Smackdown's Batista looks appropriately menacing.
It's a Saturday night in Phnom Penh's Daun Penh district and 16-year-old Dy Vandeth
and his friends have met up for testosterone and turnbuckles. It's nearly 9 pm and
the small café is abuzz. Sixty minutes of stylized violence and salacious
silliness are about to be served up on TV courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment,
It's time for some Smackdown, and Vandeth and his buddies are getting rowdy for the
With all the elegance of a flying elbow, all the subtlety of a folding chair smashed
across the skull, professional wrestling is tightening its hold on the Cambodian
entertainment market. Call it junk culture, performance art or pure entertainment
- its local popularity is indisputable, and social analysts are concerned about its
sway on the country.
"I love Raw and the Smackdown Zone because the fighting style is so cruel; they
fight with chains and chairs and many other tools," Vandeth told the Post. "I
watch the new episode every Saturday night on CTN - one hour is not enough for me."
According to Glen Felgate, general manager of Cambodian Television Network (CTN),
ratings have skyrocketed since the network began broadcasting Smackdown in May 2005.
Information provided by CTN shows that Smackdown wins a whopping 35 percent of Saturday
night's viewing audience, compared to 15 percent for football shown at the same time.
"People do like action; you get to know the characters," said Ma Serey,
CTN's sports editor, who does the Khmer voiceover for Smackdown. "There is a
great mystery at the end of the episode. They always have an element of drama. There
is something that hooks people in. The children always ask their parents at 9 pm
to watch Smackdown."
Bob Calhoun, a San Francisco-based professional wrestler who has toured the US and
Europe as Count Dante, explains WWE's popularity in graphic terms.
"Professional wrestling is conflict resolution at its most primal. You beat
up your boss. You beat up your neighbor. What is there to understand about that?"
Calhoun said by email. "Swinging neckbreakers and double axehandle chops are
part of a universal language. Professional wrestling brings people together while
ripping them apart limb from bloody limb."
Marketing and misconceptions
Felgate said Smackdown is one of CTN's most popular shows, second only to regional
Asian soap operas. The program is licensed to local networks by Total Sports Asia.
"It's a professional product, it's action, which people tend to like here, and
it provides an element of drama," Felgate said. "They air it in Thailand
and Singapore. They have stars going to venues in these countries."
Meanwhile, television executives are well-aware of the WWE's popularity and have
plans to increase its presence to include fan clubs, shows and, potentially, a Cambodian
"In any market we want to tap into, the TV element needs to exist first then
we can expand it to live events, mobile content, licensing, home video and a lot
more. When you have the TV part the market just multiplies," said Connie Heng,
senior regional sales manager for Total Sports Asia.
"Pro wrestling, especially with a powerful brand like WWE, is popular because
it's becoming more of an entertainment sport - rather than just a sport. WWE is drama
with attitude; it's live, it's got superstars. Over the years, it's become a father-son
bonding [experience] and is becoming more popular among women too."
According to Calhoun, WWE's aggressive marketing campaign has earned it a loyal fan
base in developing countries the world over.
""The WWE has reached its saturation point in the North American market.
The only way to expand the fanbase right now is by going overseas. They have expanded
to Malaysia, Australia, Thailand and now Cambodia," he said. "[WWE owner]
Vince McMahon is going global."
But not everyone is convinced that the WWE's melodrama and choreographed violence
are beneficial for Cambodia.
"I find it immensely disturbing and a woeful indictment of our society that
so many Cambodians are tuned in every Saturday to watch wrestling - a program that
encourages violence, meanness and unsavory behavior," said Theary Seng, executive
director of the Center for Social Development (CSD). "I understand it's a person's
right to spend time as they choose, so the issue here is not one of permissibility
but of value and inspiration."
A wide range of street interviews found that many children, teens and young adults
have in-depth knowledge of the WWE, strong opinions about its "storylines"
and are, at times, fiercely loyal to their favorite stars.
"I think the wrestling is funny, even though I am a little bit scared when I
watch it," said Vong Vimoul, 10. "I used to love Tom and Jerry, but now
my favorite is wrestling and second is Tom and Jerry. I love John Cena and Rey [Mysterio]."
if it's for real
Although many youths questioned by the Post could rattle off WWE performers' names
and attributes, some were unsure of its veracity.
"I am not sure if the wrestling is true or not," said Vandeth. "I
think it may not be true because they fight with partners, not like real fighting.
But when they get injured with chairs or chains they are bloody and sometimes go
to the hospital for surgery like the champion Batista."
But Heng scoffs at such uncertainty.
"Do they think Superman or the Incredible Hulk is real? For heaven's sake, the
Supermans of the world are scripted and so are we," she said. "All WWE
shows are scripted and producers make up storylines for the wrestlers - WWE is not
real! WWE makes sure there is a 'Don't do this at home' promo in most of the shows.
We take things like this seriously, but you can never stop people from complaining
about the violence of WWE."
Heng said that if CTN was willing to purchase more WWE titles, it might open the
door for a promotional tour. She said that WWE would welcome a Cambodian wrestler
"so long as he or she has the charisma and the attitude that WWE is looking
Calhoun, who has published a book on professional wrestling called Beer, Blood and
Cornmeal, explained that introducing ethnic characters is a longstanding tactic to
lure fans to the WWE. The WWE, formerly known as World Wrestling Federation, was
founded in the US in 1952 by Vincent J McMahon, father of the currrent owner. It
has a market capitalization of more than $1 billion and generates nearly $400 million
in revenue per year with a $50 million annual profit.
"Ethnic characters used to be limited to horrid, negative stereotypes like the
Iron Sheik or Nikolai Volkoff. Now that the WWE is promoting shows throughout Asia,
they need to develop homegrown heroes for those countries," he said. "With
films like Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior there should be no shortage of Southeast Asian
talent to pick from."
But the CSD's Seng is skeptical about the cultural value of WWE and questions its
impact on society.
"What inspiration and value are being communicated when we watch adults having
fun kicking, smashing and stomping on each other?" she said. "Is this the
value we want to perpetuate, especially when we are already lacking other positive
values to balance the deeply rooted violence so pervasive in society?"
Calhoun concedes that as a cultural export the WWE leaves much to be desired.
"Greed, avarice, deception, disloyalty, steroids, violence... Yeah, I'd say
that's a pretty accurate picture of the United States."