PHNOM PENH: He is schooled in ancient Cambodian martial arts, but Tok Sophon hopes to turn his pugilism skills into wealth and international glory in the modern cage-fighting arena — a transition some fighters fear will wipe out their craft.
Heavy thuds fill the room as Sophon aims ferocious kicks into pads held by his coach, one of a growing number of Cambodians learning mixed martial arts (MMA) — a combat sport where competitors use anything from kickboxing to wrestling to take down their opponent.
“I can make more money fighting in the cage (where MMA is often fought) than through traditional martial arts,” according to the 21-year-old, who joined the lucrative global circuit last year.
In his first bout in Malaysia he earned $1,000, nearly 30 times more than an average contest in Kun Khmer — Cambodian kickboxing, which is similar to Muay Thai in neighbouring Thailand.
The MMA boom stems from a recent revival in the Cambodian martial arts of Kun Khmer and Bokator after centuries of neglect and near extinction under the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, which outlawed both disciplines and murdered their masters.
Bokator is the older of the fighting styles, believed to go back more than 1,000 years to the armies of the Khmer empire who based elements of the style on animal movements.
It barely survived the hardline communist Khmer Rouge, who tried to wipe out Cambodian history in a bid to establish an agrarian utopia, but has since won new followers among Cambodians keen to learn the art and preserve a unique strand of their culture.
With its elbow and shin strikes, locks and grapples the sport deploys techniques which can cross over into MMA and Cambodian fighters have found it relatively easy to adapt their moves to the cage.