Sports

Pradal Serey: Kickboxing the Cambodian Way

We dig in to the legacy of Cambodia's national sport, Pradal Serey, and watch young fighters take the ring, in the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

by Daniel Bruce
Jun 10 2016, 6:01pm

In the last minute of the fifth round Samnang Sambath from the blue corner, makes a last attempt at shoving his right elbow at his notably taller opponent, Loy Vandy's face. He misses but instead manages to lock his arm around Vandy's neck, and they get stuck between the ropes until judges separates them.

I am at Bayon TV studio in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, watching this week's kickboxing matches, that are undoubtedly a national craze. Every weekend TV studios in the city welcome spectators to watch live Cambodian Kickboxing for a couple of hours, completely free of charge. Cambodia's national sport is either locally known as Kun Khmer or Pradal Serey, the latter meaning "free fighting" in the local Khmer language.

Pradal Serey follows the same rules as Muay Thai. However, Cambodians often don't like to be clubbed with their neighbors, and if you ask them, many will claim that Thai boxing originates in Cambodia. They say that the sport came up in the ancient Kingdom of Funan just prior to the birth of the Angkorian Empire, whose heartland lies within contemporary Cambodian borders. The most notable difference between the two fighting styles is the more frequent use of elbows in Pradal Serey than in Muay Thai.

"Elbows have always been used, especially in South East Asia. But here in Cambodia, it's a crowd favourite and the judges love it," says the Hawaiian professional MMA fighter Justin Wong who is now based in Cambodia. Justin himself, spends a lot of time training to avoid elbows, and reveals that he hasn't been cut by an elbow yet. "So far so good" he says with a laugh.

During the brutal era of Khmer Rouge, Pradal Serey's heritage was almost erased. It was forbidden to practice the sport and a number of the boxers were executed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70's, the Pradal Serey tradition was revived. Today, crowds gather in bars and cafes over the weekend to watch Pradal Serey matches, while others like myself, go to TV studios where you could be only meters away from sweaty men vying for glory.

Boxing commentator Mr Chivan at SEA TV boxing channel, explains that they often try organizing international fights, sometimes even with European and Iranian fighters. "It's very important for us to reach out internationally to let people discover what a great sport Pradal Serey is," he explains. "But to be honest, mostly Thai fighters come here," he adds modestly.

Throughout the matches, a musical ensemble composed of the shrill piping of the Sralai (an oboe-like instrument), a drum called Skor Yaul, with the string instrument Chhing, build the ambience among the crowds in the studio. It is played continuously by three men wearing straw hats, sitting behind the audience on a small stage.

The last match of the day is about to begin and the 20 year old fighters in the 51 kg weight class, are sitting on a couple of plastic chairs, awaiting their turn.

As they enter the ring, they salute every corner by bowing their heads three times to Buddha, Rama and the Sangha of monks, similar to the tradition in Muay Thai. The judge brings them to the center of the ring and checks their gloves. Everything is ready, he indicates and the match begins with the sound of the gong. Thun Nhean Di in the blue shorts, is promising in the first and second round. He attacks his opponent Touch Sipich with fast knees and well-aimed kicks at his head. In the third round, both fighters are visibly worn out, and get caught in a scramble at the ropes. The judge untangles them and in turn jerks fighter Thun Nhean Di's shoulder against the ropes. However, the judge's push seems to have hurt him as he isn't able to lift his arm properly. The fight ends with a technical knock out for Touch Sipich.

At the end of the match, spectators swarm the exits within minutes. Sipich shares his prize money with his team, and then rushes out, dressed in jeans and a shirt, to meet his girlfriend. It probably won't be long till these young fighters are in the ring again. To avoid disappointing your team and the Cambodian boxing federation, you're expected to fight approximately every two weeks. The average fighting age for Pradal Serey is between 14 and 25 years and for a successful professional kick-boxer, a couple of hundred matches during a career is not unusual. The fighters also have to keep up with the number of eager spectators that come to watch the matches at Phnom Penh's different TV studios every week.