Flipping someone into the air before smacking their backside down on the mat isn’t much of a challenge for Cambodia’s national wrestling team.
But the growl that is supposed to come after could use a little work.
Vath Cham Roeun, secretary-general of the Cambodian Amateur Wrestling Federation, has begun teaching his best wrestlers the art of US-style professional wrestling—the highly theatrical kind displayed on the popular World Wrestling Entertainment television show “Smackdown.”
Most of Vath Cham Roeun’s wrestlers have the athletic prowess to competently execute moves he calls the “throw away” and the “throw down”—moves like the ones the WWE has labeled the “Airplane Spin Toss” and the “Gorilla Press Slam.”
But professional wrestling—a highly lucrative business where fights are staged and progress according to pre-planned scenarios—is more about giving a convincing performance of these moves than merely executing them.
Vath Cham Roeun said he takes 10 or 15 minutes out of every practice to work on his team’s acting skills.
“They don’t know how to be actors,” he said in an interview this week. “I tell them ‘You need to show anger on your face.’”
There have already been two successful professional-style matches at Olympic Stadium this year, he said, and there are plans for another next month. Vath Cham Roeun and Hok Chheang Kim, a coach for the national wrestling team, have their sights on getting their fighters on television and making money.
“We want them to be famous on TV,” Hok Chheang Kim said. “We want to turn this sport into a business.”
Comprised of 10 men and six women between the ages of 18 and 25, the national team practices 90 minutes every day except Sunday.
In December, they started learning professional wrestling in addition to the three styles they had been practicing for years—traditional Khmer style that involves music, and freestyle and Greco-Roman style, which are Olympic sports.
Professional wrestling is so popular in Cambodia, said Vath Cham Roeun, that two years ago, while watching WWE on television, he thought to himself: “We are wrestlers. We can do that.”
Many of the wrestlers have a background in judo or another martial art, he said, because the National Olympic Committee picked martial artists to study wrestling in the 1990s as a way to revive the sport, which had disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era.
Vath Cham Roeun, who was one of those chosen, first encountered professional wrestling in the mid-1990s in North Korea where he was training for the 1996 Olympic Games in the US city of Atlanta.
He met a Japanese team of professional wrestlers who, he said, “showed me tricks like putting a microphone under the mat” to make a bigger sound when someone falls, and using chairs that are specially built to easily snap apart upon contact.
At 140 kg, 21-year-old Chum Chi Vinn, aka “Giant Vinn,” is by far the largest member of the national team; his favorite move is the “thrown down”—which he executes casually on teammates half his size.
Though hard-pressed to find stiff competition among his teammates, Chum Chi Vinn loves professional wrestling and wants to make it his career someday.
“I don’t dream so far ahead yet,” he said, “because my country is very poor.”
Some Cambodian fans remain confused as to whether professional wrestling is real or not.
Chea Sarouen, a 37-year-old taxi driver in Siem Reap province who loves to watch WWE, said he has asked himself this question for years.
“I can’t understand the rules of the game,” he said. “How did the winner bite the referee and still win anyway? Why do they use chairs to hit each other?” he asked.
San Kim Sean, a master of Bokator, a traditional Cambodian martial art, said that even though professional wrestling is fake, it is a respectable endeavor that demands a very high level of skill.
“Professional wrestlers train for many years, more than boxers,” he said.
Mar Serey, sports programmer at CTN, said that every week his station airs one hour of professional wrestling starring Western wrestlers. In the future, the station might consider contracting Cambodian professional wrestlers, he said.
But for professional wrestling to surpass kickboxing in its popularity, Mar Serey said the wrestlers need practice and the federation needs money.
“Professional wrestling is a big production, very expensive,” he said.
Whenever Batista, the current heavyweight champion on WWE’s “Smackdown”, comes on screen, the entire auditorium goes black, he said. Next, Batista emerges in a spotlight and there are sound effects that make the noise of a rifle.
“If we can do like that, it may become more popular than kickboxing,” Mar Serey said.