The Khmer Warrior Championship promotion has brought MMA to Cambodia. | Photo: Robert Starkweather/Sherdog.com
Mixed martial arts has made its presence known in obscure corners of the world, but Cambodia could be the unlikeliest country to embrace this rapidly growing sport.
Virtually non-existent a year ago, the MMA scene there became vibrant in a hurry. The biggest broadcast outlet in the country, the Cambodia Television Network, promotes the Khmer Warrior Championship promotion on a weekly basis, with televised fights taking place on its MyTV channel.
Kun Khmer, Cambodia’s answer to muay Thai, has always been the most prevalent combat sport in the country, but its participants are slowly but surely starting to make the transition to MMA, enticed by the chance at international recognition and, perhaps more importantly, the prospect of career-high paydays. A veteran of more than 60 Kun Khmer bouts, Tork Sophorn is one of the Cambodian martial artists crossing the bridge to MMA. He holds a 1-0 professional MMA record after registering a unanimous decision over former world kickboxing champion Dave Newbrook on May 28 -- a night on which Cambodian mixed martial artists were given a harsh lesson in the realities of life in the cage.
The Khmer Warrior Championship event featured six matchups pitting local fighters against foreigners who had been flown in from the United Kingdom or South Africa. The Cambodians were all making their debuts, and Sophorn was the only one to emerge victorious; the other five were either submitted or stopped by strikes. It was a chastening experience for the Cambodians, and Sophorn, who trains out of the A Fighter camp, admits that sitting backstage and watching so many of his compatriots lose was not the ideal way to prepare for his first-ever MMA fight.
“I was very scared when I saw three Cambodian fighters before [I competed] all get KO’d by the foreigners, but I told myself, ‘If I am a fighter, I shouldn’t be afraid,’” Sophorn told Sherdog.com. “I saw CTN do their first MMA show at Koh Pich last year and wanted to try it, so when I heard [the] A Fighter team [was] recruiting fighters to fight in MMA, I was the first to put my hand up.”
The A Fighter team in Phnom Penh consists exclusively of aspiring local mixed martial artists, the majority of whom are seasoned Kum Khmer veterans. It was founded by Im Ouk, who first became familiar with the sport while living in Australia. He believes his fighters are actually rekindling an ancient Cambodian tradition.
“A lot of people don’t know that Khmer martial arts also have wrestling and submission moves in their ancient art of fighting,” Ouk said. “You can see some of them in carvings in temples that can be traced back as far as 2,000 years ago, and I wanted to help preserve these traditional martial arts which have nearly become extinct.”
The rules of Khun Khmer are virtually identical to muay Thai, which means the A Fighter members are almost all starting from scratch when it comes to wrestling and the ground game; they are, however, extremely proficient at the use of kicks, punches, knees and elbows. Ouk says his fighters are working diligently to address their weaknesses, familiarize themselves with the non-striking aspects of the game and become sufficiently well-rounded to succeed on the international stage.
“We train five days a week together purely on wrestling and submissions,” he said. “Our team consists of 25 champions, including Eh Phouthang, Auth Phouthang, Chey Kosal, Pich Seiha, Kim Dema and Long Sophy [who will become the first Cambodian to compete in One FC on Sept. 13].”
The opportunities now arising for Cambodians to compete inside the cage are almost entirely due to the recent investment CTN made in the sport. At present, it holds Khmer Warrior Championship events every Sunday, and the fights are all broadcast on MyTV, a free-to-air channel. The man behind Khmer Warrior Championship, CTN Head of Sport Ma Serey, hopes to provide a platform for Cambodian fighters to one day challenge for titles within some of the sport’s most prestigious promotions.
“The main reason for creating Khmer Warrior Championship was to create new jobs for Cambodian fighters, but our aim is that some Khmer MMA fighters will become world champions in the future,” Serey said. “People here are becoming fans and have started to talk about this sport since we first began broadcasting it in Cambodia.”
Serey was inspired to set up Khmer Warrior Championship after he was invited to sit cageside at a One Fighting Championship show in Singapore. His company subsequently purchased the broadcast rights to Asia’s most prominent MMA organization and carries One FC content live on MyTV with local language commentary. He believes that with CTN’s support One FC could eventually become the first major international MMA promotion to put on an event in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
“It would be a dream come true to have a big event like that here in Cambodia,” Serey said, “but we like One FC, and if One FC like us, as well, I think it can happen.”
Khun Khmer never made anyone rich, and MMA already offers Cambodian fighters potentially unprecedented financial opportunities. In a country where the average wage is less than $100 a month, the prospect of securing a four-figure payday competing inside the cage is understandably alluring.
Only a few hundred miles separate Phnom Penh from Bangkok, but the purses handed out in the Cambodian capital pale in comparison to the prizes currently offered in Thailand. The top fighters at Rajadamnern or Lumpinee stadiums can take home up to $5,000 a fight, so there is not much economic incentive for them to switch sports and try to make the transition from muay Thai to MMA. By contrast, in Cambodia even a Kun Khmer champion would not expect to receive much more than $200 per bout, meaning there is a larger group of skilled and experienced standup fighters who have the motivation to move to MMA; and thanks to the competitive opportunities offered by Khmer Warrior Championships and the coaching setup at A Fighter, they have the means to make it happen.
The mention of Cambodia typically evokes images of a country that was sucked into the Vietnam War and subsequently devastated by the Khmer Rouge. Around a quarter of the population was lost during this period, and the nation’s infrastructure was ripped apart. The economic repercussions can be felt to this very day. As a result, the high-rise buildings which dominate the skylines of neighboring capitals are all but absent in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Historically speaking, however, the best fighters often emerge from the most impoverished of backgrounds, a fact which is not lost on Ouk. He lived through Cambodia’s darkest days, losing two brothers to the Khmer Rouge regime. Ouk now sees a country crying out for sporting success and hopes his team of mixed martial artists can be what provides it.
“For over 2,000 years, my people have practiced martial arts, and I believe Khmers have the genes for fighting; they are born tough,” he said. “If we were to produce a world champion, it would mean so much to me and the whole of Cambodia. For now, it is just a dream, but with hard work and dedication, I am sure one day it will come true.”