A Fist full of Dollars, Professional Kick Boxing in Cambodia By Antonio Graceffo

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Land of the Free
A Fist full of Dollars
Professional Kick Boxing in Cambodia
By Antonio Graceffo

The Khmer boxing champion, Eh Phou Thoung, a source of Cambodian national pride, throws a high kick. His opponent, a barang, who no one has ever heard of, sees the kick coming straight for his head, and throws up his left arm to block. The bone shatters, and the arm drops instantly to his side, useless.

Eh Phou Thoung takes another easy victory.

A team mate of mine, a New Zealander, Peter, gets in the ring to fight. Twenty seconds into the first round, an elbow strike cuts his forehead, over his left eye, wide open, like a razorblade. In the corner, our coach, Paddy Carson, works frantically to fill the cut with Vaseline and control the bleeding. In the second round, he gets cut over the other eye. After the fight, he will receive countless stitches.

As a foreigner, Peter received $125 for his loss. The average Khmer boxer can count on only about $25 for a win, and $15 for a loss.

With over 100 boxing clubs and 300 registered boxers in Cambodia, one has to ask, where do they come from? And, why do they fight?

“I had been a professional boxer back in my village, but you can’t make any money in the provinces. So, I came to Phnom Penh.” Said twenty-six year old Khmer, Boss, a professional fighter from my club, in Phnom Penh. “In Cambodia, a fighter earns about $25 for winning a fight.” He said, shaking his head. “How can we live on that?”

“I wound up living on the streets. And, without proper food to eat, winning got harder and harder.”

The story Boss told is typical of most of the professional boxers in Cambodia. They come from poor families in the provinces, or around Phnom Penh, and are drawn to the sport by dreams of wealth. Even the paltry $25 they earn for a brutal win looks like a lot of money to a rice farmer who earns a subsistence living, toiling in the hot sun all day, and maybe has no cash income at all.

The money can increase. If the fighter begins to earn a name for himself, he can earn $50 a fight. The real money, however, comes from tips. After each fight, people in the audience will come up on the ring apron and hand cash to the winner. For televised fights, viewers at home will call in and pledge donations to the various fighters. Reportedly, Eh Phou Thoung can earn as much as $7,000 for a single fight. The Prime Minister, an ardent boxing fan, often tips as much as $2,000 or $3,000.

The rural Khmers hear about these incredible sums, and are willing to risk everything to earn that kind of money. Arguably, they aren’t risking anything, as the average Khmer has zero percent chance of earning $7,000 in one year.

The Cambodian National Boxing Championships is the time when the boxers from each of the 100 clubs will fight to be crowned Khmer champion. The boxers are generally under contract with a single club, and can only fight when and if the club arranges it. The club takes a percentage of the fighter’s winnings, the $25, depending upon private contracts made between the club and the fighter. Good fighters can get support from the club in the form of jobs.

Most clubs will have high ranking government officials on their board of directors, generals, police captains, or politicians. These people are in a position to find well-paying jobs for better boxers, who will wind up working as police, soldiers, or private security guards, for a salary of $30 to $50 a month. This money, plus their tips and winnings, will give better boxers a decent living.

In Cambodia, boxers turn pro at about 14. In the provinces they can start fighting as early as 7 or 8 years old. And of course, in Cambodia, age is arbitrary as birth and death records are not substantiated. Even the youngsters get paid for their fights. But they are called amateurs, which means they fight under slightly different rules.

Youngsters fight 4, two minute rounds, with two minutes rest between. Adults fight 5, three minute rounds, with 2 minutes rest between. All fights are scored by 5 judges. The judges look as such aspects of the fight as dominance and effective striking (damage done). Knees, elbows, kicks and punches are allowed. Head-buts used to be allowed, but are no longer used. In the old days, fighters fought with their bare-hands, wrapped in gauze. Matches also went on as long as they had to, until one fighter could no longer stand. These matches often resulted in death. During the colonial days, the French introduced the Khmers to boxing gloves, as well as the concept of rounds. Today, regulation, western boxing gloves are worn. Although the boxing commission does a fairly good job at keeping the sport safe, many of the western safeguards are missing. For example, in the west, a fighter’s hand wrappings are weighed. You are only allowed so much gauze. After wrapping, the hands are checked and signed by a commissioner. In Cambodia, fighters wrap their hands with as much gauze as they want, heaping up the extra, over the first two knuckles, to make their punches harder.

In the west, official gloves are used, and used only one time. In Cambodia, at the end of a bout, gloves, and often shorts and groin protection, are handed off to the next fighter. If gloves are soaked in sweat, the padding becomes ineffective, and there will be more cuts.

The first two rounds of a fight are usually not particularly exciting. Unless you get a knock out, it is difficult to win in the first two rounds. The real fight starts in the third round. The winner of the third round knows that if he wins the fourth round, he can cruise through the fifth round and take the fight. The loser of the third round knows that he has to win the fourth round, or he has no chance of getting the prize. The most exciting fights are ones where one opponent wins the third, and the other opponent wins the fourth round. This means they will both be going full tilt in the fifth round, trying to steal the win.

Fights are scored on a 10 point must system. This means, the winner of a round must be assigned 10 points. The loser gets 9 points, minus one point per knock down. A knock down and a slip are two different things. In Khmer boxing, fighters are allowed to throw an opponent. Sometimes, they go into a clinch, and one throws the other. Or, one will block a kick in such a way that the opponent falls. Fighters sometimes wait till the opponent is kicking, and then kick his base leg out from under him.

