Many fight promoters dream of an untapped market – a hitherto undiscovered land of natural athletes and a populace ready to embrace combat sports. Naturally, this would tend to be a poor country, and ideally it would be populated with patriots – a combination that would forge in its fighters a requisite hunger to succeed personally, and a zeal to elevate their nation through sporting success.

In Cambodia, Chan Reach may have found such a place.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York to Khmer refugees, Chan Reach moved to his ancestral homeland in 2011 with a goal to develop what was then a ‘non-existent’ MMA scene. As an ethnic Khmer with a first-world business sense, and with fighting credentials of his own, Chan Reach seems as good a bet as anybody to take on the challenges of introducing a globally successful combat sport to a passionate but disorderly country such as Cambodia.

Chan Reach earned his own fighting stripes learning Kun Khmer, an indigenous Cambodian martial art akin to its more famous neighbour, Muay Thai, from the age of four under his uncle, and later as a competitor with the US based Team Pradal Serey (TPS), a gym specializing in Kun Khmer. TPS also boasts a stable of MMA fighters, and with that sport enjoying increasing international exposure, Chan Reach saw an opportunity to both introduce it to Cambodia and to expand Kun Khmer’s reach,

“I did do Kun Khmer before MMA, but now both are my passions,” says Chan Reach.

“My goal is still to make Kun Khmer known around the world, and I chose MMA (as a channel to expose Kun Khmer to a wider audience) because it is the most popular combat sport in the world. What better way to show Kun Khmer to the world than on the global stage that is MMA?”

Long term fan

“I was always a fan of the sport (MMA),” says Chan Reach.

“And I wondered why there weren’t any Cambodians competing in MMA or even Kun Khmer outside of Cambodia? So I said to myself, ‘if no one else will do it then I will just go there and do it myself’. I didn’t really plan it, I just took a leap of faith. I don’t make any money from this (MMA) yet but by teaching Kun Khmer I can make some money to support my fighters.”

Chan Reach, 32, set up the Cambodian Top Team gym in Phnom Penh, training up competitors for Bangkok-based promotion Full Metal Dojo (FMD) and the regional monolith ONE Championship before forming his own events brand, Cambodian Fighting Championship (CFC), which later this year will relaunch pro MMA in the country, and present it to an ‘international standard’ according to its founder,

“There have been MMA events in Cambodia before, but it wasn’t done properly.”

Regional recognition

“I want to make an event for the world, not just Cambodia,” says Chan Reach

While Cambodia waits for this impending rebirth, those wanting to compete in an environment that was ‘done properly’ traveled to ONE or FMD shows,

“Those are two well known known promotions,” says Chan Reach.

“So when they contacted me for Cambodian fighters, we kinda blew up real quick. FMD has always given us the platform we needed to boost our profile – as well as almost every other South East Asian fighter – so a big shout-out to FMD.”

Profiles boosted, perhaps, but the desired results haven’t always been there. Cambodian fighters could be relied on to give their all, but not to consistently win. Chan Reach wanted to change this.

Helping hand

He looked across the border to Thailand, and specifically to Nicholas ‘JJ’ Lee, a Bangkok-based Singaporean ex-pro now running the up-and-coming Yorky MMA stable, for a helping hand in training his team.

“I was called in to help improve Cambodia’s MMA fighters, to bring them to the next level,” says Lee.

“The country is still developing and lacking a lot of resources when it comes to sport. The plan for the MMA scene in Cambodia is growing more awareness and understanding of why these athletes do what they do inside the cage for their country.”

Chan Reach cheekily refers to Lee as ‘the baby brother I never wanted’ but is grateful for the partnership and its results,

“There’s just something about him that made me and him just click and he was the only person outside Cambodia who was willing to help us, so we’ve got a great bond,” he said.

Lee spent several weeks in Phnom Penh over the turn of the new year, taking with him Yorky fighters Rockie Bactol and Art Thurakitwong to help Cambodian Top Team competitors Rin Saroth and Nou Srey Pov prepare for upcoming ONE matches.

Altruistic streak

Sporting success was to follow, but even before the cage doors opened, Lee made a name for himself in Cambodia with an impressive display of altruism.

On December 25, teenage Kun Khmer fighter Eh Rotha was hit by a car, with witnesses reporting the motorist then driving into him a second time. Though the driver remains unidentified and the circumstances unconfirmed, it would appear to be an example of the reported trend in Cambodia of a ‘double hit’ traffic accident – when a motorist attempts to ‘finish off’ someone they’ve struck, because it costs less to compensate a family for a death than to pay for an accident victim’s ongoing care.

Eh Rotha survived, but only after intensive care at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital. At just 19, Eh Rotha is unlikely to fight again, but he is alive – and this likely would not have been the case without the online fundraising drive led by Chan Reach and Lee, whose benevolent side had already been established in Bangkok, where between 2016 and 2018 he ran Dogfights Boxing and MMA, a 100% for-charity promotion supporting dog shelters in Thailand.

International stage

Once Eh Rotha was in a stable condition, Chan Reach and Lee could focus on putting their new partnership to the test, with their two Cambodian athletes set for competition in ONE.

Rin Saroth would drop a close decision to Tial Thang at ONE: ‘Reign of Valor’, but even in defeat he showed a marked improvement that left observers discussing his potential.

Everything fell into place, though, with Nou Srey Pov, a female competitor who was pitched in with bonafide Thai domestic star Rika Ishige at ONE: ‘Clash of Legends’.

While an accomplished athlete in Kun Khmer, Muay Thai and lethwei (Burmese kickboxing), Nou Srey Pov – popularly known as NSP – was little known outside her home country, and was making her MMA debut against an experienced pro whose magazine-cover looks and relationship with similarly photogenic fighter Shannon Wiratchai made her a media mainstay in Thailand.

“In Cambodia, we all knew what she was capable of,” says Chan Reach, “and her moving into MMA was the perfect match.”

Big ambitions

Even so, Lee says she was consumed by self-doubt as she prepared for the international stage that is ONE.

“She broke down crying on the first day of training camp, telling us she couldn’t do it, but we told her we have faith in her ability and all she had to do is believe in herself,” he says.

NSP went on to score an upset decision that immediately elevated her own standing, and in beating one of the region’s most familiar fighting faces, served notice that Cambodian MMA might finally be delivering on its promise.

“NSP wasn’t just a breakthrough, she was an example,” says Lee.

“She showed that nothing is impossible; the true meaning of zero to hero. Our plan now is for NSP to fight until we get a title shot and for her to bring the belt home for Cambodia.”