here] need to start to do something that will dominate.”
It’s a powerful statement of ownership over a sport often accused of pernicious misogyny. In New York, campaigners have been waging a five-year legal battle (results of which currently hang in the balance) to keep professional MMA fights illegal in the state. As well as citing evidence of long-term brain injury inflicted during fights, women’s groups who support the ban have highlighted social media posts from prominent fighters joking about rape and domestic violence, and a 2012 video made by MMA fighter Quinton Jackson in which he simulated attempting to chloroform and rape a woman in a garage. Jackson received no penalty from MMA organisers for making and uploading the video online.
Cambodian authorities dismiss the suggestion that the sport harbours malignant elements. “To be a fighter you have to respect your opponent, you respect the referee, you respect the crowd,” said Vath Chamroeun, head of the Cambodian MMA association. “If you are a good fighter, then you are a good man in society.”
But not everyone agrees that MMA dominance should become the Holy Grail for Cambodia’s fledgling women fighters, even putting to one side the sport’s history of sexism. Antonio Graceffo is a published authority on Asian martial arts, and himself an MMA fighter who trained in Bokator in the Kingdom. He believes that MMA training can be hugely empowering for women from all walks of life, but is not convinced that local stars like Tharoth are choosing a path that will lead to professional success.
“It’s the only sport where you’re always injured, and there’s no silver lining at the end,” he said bluntly. “People have this image of the boxer who fights their way out of poverty, but there’s really no way to fight your way out with MMA. There’s only a few people who’ve become millionaires.”
Graceffo says that the success of women fighters in Asia remains almost entirely a question of financial resources. The countries that dominate – Singapore and Malaysia – do so because they have the means to import top jiujitsu instructors. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to make MMA a career,” he said.
It’s not an argument likely to convince Tevi Say. Now 38, she is turning her attention to training a younger generation and, if the interest is there, she plans to return to Cambodia for a three- or six-month stint of intensive coaching later in the year. She eyes Little Frog with admiration and a pinch of jealousy.
“I was too early for the sport,” she says. “Now is the time to rise.”