(Date of the Fight: May 21 2016)
On 31 December 2015, 28-year-old professional Hawaiian MMA fighter Justin Wong flew to Siem Reap from San Fransisco with his wife. She had gotten promoted in her job and Cambodia was to become their new home for the next 2 or 3 years. Justin hadn't fought for some time and was searching for a fresh start. He had already found out that there was a Cambodian Kickboxing arena in Siem Reap, and was in contact with the local Angkor Fight Club, where he wanted to start training. "But then a setback came. The day I landed they announced that the stadium would be closed for the entire year of 2016," says Justin. Instead, he focused his attention on the Kingdom's capital Phnom Penh and 5 months later, I met him at his debut fight held at a TV studio, a few hundred meters from the Mekong River.
Competing in the 65 kg weight class, Justin will fight in the first match of the evening, taking on A. Brezil from Cambodia. An hour before the event, the stands are completely empty, but the spacious dark room is filled with colored spotlights, and twirling bright beams bounce off the walls awaiting the excitement to come. I find Justin sitting on a narrow bench in the dressing room, which he shares with another fighter. "Normally I know all about my opponents, but this time I haven't managed to find any information at all, I don't even know his name," says Justin.
As he gets his hand-wraps loosened, more and more people enter the room. Behind the transparent glass door, a crowd of young kids are carefully following Justin's every move. The cramped, brightly wallpapered room is filled with the intense mint smell of Tiger Balm, that Justin's coaches Nick Chevdar and Fraser Campbell (co-owners of Ankor Fight Club in Siem Reap) are rubbing on his legs. A Cambodian coach from another team tells them that the Tiger Balm won't suffice and hands them a bottle of liniment instead. With the time for the match fast approaching, Nick says that it is time to warm up.
Justin grew up in Honolulu and started off with skateboarding as a kid. He was introduced by one of his skater friends to MMA, at the age of 16. "After my first MMA training at HMC Academy in Honolulu I was hooked," says Justin. He explains that from the beginning he has been combining Kickboxing, Wrestling and Brazilian jiu jitsu. A couple of years later, he got the chance to train for a year at HMC's sister gym in Washington State, called US Martial Arts Center. "It was an important year for me and when I came back to Hawaii, I asked my coaches to help me to take things further. It was time to start earning some money on my fighting," says Justin. His career as a professional MMA fighter took off in November 2008. Today he holds a record of six professional MMA fights. Five wins on Hawaii and one loss in Australia. However, the last couple of years that Justin spent in San Fransisco ended up without any matches. "The coach I worked with wasn't the best for me and I wasn't able to get any fights at all". Today's kickboxing match is not only his first match in Cambodia, but also his first professional Kickboxing match ever.
Half an hour before the match is supposed to start, Justin and his coaches, followed by a dozen kids, walk out to the parking lot to warm up. One of the kids never leaves Justin's side and is always within a couple of meters range. Fraser and Justin start throwing punches at each other, and after a while they take the emergency exit back in to the studio again. Justin's opponent is sitting there alone, leaning on a loudspeaker, dressed in a hooded robe with his ice-bucket next to him. He looks calm.
"Typically, I know when I will fight 3 months ahead. This time I had only 6 weeks," says Justin. The gym he is training at, the Angkor Fight Club in Siem Reap, isn't registered at the official boxing commission. Therefore, it had to be done through a registered club. "But It actually ended up being quite easy, I went with my coach Nick to the Prokout gym in Phnom Penh and after 10 minutes they said that they would help us to arrange the fight, and here we are".
Justin explains that even though things have been great in Cambodia so far, it has been an adjustment. "The people that I use to train with, that know my limits and capacities, are of course not here. But I still get inputs from one of my coaches in the US, Tommy Santos, through Facebook messenger".
The commentator calls out "Justin from Hawaii" over the loudspeakers, and he approaches the ring, with a small army of children surrounding him. The bell rings, and the match is on. In the first minute, Justin takes a number of kicks from his opponent, but soon he gets his defense up and throws a few similar kicks back. Justin tries a few punches, but none of them connect. In the two minute break before the second round, he remains standing in the corner, listening to his coaches.
"Here in Cambodia you typically warm up in the first round, get your eyes adjusted and get your defense working. But when Westerners fight here, they usually go a little harder in. In our case we went a traditional first round, and I believe I was slightly ahead," Justin tells me after the match.
The second round starts and the pace is faster. Justin moves more aggressively and within 30 seconds it's all over. A. Brezil lies on the floor while the judge counts to ten with his hands in the air.
"I managed to get in a straight right punch, and when I saw his eyes rolling back I just followed up with a left-right-left-right, to finish him off in the corner," a relaxed Justin explains with a smile, before heading back to the dressing room wrapped in a Hawaiian flag, with now an even larger group of kids behind him. Justin gives one of them his hand wrap and the kid immediately begins posing for cameras, pretending to be Justin.
When I later speak to Justin on the phone, I ask about what's next in his fighting career. He doesn't hesitate for a second and answers, "MMA is a passion of mine that I don't want to neglect. In San Fransisco, it didn't work out for me and now it's 3 years since I fought, so I hope to make comeback in Phnom Penh soon, and definitely within 6 months".