Vung Noy (right) scored a second-round knockdown against Chao Vireak with a knee to the head and stopped him with a barrage of knees to the body in the fourth round of their Pchum Ben festival bout at Phnom Touch, Banteay Meanchey province. Photo by: Robert Starkweather
They came by the hundreds from neighboring villages last week and gathered in the muddy schoolyard to watch the boys fight.
The best known among them had made their names in Phnom Penh, where television stations broadcast Kun Khmer matches nationwide. But most of the fighters were born here in Phnom Touch, Banteay Meanchey province, or in districts nearby.
Like nearly everyone in the country, the fighters were part of the annual pilgrimage that takes place every Pchum Ben – Cambodia’s largest religious holiday – when Khmers return to their family villages and honor their dead ancestors.
The sombre two-week tradition culminates with a three-day national holiday, and in many places, especially in the provinces neighbouring Thailand, that means visiting the pagoda in the morning, and watching the fights in the afternoon.
The tradition dates back as far as anyone can remember. Chheng Touch was born in Phnom Touch in 1961. As a child, he stood in the Sovankiri schoolyard and rooted for his hometown favorites. Twenty years later, as a fighter, he climbed into the same ring, often against Thais.
”When the Thais come, the place is packed all the way to the fence,” he said, pointing to the enclosing chain link barrier about 20 meters away.
This year, though, cross-country politics ruled out inviting the town’s traditional foes. “We didn’t dare invite them,” Chheng Touch said. “They wouldn’t dare come.”
Club Pailin produces a champion
Still muscular and quick at age 49, Cheng Touch moved to Pailin shortly after retiring from the ring in 1986. He opened Club Pailin at his home in Sala Krau district, where he mentored a young boy named Vung Noy, now among the country’s most well-known lightweight fighters.
From Pailin, Vung Noy eventually moved to Phnom Penh, where he trains under Chhit Sarim at the Old Stadium. At the invitation of his Pailin teacher, who has since returned home, Vung Noy travelled to Phnom Touch to fight in the Pchum Ben festival.
“I fight here every year,” said Vung Noy, who stood to make US$50 per bout. “If I don’t get hurt, I can fight twice.”
Vung Noy slept at Chheng Touch’s home and in the days leading up to the Pchum Ben bouts, the two were up at daybreak, training on the front porch in the cool morning air.
A “friendly” knock out
Vung Noy faced hometown fighter Chao Vireak in Friday’s opening day card.
Unlike Thai opponents, Vung Noy and Chao Vireak know each other. Chheng Touch described their bout as “friendly,” and ahead of the match the two fighters agreed to, if nothing else, refrain from elbows.
“I forgot,” said Vung Noy about two vicious left elbows early in the second round. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’.”
Vung Noy made no apologies for a knee to the head seconds later. And as Chao Vireak put his forehead on the canvas, Vung Noy smiled and raised a glove in victory.
Chao Vireak managed to make it out of the round, but he succumbed to a barrage of knees in the fourth, giving Vung Noy the technical knockout.
After a day off, Vung Noy outpointed Eam Khlimkhmao in the final card of the three-day event.
“It was a difficult fight,” he said. “My legs were hurt.”
Yok Yakill shows mercy for pal
In other bouts, Yok Yakill and Sor Say, both from Banteay Meanchey province, battled to a draw in the light-middleweight division.
“He is my friend. I did not want to kill him,” Yok Yakill said. “If I want, I can kill in two or three rounds.”
Meanwhile, Voy Sothun earned the decision over Club Ei Phouthang fighter Dun Ratha of Battambang. Meas Socheat of Phnom Touch stopped Om Piseth in the fourth. Kao Prul, also of Phnom Touch, outpointed Battambang’s Khun Bunhim, and Eam Litho outpointed Sueng Chanvireak.