Against all odds and despite finding countless obstacles in his path along the way, Kun Khmer boxer Phal Sophoan became the first Cambodian athlete to win a world boxing title when he earned the International Professional Combat Council (IPCC) belt for Khun Khmer in the 63.5 kg weight category.
Sophoan’s long and storied career in the ring now spans 13 years during which he’s won four belts as well as gold medals from numerous national championships.
“Over the course of my boxing career from 2008 through today, I’ve won gold medals at the national championships almost every year and I recently won my fourth belt, which is the one I value the most of all because it’s a testament to my perseverance,” he told The Post.
However, despite finding success as a fighter and building his reputation as Cambodia’s strongest top-grade boxer, Sophoan’s life hasn’t been an easy one, he claims.
“Building a reputation as a boxer isn’t easy to accomplish. It is very difficult,” he said. “My boxing career has been exhausting and painful. At times I’ve had broken bones and fractures. It’s not an easy life. You must spend all of your time training because if you spend it hanging out and having fun you won’t reach an elite skill level.”
In addition to the challenges of training and competing in the ring, Sophoan said that the pressure of being in the spotlight as a boxer is one of the worst aspects of the profession for him personally because he’s often had to deal with rude or offensive remarks from fans at times.
“I have been discouraged and hopeless many times and what hurts us the most is that our efforts are not valued by many of the fans. In fact, in the past, I’ve had total strangers come up to me and be so critical and scold me for this or that mistake. That part of it is hard to accept but then there are also the fans who give a lot of love and affection and that’s what helps me forget about the careless insults and keep going,” Sophoan said.
Sophoan began training as an athlete as a child at the Talei Domrei Mean Rith Club, following in the footsteps of his older brother Phal Sophat, who was also a boxer. From the age of 17 onward, Sophoan focused his attention almost exclusively on boxing and began winning fights against older opponents very early on.
Sophoan’s talents and abilities grew rapidly under the training of his uncle and he decided to shift from Kun Khmer boxing to international boxing just like his brother Sophat. In 2009, Sophoan became a member of the Cambodian International Boxing Team. That was also the year that his brother won a silver medal at the 25th SEA Games held in Laos.
Sophat’s silver medal fight made his younger brother Sophoan even more determined to become one of the best boxers in the world, but despite training hard and giving it his all he hasn’t been able to medal at either of the SEA Games he’s competed in – the 2013 games in Myanmar or the 2019 games in the Philippines.
When Sophoan returned to Kun Khmer boxing, after being away from it so long and only competing under international rules, he stunned and impressed the martial arts world by fiercely dominating his opponents – whether Cambodian or overseas – and knocking them out cold with sharp elbows and his powerful punches that he’d just spent years working on exclusively during his time in the international ring where that’s the only form of striking permitted.
Around the time of his return the only boxers in the 60-63.5 kg weight category who could keep Sophoan at bay were Khim Dima and Lao Chantrea.
Then Sophoan won the 63.5kg Cambodia Beer Championship for the first time in his career after he defeated Vong Noy in the final round at Bayon Boeung Snor in April, 2016.
He went on to win another 63.5 kg Carabao Championship by defeating SEA Games gold medalist Khim Dima in the finals at Bayon Arena, finally vanquishing one of the two fighters in his weight class who were a match for him.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go the same way for him in his fight with Lao Chantrea in December, 2016, at the Kubota Championship at Bayon Boeung Snor Arena. Chantrea managed to best him, but he got revenge of sorts two years later when he beat Lao Chetra, Chantrea’s younger brother, to take hold of three championship belts.
At the IPCC Kun Khmer World Championship at Town Arena’s WURKZ Khmer Boxing Ring, which sponsors several provincial tournaments in Cambodia, Sophoan won all five matches in the group stages before he went on to beat Mon Prohm Manh in the semi-finals.
Then, on the evening of July 30, Sophoan found himself in the final match of the tournament against Long Benloueun. There he stood in the ring in front of hundreds of spectators and Cambodia’s top fight officials. It wasn’t even close. During the first round, Sophoan caught Benloeun with a vicious left elbow jab that knocked him out for over one minute, crowning himself champion with one well-timed and well-aimed elbow strike.
Kim Srunkosal, president of Mas Fight in Cambodia, said that the IPCC Kun Khmer Championship at Town Arena was very successful with all of the competitions in every province packed with fans.
According to Srunkosal, the next step in Sophoan’s career will be for the IPCC to arrange for him to compete abroad to help promote Khmer martial arts and win further renown.
“Sophoan’s victory is also a success for Khmer martial arts, because the belt he won comes from abroad, so the organisation itself also promotes Khmer martial arts and our boxers are some of the world’s top athletes. At the same time, IPCC president Sasan Ghosairi will also promote his programme abroad and plans to arrange for Sophoan to fight in various events abroad,” Srunkosal told The Post.
With the opportunity to fight abroad in the near future, Sophoan said he has confidence in his abilities and that he’ll now set even higher goals to reach than before.
“This last belt I won, my fourth belt, has been recognised by the IPCC Kun Khmer Championship and we can carry the belt abroad, so it is very valuable to me. Although I have a lot of experience competing in [Cambodia], I haven’t gone abroad much. So to win this belt, I think that shows that I have the ability and motivation to perform abroad and I just need to train hard and get into better shape so I can prove that I deserve to be the belt-holder,” Sophoan said.
Sophoan said he is excited to take this opportunity to fight abroad to promote Khmer martial arts, and with this goal in mind he has no plans to retire even though he is now 31 years old. He also plans to compete in the SEA Games in Cambodia in 2023. On top of that, his wife is pregnant with their second child so his family responsibilities will increase but he said that won’t slow him down.
“Every boxer wants to compete for their country, because this is a priceless opportunity and I have been contacted to train with the national team, but now my wife is also pregnant so I cannot leave her alone yet. But for training at the club and fighting in the ring, I am still working hard, not least because I need the income from boxing to support my family,” he said.