Close to a thousand people crowd into the bleachers and around the ring as the drums begin. Every bit of wall space is plastered with beer ads, and seven scantily clad women dance to entertain the crowds. As the fight starts, 20-year-old Prak Prayut circles his opponent.
Both boxers lightly tap their feet on the mat and occasionally make wild swipes at each other – all part of their warm-up, Prayut says later. The audience is silent until Prayut strikes a swinging kick to his opponent’s shoulder, eliciting cheers and “oohs” from the crowd.
For the next 50 minutes the two boxers perform the ancient sport of Kun Khmer – landing kicks, punches and elbow and knee strikes as each tries to knock out the opponent or win on technical points.
Prayut, and his rival, Siev Ngoy, are two of the nearly 1,000 boxers featured on a weekly basis on Cambodian television channels. In recent years, the sport has seen a resurgence and garnered a wide following, bringing with it a healthy flow of sponsorship money. But despite the money in the industry, only a small portion trickles down to the fighters.
The sport normally attracts fighters from poor families. Most are secondary or high school dropouts looking to make money to support their families or to reach the heights of popular kick boxers, such as Eh Phuthong, or more recently Long Sophy and Chan Rotana.
Prayut comes from one such family, where his motodop driver father and housewife mother make meagre wages. While he gets some support from his father, Prayut’s mother is vehemently against his boxing career, instead wanting him to deliver pizza to hungry capital residents.
For his part, Prayut finds the work hard and the money barely sustains him. He is already realising that he’ll need to find a new career before too long to make ends meet.
As the rounds wear on, Prayut’s initial aggression and vigour slowly fade as Ngoy starts to land punch after punch, with unrelenting elbow and knee strikes to the ribs whenever the two embrace. After a quick calculation of the points, Prayut loses.
“I am really upset because I trained hard. He was 2 kilograms heavier than me and fouled a few times but did not get caught,” he says bitterly, sitting in a dimly lit back corridor.
Prayut heads back home with $87 – about half the average monthly wage – his face puffy and red, waiting patiently to be matched up with another boxer.
The ancient art form of Kun Khmer is steeped in tradition, going as far back as the Angkorian era. Historians suggest that the boxing style, along with other fighting tactics, was in part responsible for the empire’s military dominance.
More recently, boxers were among the educated elite brutally murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, and all forms of the fighting were outlawed from 1975 to 1979. Since then, the sport has seen a resurgence, especially in recent years when the Cambodian Boxing Federation attempted to elevate it to the level of Muay Thai – a sister art form popular in neighbouring Thailand.
But these efforts have been hamstrung by a relative lack of funding, with boxers at the lowest level of the monetary totem pole – many having to fend for themselves after being injured or leaving the ring with little money left to sustain a livelihood.
This fact has left 33-year-old Vorn Viva bitter. A former boxing champion whose given name is Choun Sokleng, he now spends his days waiting to shuttle passengers around Phnom Penh in his red and white taxi.
Viva is part of a family with a pedigree for martial arts. His wife, Sorn Davin, is a trained taekwondo practitioner, whose sister, the now-popular Sorn Seavmey, represented Cambodia in the same discipline at the Rio Olympics last year.
Viva says he has seen the highs of being a boxing champion, having been the International Sport Kickboxing Association world middleweight champion, but he talks about his experience with a mixture of disgust and reluctance.
Having grown up in Kampong Cham, Viva was first inspired to enter the ring in his 20s after witnessing a thrilling match between two boxing champions – San Soayan and Noun Bora. Before that the Kampong Cham resident worked as a porter in Phnom Penh to support his family.
“I am not the kind of guy who gives up midway, so I kept doing it as my love for the sport grew,” he says, referring to his late entry into the sport.
After training for six months, Viva made his way up the pecking order, defeating local opponents and before he knew it was taking on international boxers, capturing his title in 2008. This fame did bring with it perks – better pay, television appearances and a few advertising contracts – but still it was only barely enough to support him.
An early ending
Only in what would end up being his last bout did Viva realise the frailty of his fame.
