Death was not uncommon. Contestants knew the risks and the vanquished could hardly claim to be victims.
Fighters wore glove-like knuckle dusters fashioned from snail shells to injure their opponents in the kickboxing bouts in Battambang province in the early part of the last century.
“Boxers fought until death. During the bout, a stretcher to carry out the dead was brought in; it was kept there in case a boxer died. The winner received a prize from the committee,” recounted elderly Battambang villager Pel Yat in a 1974 book on the social history of the province.
Decades later, Battambang and neighboring Banteay Meanchey province are still the source of a steady flow of young men, compelled by the potent mix of poverty and ambition, to take up the sport of professional kickboxing.
Fatalities are fewer nowadays. But Cambodian kickboxing is still an unforgiving world of serious physical risks for small financial rewards.
“It is not quite different from past times. Some start training and become fighters as a way to feed their family and themselves,” says Battambang boxing coach Huot Hok, who began his fighting career in the 1940s.
Now 72 years old, but sporting a sharper physique than men decades his junior, Huot Hok is still coaching and still has an eye for a good fighter, the most talented of which come from Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces, he says.
Little has changed in the sport, Huot Hok says. Then too, the majority of those who fought came from poor backgrounds and winning was as much about personal success as the prize purse.
“For the fighter who has experience and fame, they can fight as much as three times a week. They take the hardship in the ring,” said Huot Hok, adding that the rural northwest is in itself a training ground for fighters.
“Young men from rural areas have great strength because they don’t have money to spend on women and alcohol. When they train, they train,” Huot Hok says.
“People from the towns can have a good time,” he scoffs.
Rain has stopped and two young boxers enter a battered boxing ring set up under open skies on a rundown basketball court in the center of Battambang town.
Like the northwestern part of Cambodia, the basketball court and the shaky, wood and paint-chipped metal boxing ring have seen better days.
In several spots around the ring, the canvas floor below the boxers’ feet is ripped and gathered in small bundles like discarded rags.
But as the two teenagers square off, the dangerously uneven surface underfoot is the least of the physical worries they are about to face.
Knocked unconscious, kicked and punched to the floor, cut, winded, gashed, and gouged, the night is a Pandora’s box of injuries as young men battle attrition-style late into the night.
Crowds cheer wildly inside a pall of cigarette smoke and garrulous good humor. They vie with each other for a better view of the battles being fought under bluish neon lights strung across the run-down basket ball court.
After each bout, fighters are taken to the corner of the basketball court where their shorts are stripped off and handed to the next set of young pugilists who stand waiting in their underwear, resigned expressions on their dark faces.
It is the basement floor of the Battambang fight game.
But the beatings, defeats and victories doled out on these balmy nights keep attracting new young bloods who dream of making it big in Phnom Penh.
“The [prize] money is not enough, but it supports us from time to time,” says Long Chey Sophal, 23, who has fought more than 20 times.
Just returned to Phnom Penh after two weeks of rice planting on his small farm in the Sangke district of Battambang province, Long Chey Sophal has one week to prepare for his next fight in Phnom Penh’s TV 5 station.
Commuting back and forth between provincial farm and Phnom Penh fights, Long Chey Sophal says the prize money is “small, but it helps my family.”
“I miss my wife, but we have to come here to make some money,” he says of the fight that can earn him $40.
Physically, the fights haven’t cost Long Chey Sophal so much, just four stitches to his cheek and four stitches to a nasty gash to the top of his skull, inflicted by an elbow blow.
Asked when he expected to return to Battambang, several fighters standing nearby respond for Long Chey Sophal. “When he’s earned some money,” they say.
Beuth Somkhan, 19, packed in a job mining for gems in Pailin and headed to Phnom Penh with the intention of becoming a fighter. That was more than one year ago, and his decision would appear to have been wise.
Beuth Somkhan has won 15 of his first 19 fights, and has made his name on the Phnom Penh circuit where he fights at least once a month, earning a maximum of $50 per bout.
