As national rivalries go, few would appear to rank higher or run deeper than the centuries-old tension between Cambodian and Thailand. The friction dates back to the Angkorean era, when battles between the two kingdoms resulted in the slaughter of thousands.
Even today, both countries keep troops stationed along their shared border around the Cambodian temple of Preah Vihear, and flare- ups in recent years have resulted in deaths on both sides. The rivalry between the two nations manifests itself in many ways – some subtle, others less so – and pugilism is no exception.
So on March 15, when ISKA World Middleweight Champion Vorn Viva (who enters the ring wearing headgear proclaiming his national pride) squares off against Thailand’s Diesel Lek, to say that territorial honours are riding on the outcome doesn’t nearly capture the heft of it.
Kun Khmer vs Muay Thai
Inside Cambodia, the sport of kickboxing is officially known as Kbach Boran Khmer. Colloquially, it’s called pradal serey, which trans- lates to ‘freestyle fighting’. On the international stage, however, pradal serey is promoted under the banner Kun Khmer, an abbreviated form of the official Khmer phrase and a di- rect attempt to compete internationally with the Thai-branded version of the sport.
In the early 1970s, Thai fight- ers would routinely get pummelled at the Olympic Stadium for the pleasure of national television audiences, say the sport’s elders. But as Cambodia succumbed to the Khmer Rouge, Thailand went on to build a global fighting brand under the name Muay Thai, and today the term is all but synonymous with the best kick-fighters in the world.
Cambodia, perhaps understandably, is none too pleased with the outcome. She is not alone. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia all practice similar styles of kickboxing, defined predominantly by the use of knees, elbows and stand-up grappling, in addition to punches and kicks. All four countries tend to see the Muay Thai name as so much arrogance of the larger, more powerful neighbour.
In 1995, the quartet suggested to Asean that the group officially rename Thai kickboxing to some- thing less country identified. They suggested the alternatives of Sovan- naphum boxing and SEA boxing, which better reflected the regional nature of the sport. Thailand, the proud purveyor of an extremely lucrative sport growing quickly in global popularity, saw little reason to concede.
Cambodia has since refused to participate in anything promoted under the rubrick Muay Thai. By and large, the self-imposed ban amounts to a Cambodian boycott of the sport at the SEA Games. But he greater effect has been to keep the nation’s fighters from taking their place on the global stage.
ISKA World Champions
Save for petanque, kickboxing and corruption, Cambodia competes at a world-class level in very few things. Its success at Kun Khmer has come in the face of nearly impossible odds. The overwhelming majority of the country’s boxing clubs are run by former fighters, whose financial strengths are limited. Most operate out of a trainer’s home and amount to little more than makeshift punching bags and old truck tires.
For name-brand fighters, running shoes are at best second-hand. For lesser names, doing roadwork in flip-flops is not uncommon. “It’s one of the reason Khmers are such phenomenal grapplers,” says Antonio Graceffo, an author and fighter who has spent years studying Southeast Asian combat styles. “Most clubs only have two or three pairs of gloves, so everyone just grapples until they’re too tired to stand up.” Fighters often arrive to fights three-up on a moto and re-use their hand-wrapping gauze, which costs less than a dollar. Still, in 2008, with the help of an international promoter, Cambodia staged and won two internationally recognised championship belts. Meas Chantha beat the World Muay Thai Council’s top-ranked welterweight, Frankie Hudders, to claim the ISKA welter-weight title, and Vorn Viva outpointed Germany’s Alban Ahmedi to win the ISKA middleweight strap.
In the years since, other fighters have ventured abroad to fight and win international titles. Among them is Sen Bunthen, the Ministry of Inte- rior Boxing Club powerhouse who faces Malaysian national champion Mohd Faizal Bin Ramli in the co- feature of the March 15 card.
Fighting the Thais
Cambodia’s disdain for the Muay Thai brand has until only recently resulted in another long-standing tradition: a de facto ban on Thai fighters competing in Cambodia. Only last year did the Cambodia Boxing Federation finally relent. Since then, Cambodia vs Thai bouts have become weekend television staples.
To the pleasure of national audiences, many of Cambodia’s biggest named fighters have got- ten the chance to pummel, and in some cases get pummelled by, elite Thai fighters. All of them, that is, except the tall, dark champion from Kampong Cham, who likes to arrive at the stadium wearing his favourite black Preah Vihear shirt, and wearing a headband that reads ‘Proud to be Khmer’.
WHO: Vorn Viva vs Diesel Lek
WHAT: Kun Khmer
WHERE: CTN Boxing Arena, National Road 5
WHEN: 6pm March 15 (doors open at 5)
WHY: Cambodia’s national sport at its best
This article was 1st published in The Advisor - All back issues are available as downloads here
"Like" the Advisor on Facebook