Viva was matched with a Swedish boxer 5 kilograms heavier than him and, he says, was threatened if he did not enter the ring by the local TV channel, Bayon TV, who said they would no longer schedule and show fights with him if he backed out. This was not the first time he had faced this dilemma, as he had previously had to fight a boxer 7 kilograms heavier than him on the CTN network.
During the match against the Swede, the boxer broke his arm, ending his career in an instant.
Representatives for Bayon TV and CTN, which organised the bouts, could not be reached.
“This is a lesson for all young boxers – do not just agree to all matches no matter how good you are,” Viva says. “Otherwise, you will destroy yourself.”
Viva says the boxing federation and television station first accused him of losing the match intentionally and then ignored any requests for assistance to deal with his injury.
“How could they accuse me like that? When my family was in need of money to pay for my medical bills, no one came to help me,” he says.
Tem Moeurn, president of the Kun Khmer Federation, said TV channels are responsible for picking up the medical costs for any injuries the boxers bear in the ring. He says that in Viva’s case, the retired boxer had the opportunity to go to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh for surgery, a claim quickly dismissed by Viva.
“I had to go to Vietnam for the surgery, at my own cost. No one told me they will pay for my medical bills,” he says.
Only after he posted about his situation on Facebook, he says, did the federation and the Sports Ministry send him some funds, which quickly dried up once he retired a few months later.
Sidestepping Viva’s accusations, Moeurn went on to say that boxers are better paid nowadays than they were 10 years ago, adding that the federation only determines the match schedule and decides the winnings, having nothing to do with TV channel revenues or boxer welfare.
“Of course we want more money for our boxers, but making money is hard. Because TV stations are also not making much money from the program,” he says.
A document from the federation in 2015 shows that out of a $2,000 total budget for a day’s worth of fights, boxers get anywhere from $50 to $100 for winning their bouts. A small amount of the budget goes to boxing clubs and boxer transportation costs. No figures of incoming sponsorship or ad revenue were available.
Moeurn says sponsors put in little money compared to neighbouring Thailand because of the relatively small market for boxing in the Kingdom. He also suggested that boxers should supplement their winnings with a job on the side.
“Many boxers have another profession to support themselves or their families, so they do not have to depend on too much money from boxing,” he says. “It is a sport, and you cannot care only about money.”
Nhean Sothy, Southeast TV’s boxing programming manager, said boxers are paid according to their rankings, with the winnings increasing with each consecutive victory. He also added that fighters are aware of the risks before entering the ring.
“The boxers can agree to get in the ring or not based on a voluntary basis. However, many boxers only complain when they lose, blaming the management team,” he added.
Viva sees this perception of Kun Khmer as a hobby as perpetuating the fighters’ underpayment.
“The boxers need stable salaries, at least $250,” he says. “How can they carry on [fighting Kun Khmer] while their stomachs are empty?”
The economics of the contact sport are of little concern to 16-year-old Long Bronh. The Prey Veng resident trains and lives at the modest facilities of the Long Saravoan Boxing Club on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The son of a construction worker and garment maker, it was his uncle, a now-retired boxer, who inspired the young man to take up the sport at the age of 7.
“I remember seeing him fight when I was a young boy. He was so cool and famous, and I wanted to be like him,” he says, taking a break from his 3-kilometre run.
This hero worship of his uncle stops with Bronh, whose parents oppose the 39-kilogram budding boxer’s career choice.
“My parents urge me to quit boxing and work as a construction worker like my father. They say it is hard and dangerous,” he says.
Having only fought 12 bouts over the last eight years, he is training to increase his weight and skill level.
On a strict and regimented workout, Bronh wakes up at 6am for a jog, followed by two hours of strength building exercise and then combat training until noon. After a small lunch break, he repeats the morning routine again.
Bronh is undeterred by Kun Khmer’s meagre earnings – and even hopeful that he may be one of the few to cash in. The high risk of getting injured with no fallback is not on his mind.
“When I get bigger, I will fight more often and earn more money,” he says, in between punching sandbags. “If I become famous and get to fight with foreign boxers, I could even make a fortune.”