Thursday, October 1, 2009

Life as a kickboxer

A young kickboxer training in Poipet

Most kickboxers come from a poor background and compete to earn money to feed their families and themselves. Since it is a sport, it requires practitioners to be physically fit. This is why practitioners are usually young. The kickboxers average from age 14 to 25. Top kickboxers can have as many as 300 fights in their careers.

A young kickboxer training in Poipet
Fighters were traditionally paid by the crowd. If the crowd appreciated the boxer's efforts, they would reward him with food, alcohol and cash. This practice still continues today but, in line with western practice, bouts pay official fees. Until recently the average purse for a fight was US$15. Today purses are based on experience. A new boxer will earn US$25 per fight. More experienced boxers (with more than a dozen fights) earn up to $75. "Brand name" fighters will earn over $100 a fight. Special purse fights will pay up to $250 with the purse contributed by a corporate sponsor. "International" tournaments, organised by the broadcasters, will pay individual purses of up to $1000, sometimes higher.
The best pradal serey champions come from the Battambang region although a number of big name stars have come via Southern Cambodia such as Eh Phoutong who is from Koh Kong Province, Thun Sophea from Svay Rieng Province and Meas Chantha and Seng Makara from Kandal Province respectively. Boxers train in a gym under a pradal serey kruu. Many kickboxers train 6-8 hours a day and 7 days a week.

[edit] Rules and Match Set Up

A match consists of five three-minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one-and-a-half or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match boxers practice the praying rituals known as the twai kru. Traditional Cambodian music performed with the instruments skor yaul (a type of drum), the sralai (reed flute) and the chhing, is played during the match. Modern boxers wear leather gloves and nylon shorts.
A boxer is not allowed to strike his opponent while he is on the ground.
A boxer is not allowed to bite.
When an opponent can not fight anymore, the referee stops the fight.
Blows to the back of the opponent are not allowed.
A boxer may not hold on to the ropes.
Blows to the genitals are prohibited.
Victory can be obtained by knockout. A knockout occurs when a boxer is knocked down to the ground and can not continue fighting after a 10 second count by the referee, a referee may forgo the count and declare a knockout if it is obvious the boxer will not regain his feet unaided. Victory is also obtained from the end of the match when judges decide by a point system which fighter was more effective. If fighters end up with the same score a draw is called.

Health Risk

As with all contact sports, health risks are a factor. According to Chhoeung Yavyen, a ringside doctor for the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Association, in the past five years 30 kick boxers have sustained serious injury in the ring including broken wrists and arms, broken shins, broken noses, dislodged shoulders, hip injuries and broken jaws. One boxer died in the ring in Svay Rieng Province in 2001, but that death was the result of a heart attack, probably brought on by diet pills consumed to help the fighter reduce his weight before the bout. Most of the injuries suffered are curable and don't leave lasting problems. Most boxers are allowed to return to the ring after receiving treatment.

Attempt to unite boxing styles

Over a decade ago Cambodia attempted to unite Southeast Asia's boxing styles. At an ASEAN meeting in 1995 regarding the upcoming King's Cup Muay Thai competition, Cambodia wanted to rename Muay Thai as "Sovanna Phum boxing" or "SEA Boxing", which represented Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Sovanna Phum means "golden land" in Khmer and is written as Suwannabhumi in Thai. The name refers to mainland Southeast Asia in the Indian language of Pali. SEA is a popular acronym for Southeast Asia.
Thailand would not compromise, stating that each Southeast Asian country has its own boxing style and that Thailand was responsible for making its kickboxing an international sport. At the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, Cambodia did not enter the Muay Thai event in protest of the name used to refer to the sport.[12]

Pradal Serey Today

Khmer traditional boxing announcer table at the CTN station.

Pradal serey is making a strong comeback since its banishment back in the 70s. Cambodia is making an attempt to market their style of boxing to the same caliber of Muay Thai even though its status as a fourth world country renders a lack of financial funding. Numerous gyms have opened and large masses of students, local and foreign, have come to train in Cambodia. There are weekly matches held, the majority televised live, and many of Cambodia's best have traveled internationally to compete. There are currently approximately 70 boxing clubs nationwide.
Cambodian trainer Chiit Sarim had this to say about the difference between the boxing scene then and now, "I traveled from pagoda to pagoda to box at competitions during the water festival. Pagodas were the traditional venue for boxing matches... They (the current fans) act inappropriately. They raise up their hands and scream noisily. They gamble and do not respect the boxers. They think of only winning their bet. During my time, there was no such thing. Fights were organized nicely and were very popular. Now fans have no morality."
Pradal serey is administered in Cambodia by the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Federation (CABF). All referees, judges and fighters must be licensed by the CABF. Television stations which hold Khmer boxing tournaments do so under the supervision of the CABF. The individual stations are responsible for organising boxers, trainers, medical staff and musicians. The CABF supplies the match referees, judges and time-keepers. Abroad, Cambodian boxing is promoted by 4 organizations. These organizations include the European Khmer Boxing Federation based in Germany, the Fédération Française de Boxe Khmère based in France, the Anh Binh Minh Khmer Martial Arts Association in Vietnam and Kun Khmer Australia based in Australia. Other newly created organizations can be found in Spain and Italy, while Belgium is in the process of forming its own Khmer boxing organization.[7] Also, the International Sport Kickboxing Association based in the United Kingdom have held matches involving Cambodian boxers. Khmer boxers have fought abroad in countries such as Korea. [8]