Beuth Somkhan is a rising star, but even that’s not enough to pay the bills.
“Even the famous fighters cannot earn enough to support their family. Now we have enough, we are fit. But if we get sick or injured what can we do?” Beuth Somkhan says.
“It depends on the gods because if I get my arm broken like my coach, what can I do?” he says referring to his trainer, Long Salavorn, whose fighting days were ended in 1997 by an opponent’s bone-shattering kick to his arm.
In the past five years, 30 kickboxers have sustained serious injury in the ring, said Chhoeung Yavyen, ringside doctor for the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Association.
“There were broken wrists and arms, two broken shins, one kickboxer ruptured his intestine because he ate rice before his bout. Broken noses, dislodged shoulders, hip injuries and broken jaws,” Chhoeung Yavyen said.
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, Chhoeung Yavyen said.
Mostly, the injuries suffered are curable and don’t leave lasting problems, he said.
“After they are given medical treatment they are fine and can come back to the ring,” he added.
With scores of poor fighters vying for modest prize money it may be no surprise that match fixingÑwhere a fighter can earn a year’s worth of winnings from gamblers to lose a single bout has become a problem.
A veteran of 50 bouts, Long Kimsen, 24, was recently suspended for two months after a referee suspected he had taken a dive during a particularly sensational fight with rising boxing star Svay Ritthy.
Though claiming innocence in his case, Long Kimsen said he agrees that other fighters are tempted by the gamblers.
“Some boxers have children, so for the money they do it. But for me, and my reputation, I did not do that ,” Long Kimsen said.
Around 70 percent of the boxers in Phnom Penh hail from the northwest, particularly Battambang province, says coach Long Salavorn, who also came to Phnom Penh in the early 1990s from Battambang province.
Most of the fighters don’t have enough to make ends meet each month while waiting for their next kickboxing match, said Long Salavorn, who at one time shared his small wooden home with 10 fighters who had been drawn to Phnom Penh to fight.
“We don’t have many promoters like other countries. That is why we do not have higher prize money,” Long Salavorn said.
“If Khmer boxers got a fee for boxing that was 10 percent of what they get in the West, they would be stronger and more tenacious,” said Meas Sokry, chief referee and judge of the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Federation.
“The most important thing is the living condition of the boxers. To earn enough money they have to depend on the competition. If they get sick or injured, they have to turn to their coach for help. Western boxers just need to fight once or twice a year and they can rest. They get paid a lot of money,” Meas Sokry said.
Cambodia’s kickboxing circuit is a pale shadow of its better funded and better promoted counterpart in Thailand, which to the ire of many Cambodians, has cornered the global branding of the sport.
Internationally, the style of kickboxing practiced in Cambodian, Laos, Burma and Thailand is known universally by the Thai-language name Muay Thai (simply meaning Thai boxing in English).
While few can criticize Thailand for successfully exporting its fighting prowess and kickboxing style, many Cambodian sportsmen say their Thai neighbors have appropriated an ancient aspect of Khmer culture. Stone reliefs of Khmer kickboxing at the Bayon and the Preah Lean Chol Damrei [court of the fighting elephants] in the Angkor temple complex have been dated to the 12th century.
On the principle that no country can lay sovereign claim to the sport of kickboxing, as practiced in this part of Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Laos and Burma have declined to join the international Muay Thai Federation, which has members in 40 different countries.
“In 1997, we sent six Cambodian kickboxers to Thailand for bouts. But in the meeting, we were asked to join the Muay Thai membership. We completely refused. We could not sell out our culture,” said Oum Yourann, first vice president of the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Association.
Cambodia now has more than 100 Khmer kickboxing clubs, and more than 300 fighters in eight weight classes will take part in the annual national selection fights in October, said Oum Yourann, adding that the sport is thriving here.
“We can fight with Thai boxers, but we can’t be in that [Muay Thai] federation,” boxing association referee Meas Sokry said.
Thailand has since stopped inviting Khmer kickboxers to compete on their soil, he added.