Any of these types of throws count highly with the judges. But they don’t count as a knock down. A knock down means that fighter was hit in the head so hard that his legs went out from under him, and he hit the ground. In this instance the referee will give the fallen fighter a standing eight count. If by the time the referee counts to eight, the fighter is not ready to continue, then the referee will call a stoppage, and the other fighter will be awarded a win, on a TKO or KO. If the fighter is ready to continue, then the fight will go one. But, the fighter who fell, loses one point. If a fighter gets knocked down three times in one round, he automatically loses the fight.

As a rule, judges like kicks, elbows, knees, and throws. They generally don’t score punches too highly, unless the punch results in a knock down or a knock out

My greatest hero, Muhammad Ali, had 61 fights over a period of nearly twenty years.
Lenix Lewis had 44 fights over a period of 14 years. Mike Tyson 58 fights over a period of more than 20 years. To make ends meet, Khmer boxers will fight an incredible number of fights over the period of their short career. In Cambodia, there are boxers in their early twenties, with over a hundred fights. Some fighters will fight two and sometimes three times in one month.

Muhammad Ali was about to turn forty when he fought his final fight. George Foreman was nearly fifty. Khmer boxers usually reach their peak around age 25. Eh Phou Thoung is pushing thirty, and still fighting well. But even he is not showing the luster he had a few years ago.

Boss was one of the lucky ones. He found his way to an NGO. “They gave me food, and taught me to read and write Khmer language. They even tried to teach me English.” He laughs. “But I was a bad student.”

Boss supported himself, working as a moto taxi driver, while he continued training and fighting. Eventually, he got a job as an assistant trainer, and his life became much easier. He was given a free apartment and food, and earned a monthly salary. Now, he can send money back to his family in the province, and concentrate on his fighting. His girlfriend was given the job of counter assistant at the club. With two incomes, they are planning to get married. Like a young couple in the west, they dream about the future. They hope they can buy their own rice field and small house back in the province.

Other boxers are not so lucky. Dependent on tips from professional gamblers, there are often allegations of match fixing and payoffs. Even in an honest world, a fighter’s income depends on his health. There is no insurance program to support fighters who become ill or injured and cannot continue boxing. Since much of their income comes from gamblers, better boxers are invited out to karaoke and beer halls. They often smoke and drink, which has a negative effect on their fighting.

Although the risks and poverty faced by a fighter in Cambodia are so extreme, the situation is the same in every country where I have fought. Everywhere from the US, to Europe, to China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Cambodia, you don’t find the children of the wealthy, or people with other options choosing to make a career of fighting. But what is extreme in Cambodia is that there is nowhere for these guys to go. The Khmer boxing championships and $50 - $7,000 is the pinnacle of the Cambodian circuit. These winners will not go on to fight for $100,000 in Thailand, or hundreds of thousands in the K-1 in Japan, or for millions in the US. Cambodia doesn’t participate in international competition.

Part of the reason for Cambodia’s hermit like boxing behavior lies in the corruption which is present in the boxing associations. If the Khmer fighters entered international competitions, governed by watchdog agencies, local warlords would lose control of the fights. They would have less opportunity to siphon off money or fix fights. And so, in order to make the short money, they deny their fighters, and their country, any chance of advancement.

The closest thing to international competition most Khmers will see is when no-name Africans and French fighters turn up in Cambodia to fight. The Khmers often beat these nobodies, and this confirms, in their minds, that Cambodians are the best fighters in the world. They are missing the point that the best Cambodians are being matched with some random foreigner, not a nationally ranked fighter from a foreign country. You will never see a K-1 champion fighting in Cambodia.

Overseas Khmers and foreign trainers who have tried to bring legitimate title fights to Cambodia, or who have tried to bring Khmer fighters to other countries so they could have a chance at having a real career, have all told me the same story. They were frustrated by the bribes they were required to pay. The people in charge of boxing didn’t care about helping to promote the art or promoting Cambodia. They didn’t seem to care about helping their fighters find a better life. They only seemed interested in the money they could put in their own pockets.

Publicly, no person controlling boxing would say that the reason they won’t go into international competition is because they would lose the ability to steal. The pubic reason is that “The Thais stole our art.” This type of statement is easy for the common man on the street to grab hold of. The riots and burning of the Thai embassy a few years ago because of an alleged offense by Thailand, is a classic example. In following up on the event, interviewing Cambodians who participated in the riots, and talking to journalists, I received conflicting stories of why the people were so angry. In the end, what I was able to ascertain was that the Cambodians were certain that someone, no one was sure who exactly, may or may not have said something about Angkor Wat. And then the Thai embassy and a bunch of Thai businesses were destroyed. Khmer people who were working for those businesses lost their jobs. And Cambodia had to pay reparations to Thailand.

Cambodia claims that bas reliefs, carved on the walls of Angkor Wat, prove that Cambodia invented kick boxing. They resent the more common name, Muay Thai, saying that the Thai’s stole their art. As a result, Cambodia refuses to join the world Muay Thai council, comprised of 40 member countries. They may have a legitimate case, that kick boxing originated in Cambodia.

Boxing originated in England, and yet the Americans dominate the sport, and no one cares. British hopefuls come to the States to fight for big purses in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, with no mention of who “owns” the sport. I am Italian. Perhaps I should lay claim to the Latin alphabet.

The Cambodians may be preserving their pride, but they are dooming Cambodian fighters to a lifetime of poverty and hardship. And, unless they compete in international competition, the Cambodians will have no chance of ever regaining their art.

At the end of the day, fighting is a fighting. It is a dirty business where promoters get rich and fighters get hurt and eventually wind up with nothing. Just insert the name Don King anywhere in this article, and the story becomes universal.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com

Checkout Antonio’s website http://speakingadventure.com/

Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa