With mixed martial arts enjoying unprecedented worldwide fame, Cambodia also boasts of its own style of kickboxing called Pradal Serey, which is similar to the kickboxing of its neighbor, Muay Thai in Thailand. Kickboxing in Phnom Penh is as popular as it is in Bangkok, with regular street matches and the major ones broadcasted weekly on national TV. In fact, Pradal Serey, also known as Khmer Boxing, is Cambodia’s national sport. So far, though, international mixed martial arts circuits are virtually unaware of the Khmer-type of boxing and there’s a reason for it, other than the fact that it is basically similar to Thai boxing.
The Khmers believe that they invented kickboxing, not the Thais. They claim that several bas reliefs on Angkor Wat prove that ancient Khmers have engaged in the sport many years before it reached Thailand. In 1975, however, Cambodia entered the four darkest and most regrettable years of its history. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army took control of the country and practically drained Cambodia of everything that it should be proud of, including its unique style of boxing. Together with all other forms of Khmer culture and traditions, Pradal Serey almost became extinct since Pol Pot banned the sport and ordered the execution of many boxers. The merciless dictator murdered the rich, educated, cultured, skilled and everybody else that posed some kind of threat to his proposed agrarian reforms.
After Pol Pot, the country slumped into a 20-year civil war, which allowed the national sport to re-emerge but slowly. The first avenues of its resurrection were in Phnom Penh private schools, where young students were made to learn the sport. Until today, economic recovery is very slow for Cambodia, and so, too, Pradal Serey has not yet made its mark in international recognition.
Today, Khmer boxers start young, as early as 7 or 8 years old. In fact, some have turned pro at the age of 14. Many of them will compete in hundreds of fights in the succeeding years, which show how better conditioned they are than professional western boxers who only get to fight 5-8 fights a year. Khmers train hard and they firmly believe that they are the best fighters in the world, although not a single Khmer fighter has fought in an international K-1 or MMA fight. They also have not joined the World Muay Thai Council because they resent the name “Muay Thai” to refer to kickboxing. They believe it should be Pradal Serey.
Meanwhile, the most popular local competitions typically take place in Koh Kong, Most of the top boxers, including Eh Phouthong, the national champion, come from this province.
Aside from Pradal Serey, two other local fighting styles are the Bokator and Japbab Boran Khmer. Bokator is more dangerous than Pradal Serey since fighters may use weapons in addition to their punches, kicks, elbows, knees and grappling. Also, in place of boxing gloves, they wrap their hands with ropes or scarves. Allowable weapons are the double swords, double sticks, long staff and scarf.
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The least practiced Japbab Boran Khmer, on the other hand, is Khmer-style wrestling, the goal of which is to force the opponent’s back to touch the ground.
International fighters and enthusiasts may learn kickboxing in Phnom Penh at Paddy’s Gym, the most popular training gym in the city. Classes are only worth US$5, and each class includes cardio fitness and striking techniques using the hands, elbows, knees, and feet. The gym is located near the Russian Market.