Nearly a year following her explosive ONE Championship debut, Sovannahry “The Sweet Savage” Em is ready to make her return to action.
This coming Friday, 6 December, the undefeated Cambodian-American will square off against promotional newcomer Rayane Bastos at ONE: MARK OF GREATNESS inside the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Em is still developing in her mixed martial arts career, but she has been dominant thus far. She has three wins and, amazingly, she has taken less than three minutes to register all of those knockout victories.
Before she steps inside the Circle in the Malaysian capital for her bout with the unbeaten Brazilian, learn a little bit more about this “sweet” athlete’s life.
Em’s grandparents and her mother migrated from Cambodia to the United States in the early 1980s. She was later born in 1992 in Long Beach, California, a city known to have the largest and oldest Cambodian population in the country.
As a child, she communicated with her grandmother and grandfather by speaking their native language, which helped her learn more about her Cambodian roots.
“We were taking care of my grandparents, and they only spoke Khmer,” Em says.
“I spoke Khmer as a kid, but I lost it as I grew older. We were exposed to a lot of the Cambodian culture when I was younger, just going to temples and being around the food and the music.”
Because she eventually forgot how to speak Khmer, Em was not able to interact with her grandparents too much as the years passed by.
Sadly, time ran out before she could build a stronger relationship with them.
“As I got older, especially as I moved away from Long Beach, I just realized I had become disconnected from my Cambodian roots,” she admits.
“I didn’t get to communicate much with my grandparents because they only spoke Khmer, and then they passed away.”
The First Punch
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Em was an athletic child who loved to play outside, but her family was not financially comfortable, so she was never really able to get involved with any team sports.
She became passionate about martial arts through video games and films, but she was not able to cultivate that into anything more than a growing interest. Her parents could not afford the lessons.
“We didn’t really have the means for me to train or anything,” she says. “I never saw that as an option for me, to do classes or anything.”
That changed when she was 20 years old. Em started training in boxing as a way to stay in shape and enhance her physical fitness.
At first, she did not have any desire to pursue this new sporting activity as a career. However, she fell in love with “the sweet science” as soon as she threw her first punch.
“My friend then, boyfriend now, introduced me to this boxing gym in Long Beach. I just figured I’d try it because he had connections there,” she explains.
“I still wasn’t able to pay for a membership, but I went to try it out. My coach there was really sweet and started to let me train there for free.
“I was surprised because while I would play Street Fighter or watch kung-fu movies, I was never crazy about the boxing. I thought, ‘They’re just punching, that’s so boring.’ But I ended up falling in love with boxing. It’s still my first love.”
Although she fell deeply in love with boxing, Em wanted to build upon her martial arts expertise, so she began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling.
Em, inspired by the rise of Ronda Rousey, initially thought it would be easy to transition from boxing to mixed martial arts. She quickly realized her theory would be incorrect, however.
“It was a long learning curve because I’m a boxer,” the Cambodian-American admits.
“Anybody who even knew an ounce of wrestling or grappling was able to just duck under my punches and take me down. That was happening over and over again.
“It definitely was frustrating because I came in there thinking my boxing would allow me to hang, but it didn’t.”
Em was discouraged, but she remained committed to improving her grappling and tightening up her skills. She continued to practice and refine her craft, and eventually, it paid off.
“It took forever,” she says with a laugh.
“I knew I had to add wrestling to my game. I used to go to practices and I hated it, but I’m finally at a point where I feel comfortable with it and I’m blending it into my game.”
Realizing A Few Dreams
Joining The Home Of Martial Arts was an exciting moment for Em, and it was even more thrilling for “The Sweet Savage” to win her promotional debut against Iryna Kyselova via TKO in 81 seconds last December.
However, this has only filled her with more determination.
The Cambodian-American may only be three bouts into her mixed martial arts career, but that has not prevented her from thinking about the future.
“I want to take it as far as I can,” Em says.
“I’m about to have my second fight with ONE, and then I want to get two or three more fights, and then, hopefully, I’ll get a title fight. I would like to eventually fight for the title, and possibly even move down to strawweight.
“These are all just ideas for now because I’m focusing on the flyweight division, and then possibly going for the title later on.”
Another goal involves going to Cambodia to compete on a ONE Championship card.
Em has not visited the country just yet, but for her, it would be a dream scenario to fly to her ancestral homeland for the first time and perform for the people.
“Fighting is such a big part of Cambodian culture that I didn’t realize until recently,” she continues.
“If I get a chance to fight out there, and represent the country on a big stage and reconnect with some of the culture and traditions, then that would be amazing.”