In the world of professional sports, politicians have long learned that great athletes make great PR. Basketball player Yao Ming is probably the first Chinese national to become a household name. Paradorn brought a lot of positive media attention to Thailand. And you would have to go into the deepest regions of a remote jungle to find someone who has not heard of Tiger Woods.
In return for making the country popular around the world, top athletes are paid huge salaries. Boxing champion, Manny Pacquiao, has become a national legend, almost attaining god-like status, and even made a run for the congress. The Philippines is a relatively poor country, and yet, Manny is earning $5,000,000 (USD) for his next fight. Muhammad Ali hasn’t fought in over twenty-five years, but has been a goodwill ambassador of the US as well as the US ambassador to the Islamic world for years. Last year, he appeared on a list of highest paid entertainers, earning an income of $55,000,000.
Cambodia suffers from such a lack of marketing that even Angkor Wat failed to be recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Ask strangers on a street in Europe or America, and most likely the only famous Cambodian they can name is Pol Pot. The only other names which come up frequently in search engines and chat rooms are the two Khmer boxing champions, brothers Eh Phou Thoung and Oed Phou Thoung. For overseas Khmers, the two brothers are major heroes. Fight fans around the world would love to see the brothers fighting the leading champions of other countries, particularly Thailand.
Unfortunately, the big international fights never happen, as the Cambodian powers that be have more or less forbidden the brothers the right to fight outside of the country. They could have been respected international champions, bringing pride to their beleaguered nation. Instead, they live in absolute poverty, doomed to a life of obscurity with no end in sight.
Is this the right way to treat your national treasure?
Behind the ugliest slum building in Phnom Penh, is a neighborhood associated with prostitution, drugs, and gambling. Down a filthy dirt road, where local inhabitants sort trash to make a living, there is a two story wooden house, which serves as Eh Phou Thoung’s gym, as well as home for his family and his stable of twenty fighters.
Eh Phou Thoung, a veteran of more than 160 fights, sits listlessly on a wooden bench, with a look of tired boredom on his face. In spite of his ferocity in the ring, he is a kind and boyish fellow, who I have known for years. Every time I look at my old friend, I can’t help but feel that his life is something that happened to him, rather than something he chose.
At age 36, he has gained a lot of weight and clearly lost interest in training.
“I still fight sometimes, but only a little bit.” He said. He tells me his official record is 156 fights, with 7 losses and 4 draws. “No one in Cambodia can fight with me,” he lamented. Now, when he gets fights, they are mostly with foreigners.
“I fought in Thailand once, on the king’s birthday.”
Prize money is doubled on the King’s birthday.
“I won two and lost one.”
Now, Eh dedicates most of his time to raising his twenty young boxers. “It is like a big family, and I am the father,” he laughs. Eh buys ice cream from a passing vendor. He eats three while we talk.
“Some of my fighters can get as much as $80, but some only get $15. It depends on ability and weight.”
To give every club an opportunity to fight, the two networks, CTN and TV 5, each allow one fighter from each club each week. Since the club gets to keep a percentage of the purse, this means that Eh’s club has an income of some percentage of $30 – $100 a week. It also means that each fighter will only fight a few times per year.
Cambodian boxing is a far cry from Manny Pacquiao.
“Some of the kids don’t even want to be fighters,” says Eh. “They want to be bodyguards. Sometimes important people come here to scout for bodyguards.”
Flies buzz as the neighbors dump endless piles of trash on the muddy ground. They pick through the refuse like jackals on a fallen zebra. I am told that the house with all of the people crowding around and shouting is an illegal gambling parlor. The police stop by approximately every fifteen to twenty minutes and come out, slapping their front short pocket.
Eh gets slowly to his feet to work the heavy bag. He has gained about 15 kg since I last saw him. The tattoos and cup marks from traditional medicine treatments dance across his skin as he kicks. As soon as he breaks a sweat, he sits back down and returns to his catatonic state. His twenty boxers return from running. They train on the cement porch in front of Eh’s house. Other than two heavy bags, their only equipment is a pile of moldy boxing gloves laid out on the roof of an abandoned car.
Even overweight and lacking training Eh is a dangerous fighter. In three of his fights against foreigners, he managed to break the opponent’s arm with a kick. Unfortunately, he has only had a few fights in the last several years.
“I really want to fight again,” he tells me. “I never get to fight now.”
One of the main reasons given why Cambodian fighters can’t fight abroad is because Cambodia refuses to join the World Muay Thai Council. Khmers feel that they invented kick boxing and don’t want to support a sport which has taken a Thai name. To circumvent this issue, promoters have come, asking Khmers to fight in the ISKA, American or Australian Kick Boxing leagues. But even these politically neutral alternatives were rejected by the contract holders. Most people believe that corruption is keeping Cambodian fighters down. If Cambodian fighters started fighting outside of the country, then local promoters and managers would lose the stranglehold they exert over them.
Now, in Japan, the K-1, the Super Bowl of kick boxing with prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, is holding tournaments, aimed at South East Asian fighters, with weight limits as low as 70 kg. Either Eh or Oed Phou Thoung could qualify, but they both believed they would never be given the chance.
“We don’t know how to go there and fight,” said Eh. “We need sponsors. And no one knows who we are.”