Khmer traditional boxing announcer table at the CTN station.
Tournaments are screened live on national television. TV5 holds live tournaments on Friday and Sunday, CTN holds live tournaments on Saturday and Sunday.[9] Bayon Television holds live kickboxing tournaments on Saturday and Sunday.[10]
Recent exposure to pradal serey in the western world have come from travel journalists and tourists. In addition, Khmer boxing was featured on The History Channel's Human Weapon and mentioned on the Cambodian episode of Globetrekker.
In June 2005, number one promoter of Thailand, Songchai Ratanasuban, brought his S1 Promotion to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In the Cambodian S1 World Championship, Bun Sothea won the tournament. He defeated Michael Paszowski, Dzhabar Askerov and Lor Samnang in front of 30,000 people at the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium.
In 2008 Cambodian Television Network (CTN) screened a Kun Khmer reality television series called Kun Khmer Champion. The show featured 65 kilogramme boxers and was produced by Ma Serey and co-hosted by Ma Serey and Eh Phoutong.
On August 28, 2008, Cambodian Kun Khmer fighters Vorn Viva and Meas Chantha won the ISKA Middleweight and Welterweight world titles in Phnom Penh. It is the first time a Cambodian has held a kickboxing world title.[11]

Downfall of pradal serey

Bas-relief from the entrance pillars of the Bayon.

During the chaos of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was undergoing its own civil war. On April 17, 1975, the communist rebels, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic led by Lon Nol after America left the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge's plan was to eliminate modern society and create an agricultural utopia.[5]. The Khmer Rouge executed all educated people, others who had ties to the old government or anyone who was believed to be an enemy (doctors, teachers, soldiers, actors, singers, boxers, etc.) and forced the remaining Khmer population into labor camps, in which many died of starvation and diseases, to be re-educated under the new government. Traditional martial arts were banned at this time and many boxers were executed or worked to death, which nearly caused the death of pradal serey. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians or 21% of the population died during the Khmer Rouge regime according to the studies of the Cambodia Genocide Program of Yale University.[6]. This lasted for four years until 1979 when the Vietnamese along with ex-Khmer Rouge officers, including current prime minister Hun Sen, overthrew the Khmer Rouge. During the relative peace since the departure of the Vietnamese and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the country's traditional arts were revived, including pradal serey.


A scene depicting blocking a kick on a bas-relief
from the Angkor region.

Fighting has been a constant part of Southeast Asia since ancient times and eventually led to organized fighting forms. In the Angkor era, both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by the Khmers. Evidence shows that a style resembling pradal serey existed around the 10th century, which may be one of the reasons why the Khmer empire was such a dominant force in Southeast Asia. The kingdom of Angkor used an early form of pradal serey along with various weapons and war elephants to wage war against their main enemy, the Vietnam-based kingdom of Champa, and later, Siam.[1] Renactments of elephant battles are still recreated at the Surin Elephant Round-up.

Khmer warrior using a thrust kick on Rahu in a bas-relief from the Banteay Chhmar temple.
At this time, the kingdom of Angkor dominated and controlled most of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.[2] In addition and as a result of that, Khmer culture has influenced much of Thailand's and Laos' culture. [3] This leads the Khmer to believe that the roots of Pradal Serey and other Southeast Asian forms of kickboxing started with the early Mon-Khmer people. On top of oral stories from their ancestors, the basis of this argument is the bas-relief left behind by early Khmers in the ancient temples of the Bayon and other Angkor temples. Much of the writing on ancient Khmer art has either been destroyed or adopted by the invading Thai armies when the Siamese sacked and looted Angkor and took Khmer captives including members of the Khmer royal court back to Ayutthaya. [4] Some of the military leaders considered to be trained in Khmer fighting arts include the warrior turned Cambodian King, Jayavarman VII and the founder of a unified Laos, Fa Ngum.
During the colonial period, martial arts like pradal serey were considered by the European colonists to be brutal and uncivilised. The French turned the art into a sport by adding timed rounds, a boxing ring and western boxing gloves in an attempt to lessen injury. Originally matches were fought in dirt pits with limited rules while hands were wrapped in rope. Some matches had boxers wrap seashells around their knuckles to increase the damage that could be inflicted. In the 1960's, Cambodian boxing promoters held inter-martial art exhibitons.