Martial arts are one of the biggest phenomena in a world’s culture. Known mostly from the cinema. We all know Bruce Lee who became a legend, or Chuck Norris who became a punchline. Jackie Chan turned Kung Fu into a comedic tool and Jean-Claude Van Damme showed that kicking bottoms can be more impressive than acting talent. Martial arts are mostly associated with the so-called ‘VHS Era’, which renaissance ended in the late 90s with franchises like Matrix or Blade, where everybody kicked each other wearing latex, coats, formal suits, and shades….
But the phenomenon of martial arts is still present in the culture and gaining huge popularity in recent years. But this time, the thing is real. No movie stars, stunts, strings, or greenscreens. We are talking about real blood, pain, and sweat. We are talking about sport disciplines like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). The idea is simple. Fighters representing various fighting styles confront each other and fight by the rules of their art. This is a great, and often a brutal show, that gives competitors space to show their skill and also minimize the health detriment, which can be difficult.
As we all know, Asia is the motherland of martial arts. Even if there are many famous styles around the world (capoeira, krav maga) we associate fighting with Asia, especially with China and Japan. Pop culture made it so confusing that Japanese and Chinese motives are often amalgamated into one. Check the lore of the infamous Mortal Kombat for example. But there is one style that we want to show you. Cultivated in Cambodia for centuries.
Pradal Serey (in Khmer ‘free boxing’), also known as Kun Khmer, or officially named Kbach Kun Pradal Khmer, is a discipline based on stand up striking and clinch fighting, where the objective is to knock an opponent out, force a technical knockout, or win a match by points.
Pradal Serey relies on agility and flexibility, but what are the most significant moves in this art? Well, it is most well-known for its unusual kicking technique. The fighter generates power from hip rotation rather than snapping the leg. There are four types of strikes: punches, kicks, elbows, and knee strikes. In the clinch, opponents fight for dominant position for short-range strikes by way of elbows and knees. Cambodian fighters tend to utilize more elbow strikes than that of other martial arts in the region. More victories come by way of an elbow technique than any other strikes. The average age of fighters ranges from 14 to 25. Top kickboxers can have as many as 200-300 fights in their careers.
According to official rules, a match consists of five three-minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1-meter square boxing ring. At the beginning of each match, the boxers practice the praying rituals known as the kun kru, which is a combination of prayer and ritual dance to the traditional Cambodian music performed with the drums called skor yaul, the sralai flutes, and chhing. Music is played also during the fight.
Victory can be obtained by knockout confirmed after a 10-second count, or when the fighter is not able to continue the match. Victory can be obtained at the end of the match when judges decide by a point system in which fighter was more effective. If fighters end up with the same score a draw is called.
Talking about traditional Khmer fighting art we must go over a millennium into the past.
We can’t tell when Pradal Serey was exactly originated, but the first signs of its presence come from the 9th century, when the Khmer Empire was the absolute ruler of South-East Asia and its culture was influential for nations who later transformed themselves into Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam. Images of fighters were often depicted on the walls of temples like Bayon and, of course, Angkor Wat. On their reliefs, we can see warriors presenting thrust kicks and clinching – moves that are significant for Kun Khmer. Unfortunately, there are only a few written pieces of information about this martial art. It is supposed, that most of them were destroyed during the Siamese invasion.
The tradition was preserved through centuries until the colonial period came. From a European point of view, Asian martial arts were brutal and uncivilized. Khmers used to fight in sandpits, using ropes to wrap their hands and often adding some sharp objects, like seashell shrapnels to increase the damage. The most common injuries during the Kun Khmer duel are broken wrists and arms, broken shins, broken noses, dislodged shoulders, hip injuries, and broken jaws. But in a fair play fight, fighters don’t get any permanent or grievous body harms.
Common venues, for matches, were Buddhist pagodas. Rules were very limited, and fights to the death were very common. The fighter was generously rewarded by the crowd, mainly with cash, food, or alcohol. For many Cambodians, Kun Khmer was and still is a main source of finances. This is why this art is so popular among poor citizens. This tradition is alive to this day. Then the French came to the territory of Cambodia, and this is when Pradal Serey was slowly turned into a sport discipline from a present point of view. French introduced rings, short rounds, and western-styled gloves into this brutal art. This was a long and bloody way for Khmer martial art, until the 1960s when Pradal Serey was officially presented to the wide audience. In 1961 Cambodian Boxing Federation was launched. This was a real breakthrough, but five minutes of glory were tragically ended with the entrance of the Khmer Rouge, which brutally stopped the development of this proud discipline.
Fights were banned and a lot of talented martial artists were arrested and killed by the regime. After overthrowing Pol Pot in the late 70s and re-establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Kun Khmer came back to national consciousness, with the ambition to make it as popular as Muay Thai. Today, there are over 70 boxing schools nationwide. Pradal Serey matches are shown on national TV, especially on weekends.
The heart of martial arts in Cambodia is Phnom Penh, which is occupied by 70% registered fighters, but a lot of renowned fighters came from the southern part of the country.
From the most famous Cambodian boxers, we need to mention Eh Phuthong and his teacher, Yuth Phouthorng, Thun Sophea, Keo Rumchong, Chan Rothana, Bird Kham, Sang Vichaka, Kenya Prach a.k.a. “The Black Stones Hand”, or Nigerian-Biafran fighter, Emmanuel Onyedikachi.
In 1987, Cambodian champion Oumry Ban opened the first Kun Khmer school in the USA. Today there are four Kun Khmer federations outside Cambodia, which are the European Khmer Boxing Federation based in Germany, the Fédération des Arts Martiaux Khmers in France, the Anh Binh Minh Khmer Martial Arts Association in Vietnam, and Kun Khmer Australia. New associations are now being formed in the UK, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and also, South Korea.
Despite the lesser popularity that Chinese and Japanese arts or even thai box, Kun Khmer/Pradal Serey gets more attention from decade to decade. It’s becoming more popular among the fighters and federations, and this is a good way to reach a wider audience.
But unlike Kung Fu or Karate, which are known mostly from movies, and are shown in a very poetic and often unrealistic way, Cambodian boxing is very real. Kun Khmer wasn’t only a fight for honor. It was always a fight to survive. Not for the applause and the chants of the crowd, but mostly for bread and chance for a better day for a fighter and his family. This is what makes Khmer martial art so authentic.