A former well-known Cambodian kickboxer is promoting the Cambodian sport in the US in an effort to safeguard its uniqueness. Oumry Ban, 65, who was known along with other Khmer kickboxers in and out of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s is now transferring his skills to martial arts students in Long Beach, Calif.
At the age of 14, Oumry Ban came across a group of fighters training; they told him he was “too small” to fight, but he insisted, and they began training him. He trained for three days before he was put in the ring, where he was walloped, but the fighters saw in him a tough kid.
By 16, he’d won his first bout, by knockout. By 20, he’d won his first national title. He fought 309 times between 1962 and 1975, winning 278 times, 200 by knockout.
“I weighed only 50 kilograms, but I fought the renowned Chea Sarak, who weighed 70 kilograms,” Oumry Ban said in a recent interview. “The people wanted to see the fight, because I was small and he was big. The other renowned [fighters], such as Chhoeun Chumnit, Chey Kuong, Chey Bun Chhoeur were bigger and heavier than me.”
Antony McDavid, one of Oumry Ban’s trainees, said Cambodian fighters favor the use of elbows, which often makes for exciting and bloody bouts.
“Oumry trained a lot of people,” McDavid said. “The Khmer kickboxing uses elbows and knees. That is real dangerous. The regular kickboxing is safe because the boxers wear a lot of padding, but over here we just go bone to bone. So it is pretty intense. When Master Oumry demonstrates a kick or block technique, students can see the form that made him famous.”
Ron Smith is Oumry Ban’s assistant instructor at the Long Beach Khmer Kickboxing Center. Smith is also a professional promoter with resources and contacts nationally and internationally.
“I find a fight for a fighter, and I go with the fighters to the fight,” he said. “I’m in their corner. I’m there with them all the way, and we come back home and celebrate.”
Oumry Ban came from a poor background and competed to earn money to feed his family and himself.
In 1970, he joined the army, where he first started as a soldier. Oumry Ban told VOA that the army realized what a celebrity he was and sent him back to Phnom Penh to continue boxing. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, and he was forced to work in the rice field like the other Cambodians.
Oumry Ban said he could not hide his identity as a champion fighter. He recalled bowing to the Khmer Rouge with his palms together.
“I only fight for money, to feed my family,” he told them. “I am poor.”
In November 1978, after hearing from a cadre that more vicious Khmer Rouge soldiers had arrived at different communes, Oumry Ban made his way with 11 people into the mountain range of Phnom Kravanh, where he survived by stealing rice from the stems at night.
In May 1979, Oumry Ban met by accident a Vietnamese soldier who told him that Vietnam had occupied the country, and he could go home. When he came back to Phnom Penh, he was distraught to learn of the deaths of two brothers, a sister and his mother.
Oumry Ban and his family made to the US, via the Philippines, in 1981. His first stop was Chicago, then Long Beach in 1986. He met Soth Poline, who knew him as the great Oumry Ban, and spent $20,000 to create the Long Beach Kickboxing Center in 1987.