Kick! kick! punch!
Shanghai Star. 2001-06-07
"After decades of war, kickboxing was forgotten and the athletes were weak. Now we are trying our best to restore our reputation."Um Yurann Deputy director of the Cambodian Boxing Federation
PHNOM PENH - In its latest battle with neighbouring Thailand over cultural heritage, Cambodia is moving to reclaim its stake in a sport that it says originated on Cambodian soil.
Kickboxing, made famous in the region by skilled Thai fighters, is on the rise in Cambodia after three decades of strife put the pleasures of sport on the back burner.
Cambodian fighters are now sparring against each other and visitors from other countries, including Thailand - and they're winning.
Um Yurann, deputy director of the Cambodian Boxing Federation, is at the forefront of the cultural battle and points to bas-reliefs on the ancient walls of the ninth to 12th century Angkor temples as proof that Cambodians have been practising the sport for centuries.
"After decades of war, kickboxing was forgotten and the athletes were weak. Now we are trying our best to restore our reputation," he said.
"But we are still poor and most of our boxers are in poor living conditions. They do not have enough energy to practise."
But they do practise, at some 70 boxing clubs around the country and with determination to become world-class athletes some day.
"We often have foreign kickboxers from Japan, France, Thailand, Australia, Spain, Sweden, Canada and other countries who come to compete with our boxers," Um Yurann said. "Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win. This is normal."
It is clear on any given weekend that Cambodians are embracing the sport wholeheartedly. Television stations have begun staging weekly matches that spectators can watch at the studios in Phnom Penh or live on TV.
"Kick! Kick! Punch! Use your elbow! Use your knee," audience members shout as two boxers face off before a standing-room-only crowd.
Most of the slender but fierce-looking Cambodians sport tattoos depicting strong animals such as eagles, tigers or angry dragons. Others have images of Buddha on their bodies.
"You came here to fight, not to dance," they heckle at the foreign opponents.
Ae Phouthong, a 24-year-old who's lost only four of his last 140 fights, said that he was poor and his diet and energy was not so good, but he boasted his technique was on a par with his opponents.
"I am tired, but I tried my best to fight with a strong French rival," he said after defeating Jean Charles in a recent Sunday bout.
"My energy is weaker than foreign rivals, but their technique is no better than mine."
Coach Chhith Sarim said it was unfortunate that Cambodia lost its spot in the world of kickboxing while the country was at war, but he's determined to win it back.
"Our kickboxers are really good and it is not proper that Thailand says Cambodia copied its game while we were busy with war," he said bitterly.
Cambodian kickboxers - like other athletes, entertainers and intellectuals - were targeted by Khmer Rouge soldiers during the group's 1975-79 regime.
An estimated 1.7 million people died from execution, disease, starvation and overwork during the Khmer Rouge's nearly four-year rule.
A decade of Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s and continuing war and poverty in the 1990s prevented enthusiasts from rebuilding the sport until recently.
"If the athlete wants to commit himself to the sport, he will beat foreign boxers because Cambodian tactics are better than foreign boxers," Chhith Sarim said.
"The main problem is that they are weak because they don't have enough food to eat. I hope the Royal Government will support and fund this kind of sport, and we will be able to compete internationally."
A visiting Japanese kickboxer said he believed the Cambodians have what it takes.
"They are strong with elbows and their hearts are strong, even though their energy is weak," said the boxer, who goes only by the name Nagawa, after knocking out his Cambodian opponent in the third round of a recent bout.
(Agencies via Xinhua)