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The Martial Art Of Kun Khmer: Cambodia’s Pride And Pastime

The Cambodian martial art of Kun Khmer has made a remarkable journey from the depths of an ancient civilization to the global stage.

Today, martial arts fans all over the world are mesmerized whenever a Kun Khmer practitioner steps into the Circle and competes in ONE Championship.

Here is what sets the discipline apart from other Southeast Asian martial arts.

A Rich Martial Arts Lineage

Chan Rothana ONE DREAMS OF GOLD

In the 900-year-old temple of Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia, depictions of Yutakhun Khom are carved into its walls. This ancient martial art gave birth to the modern discipline of Kun Khmer.

Using a variety of kicks, punches, knees, and the now widely-feared elbow, Yutakhun Khom might have played a crucial role in the dominant rule of the grand Angkor Empire.

Once reigning supreme over most of mainland Southeast Asia, the Angkor Empire became the largest urban center of its time and was a breeding ground for many of Cambodia’s oldest martial arts.

Flyweight phenom Chan Rothana learned Yutakhun Khom from his father and has kept the tradition alive by merging it with modern mixed martial arts moves, thus building on the Khmer combat sports tradition.

But how did this ancient martial art transform into what we know as Kun Khmer today? Through the spectacle of sport.

A National Pride And Pastime

Nou Srey Pov

In Cambodia, Kun Khmer has transcended the boundaries of combat sports. For both competitors and their passionate fans, the martial art has become a lifestyle and an obsession.

Televised events draw jam-packed crowds from all over the kingdom, which symbolizes the allure of Kun Khmer and its undeniable popularity.

That is something Sok Thy is very familiar with. He is a Bayon and PNN Stadium Flyweight Champion who now represents Cambodia in ONE Super Series.

Kun Khmer also stands out for its ability to capture the attention of both male and female fans, young and old alike.

However, the Cambodian pastime is growing beyond the borders of the country and is gaining momentum with the help of fresh faces like Kun Khmer World Champion Nou Srey Pov.

The young striker made a huge statement when she upset Thai hero Rika “Tiny Doll” Ishige in her ONE Championship debut at ONE: CLASH OF LEGENDS in early 2019 – and now, she is using her newfound platform to give back to the community.

“I want to show that Cambodian women are strong,” Srey Pov says, “and tell all women that they can also reach their goals.”

Cambodian-American Sovannahry “The Sweet Savage” Em also testifies to how the enthusiastic support from the local fans gives her the motivation to push through.

Even though she was born and raised in America, she still feels the encouragement from the people living in her ancestral homeland.

“I thought I would just come here and fight, but I did not expect the response I’ve been getting from fans in Cambodia,” Em says. “I’m really thankful for all the love and the support.”

The Kun Khmer Elbows

Martial arts veteran Rin Saroth showcased the devastating effect of Cambodia’s signature move in his stoppage victory over Mario Satya Wirawan at ONE: PINNACLE OF POWER in June 2018.

However, many believe the best is yet to come.

Also, Khon Sichan, one of the most active Cambodian athletes in ONE Championship, argues that Kun Khmer elbows make their style more unique and exciting.

“I think we do elbows differently. We like to use tight, inside elbows to avoid the clinch,” Sichan explains. “It is more exciting to see fighters kicking and scoring with elbows.”

The Warrior Spirit Of Its Practitioners

Chan Rothana ONE DREAMS OF GOLD

Over the years, Kun Khmer has made a strong comeback as a martial art in Cambodia.

With a few grandmasters keeping the ancient practice alive, this generation has been schooled in the no-nonsense style of training and competing.

Few embody this better than Cambodia’s leading mixed martial artist, Rothana, who is currently on a three-bout winning streak against highly-touted competitors.

At ONE: DREAMS OF GOLD in August 2019, Rothana once again displayed his warrior mentality in his victory over Gustavo “El Gladiador” Balart.

Performances like that are bound to elevate Kun Khmer to new heights in 2020.

“I would much rather hurt my body than hurt my feelings,” Rothana says about representing Kun Khmer in the Circle.

“My fans are the most important. They want me to win every fight. It makes me so happy and makes me struggle hard to win every competition.”

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