Heart of a fighter: Eh Phuthong and Kun Khmer

Eh Phuthong is a legend of Cambodian kickboxing, the national sport known as Kun Khmer

By Dan Riley and Thav Sievny

In the shadow of Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium, sitting in front of his cramped living quarters and flanked by several young students from his boxing club, Cambodian fighting legend Eh Phuthong gives a humble grin. “I don’t have any other interests besides boxing,” he admits.

Eh Phuthong, Kun Khmer
Time out: Eh Phuthong at Phnom Penh’s Prokout fitness and fight centre. Photo: Vittorio Velasquez

It’s not much of a surprise for a man who has spent half of his 40 years as
a professional fighter, racking up more than 170 victories on home and foreign soil without allowing losses to reach double digits.

Widely regarded as the best Kun Khmer fighter of his generation, he has held national championships in every weight class between 48kg and 67kg, and has travelled abroad for contests in Thailand, France and Australia. He also collected a bronze medal in English boxing at the 2009 Southeast Asian Games in Laos.

Hailing from the famed fight scene in Cambodia’s southwestern province of Koh Kong, Phuthong began training at the age of 12 with his uncle and coach Yuth Phuthong, who went on to become the governor of Koh Kong.

Despite being surrounded by family members involved in the sport – his brother, Outh, is a renowned boxer in his own right – Phuthong attributes the inspiration for his career in the ring to his wife, Sang Somaly.

“When I first started as an amateur Kun Khmer boxer, I thought I would do this only as a hobby. I never thought I would be this famous professional at home and abroad,” he said. “My wife encouraged me to train hard to become a professional Kun Khmer boxer, and I did what she said.”

A move to the capital at 16 had him training under Ministry of Defence Boxing Club’s esteemed coach Chhit Sarim. A year later he was ready to make his ring debut, where his all-round toughness and exceptional skill, especially with his elbows and knees, saw him flourish. He even forged a reputation for breaking his opponents’ bones, often with his mighty roundhouse kicks.

Despite possessing obvious natural talent, Phuthong insists it was his passion for the sport, and perhaps an element of machismo, that helped drive him to the top. “When I fight, I feel like I am a real man. Every battle I waged was worth it because that was what a man should do.”

Retirement in 2010 was never going to be a cosy affair. He currently leads coaching at the Ministry of Defence Club at the capital’s Old Stadium, where punchbags and tyres hang under the eastern stand.

It’s a shockingly spartan set up; one that echoes the disparity between those at the summit of combat sports in the Kingdom and others around the world. But the former fighter isn’t bitter. “At least [my earnings] improved my welfare far better than when I was an amateur fighter,” he shrugs, before providing a cautionary tale to his students. “Back in the day, I was a party animal. Even if I could keep up my standard as a top-class boxer, I failed to let my family enjoy the fruits of my labour because I always spent the money I earned from winning on something stupid like alcohol and parties. This is what I regret my whole life,” he says. “I will always remind my kids and students to avoid such an attitude and try to train hard to become not just a great boxer, but a great person and make their lives more stable than the one I am having right now.”

Nevertheless, his lifelong passion for the sport is now being ploughed into fostering a new generation of fighters.

Having previously worked with an international NGO to help impoverished kids learn life lessons through kickboxing training, he is now regularly employed, alongside his coaching commitments, as a referee for bouts held all over the country. His wife works the same role for female fights and, to top it off, their daughter and three sons are all keen fight enthusiasts. It seems that, for the Phuthongs, Kun Khmer is very much a family affair.

See the action
Kun Khmer is a martial art that is similar to kickboxing, but with elbow and knee strikes allowed. It is also known as Pradal Serey, which means free fighting. Boxers wear red or blue gloves and fights consist of five three-minute rounds. Traditional music is played live during matches, usually on the flute, drums and finger cymbals, with the tempo increasing to encourage boxers to fight harder. It can be seen live every weekend at various TV stations in Phnom Penh.

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