There was a whiff of Las Vegas about Koh Pich Theater on Friday night as a fired-up crowd gathered for One Fighting Championship’s much-hyped “Rise of the Kingdom,” an international cage-fighting event with a world championship title match on the card and a host of Cambodian fighters out to prove they can compete in the brutal arena of mixed martial arts (MMA).
Though it is the world’s fastest-growing sport, MMA has only recently piqued the interest of athletes and audiences here, long accustomed to traditional Khmer boxing. If some of the fights fell short of expectations on the night—the bikini-clad ring girl first hoisted a round 2 card in the fifth match—there was enough blood and controversy to rouse the crowd.
Outside the theater, a diverse crowd of expats and curious locals had assembled, chugging 50-cent Ganzberg beers as tuxedoed businessmen hobnobbed on the red carpet with a crew of hulking gym buffs pumped up for the night’s action.
Meas Chan Veasna and Seka Mony Sambath, students at Norton University, said they forked out $50 each for tickets.
“This is the first time this kind of event has been organized in Cambodia and I really hope that there will be more in the future,” Mr. Veasna said. He and his friends watched MMA fights on YouTube, he added, and were excited that they had the chance to attend such a spectacle in real life.
“I want to see it with my own eyes,” Mr. Sambath said.
As the night got underway with a female catchweight bout between Sam Tharoth and Vy Srey Chai, it was clear that while Koh Pich Theater may be an attractive venue, it was perhaps not best suited to host a sporting event. Its sloped cinema-style seating left the audience distanced and disconnected from the cage, and fighters’ entrances were obscured as they emerged behind the octagon to enter the ring.
But several large screens allowed everyone a close-up view of Ms. Tharoth’s victory by submission when the judge stopped the fight after hearing an audible crack as she placed her opponent into an arm-bar.
Egged on by the pumping entrance music and rallying cries of eccentric announcer Lenne Hardt, it wasn’t long before the crowd got into the spirit of things.
In the night’s sixth fight, Singaporean Radeem Rahman and Malaysian Sung Ming Yen broke the trend of one-round victories by slugging it out over three rounds of their bantamweight match. The Malaysian overcame an early onslaught to win by unanimous decision.
But it was the next fight that really got the crowd going with the first of the night’s controversial refereeing decisions. Cambodian-Australian Suasday Chau, in his first fight with ONE FC, endured an onslaught from the vicious Frenchman Arnaud Lepont, who enraged Chau’s many supporters after a seemingly deliberate face stomp left the home favorite semi-conscious.
Lepont dropped to his knees in a dramatic show of remorse. Refusing to disappoint the fans, Chau fought on after a short break. Lepont quickly dropped the compassionate act, battering Chau against the cage and pounding his skull until the referee stopped the fight before the end of the first round.
Shortly after leaving the cage, Chau said he felt his opponent had crossed the line and should have been disqualified, but said the call was for the referee to make.
“It is not for me to stop the match; it is the judge who must stop it,” he said, adding that despite the pain of the face stomp, he could not bear to throw in the towel.
“I did not come here to quit and I am not bitter about the fight. I am here to learn and if I quit, I may as well quit for good.”
Further anger erupted after the disqualification of Chan Rothana in the Cambodian Featherweight Grand Prix final, an all-Cambodian side-event to the main card. The MMA freshmen were competing for the coveted prize of a one-month training camp at the famous Tiger Muay Thai gym in Phuket, Thailand.
Dun Sam Ang, a last-minute addition to the fight card, was crowned winner after being floored by an illegal ax kick to the head, from which he never recovered. The crowd was enraged, as replays appeared to show Rothana had shown no intent and made less contact than Lepont in the previous fight.
Rothana, who had been dominating the bout and looked certain to lift the trophy, was visibly distraught, and his corner had to be restrained as they protested the referee’s ruling. Speaking after the fight, Rothana said he felt an injustice had been done, and he hoped the organizers would review the match and reverse the decision.
“This decision is not right…and I do not accept it. I want ONE FC to recheck the videotape and put this right for me,” he said. “He [Sam Ang] knew he could not defeat me, even his team knew it, so he did not dare to get up again.”
Sam Ang’s coach, famed kickboxer Eh Phoutong, denied his fighter had faked the seriousness of his injury to win the match and said the judges had made the right call.
“It is the right decision, because the rules ban a fighter from kicking with the sole of his foot on the head of an opponent when he is lying down in the ring,” Mr. Phoutong said, admitting that had his fighter not been disqualified, his opponent would have been victorious.
“My student was a replacement and not so well prepared, and I knew that Chan Rothana would easily beat my student, but he went too wild to win fast and made a mistake—if he had fought normally, he would have won.”
The controversy only seemed to energize the audience. A lightweight bout between American Caros Fodor and Dutchman Vincent Latoel was a tense, evenly matched contest that showcased a different class of fighter, with Fodor breaking down Latoel in the second round.
For the headline event, Brazil’s Adriano Moraes looked every bit the champion as he stepped into the cage against Filipino challenger Geje Eustaquio, whose hysterical fans left their seats and crowded the cage but who could not, in the end, get their man out of a powerful choke in the second round.
Moraes lifted his first ONE FC featherweight championship title belt to a chorus of boos, but there was no disputing this result. Moraes then told reporters that Cambodia would now occupy a special place in his heart.
Although there may be a few creases to iron out, ONE FC saw enough to believe that MMA can gain a serious foothold here, said Loren Mack, the organization’s director of public relations.
“It’s all a learning process, but it was a fantastic night and Cambodians got a taste of the world of MMA, and we are definitely coming back sometime in early 2015,” he said.
And he suggested there would be good news for Chan Rothana, too.
“Safety is our main concern, but we understand the frustration that followed the fight. I hope to confirm it in the next couple of days, but we are looking at sending both fighters to Phuket.”