From the humblest of beginnings, from a storm tossed fishing boat to the Kun Khmer ring, the journey of Sun Chan Na has seen many highs and lows.
After five years in the fight scene, Chan Na remains determined to emulate his hero, famous fighter Thoeun Theara, but admits that he is yet to win the same houses and cars as his more successful contemporaries.
Chan Na built his reputation as a fighter in Thailand, but is now focused on competing on his home soil.
The sixth child of subsistence farmers in Tbong Khmum province, he was forced to drop out of school in the second grade and work to support his family.
Ten years ago, at the age of just 15, he left home to work on a fishing boat in the Thai eastern province of Rayong, on the Gulf of Thailand.
It was there that his strange path to the ring began.
While working at sea, he earned 10,000 Thai baht ($280) a month, sending as much home to his family as he could. It was not an easy introduction working abroad.
“When I first went fishing, I suffered terribly. I was sea sick, and I missed my parents and my siblings very much,” he says.
“In the middle of an ocean storm, as the waves crashed over the small vessel, I lay alone in my bunk and cried. I wanted to come home, but the ship was at sea for up to a month, so it was not possible,” he adds.
Eventually, he adapted to his new life at sea. There were several Cambodians aboard the fishing boat, and he was no longer lonely. In his spare time, he would playfight or wrestle with the other sailors. This was the beginning of the next stage of his extraordinary journey.
A chance meeting
Chan Na’s playful sparring and shadow boxing with old car tyres attracted the attention of another sailor, who was a retired Thai boxer.
After almost three years at sea, the Thai convinced Chan Na to take boxing seriously.
“He was not just a former fighter – his parents owned a boxing club. He told me about the kickboxing scene in Thailand and persuaded me that with my natural talent, there might be a place for me there,” says Chan Na.
“He convinced me that I could do it, even though I had ever even watched a fight,” he adds.
Much as he had when he first put to sea, Chan Na was unsure if he had what it took to live the life of a professional fighter. The intense training left him exhausted, and he had little to no understanding of boxing tactics or ringcraft. He was just 17 years old at the time.
With the support of the head of the club and his coaches, Chan Na received a visa which allowed him to live in Thailand legally. He dedicated himself to his training, and was soon entered in a small tournament, held in a local pagoda.
Taste of victory
In his first fight, he knocked out his Thai opponent in the third round, claiming a purse of 500 baht ($15).
Even though his winnings were meagre, he dutifully sent them home to his parents in Tbong Khmum.
The win made him believe he had a future in the ring.
After a long period of fighting at pagodas and festivals – with some losses but more wins – Chan Na was offered a shot at the big time.
The promoter of the Max Muay Thai Ring in the bustling resort island of Pattaya offered him a place on the programme. He rose to the occasion, mirroring his first win by knocking out his Thai opponent in the third round. This time, the purse was 9,000 baht ($250).
“That first match in the Max Muay Thai Ring made my name in boxing. I received a lot of support from my fellow expatriate Khmer because the fighter I beat was a strong boxer, and had been hand-picked by the owner of the event. I honestly never expected to come away with the win,” he said.
With his popularity rising, Chan Na became an important fighter in the Max Muay Thai roster, with fights coming his way every month. After more than 20 appearances, he was given the opportunity to challenge for the 59kg belt.
In March 2022, Chan Na beat Thai boxer Phet Mit Mai on points in the preliminary stage, and made the final. He defeated Thailand’s Phet Pattaya, claiming his first belt, a huge surge in fame, and a far heavier purse of 50,000 baht ($1,400).
Like a good son, he sent almost all of his winnings home.
“That belt was my biggest success to date, and it made me famous in Thailand. Whether Thai or Khmer, the fans supported me. Even the police were fans,” he says.
“Once, I had forgotten to put my helmet on before riding my motorcycle. The police just waved and smiled at me, because they admired my fighting abilities so much,” he said, laughing.
With his reputation on the rise, Chan Na was given the chance to compete for a belt at the Super Champ Ring in June 2022. He lost to Thai boxer Khun Pun on points.
By that time, he was earning around 25,000 ($700) per match, with most of it making its way back to his family.
Disputes between the sports’ Thai and Cambodian governing bodies broke out in late 2022, when Cambodia elected to include Kun Khmer in the 32nd SEA Games, which it hosted, omitting Muay Thai.
A social media storm broke out, with the fans of both martial arts claiming the other was incorrect and disrespectful. Thailand withdrew its kickboxing team from the regional games, and many Cambodians working in Thailand spoke of a nationalist prejudice against them in the aftermath.
An unplanned return
In addition, Thai boxing promoters refused to allow Cambodian fighters to compete.
“At that time, I was training well, but Khmer boxers were not allowed to compete,” says Chan Na. “I had nothing to do for months, so I decided to return to Cambodia and pursue a career here,” he explains.
Things didn’t go his way when he first arrived on the Kun Khmer scene, and he suffered more losses than wins.
He believes that the losses were unrelated to his skills or fitness, but due to a different ranking system. As a 57kg fighter, he was sometimes matched with boxers who weighed more than 60.
He even faced pressure from his parents, who suggested he stop fighting. They told him that after six years of boxing, all he has to show for it is a scarred face.
Eventually, he found his form. In December last year, he knocked out Lao fighter Kong Poachai at the Krud Kun Khmer event at the National Television of Cambodia (TVK) arena, and followed it up with a win over Thai boxer Meknasak Serimon in January’s second round of the TVK competition.
He has set his sights high, and is determined to claim a belt in his homeland.
“I had an excellent reputation in Thailand, where I was well-known and popular. Since returning home, my popularity felt like it went downhill. Fortunately, my wins over the Lao and Thai boxers at the Krud Kun Khmer event have put me back in the spotlight,” he says.
“I want to go all the way in the Krud tournament and claim the belt, and fame, in Cambodia,” he adds.
He has strengthened his resolve, and aims to represent Cambodia on the international stage at some point.
Now that he is focused, he is training harder than ever, at Phnom Penh’s HAHA Super Fight & Gym, with coach Suong Panha.
“I want to build a reputation like Thoeun Theara, and compete for world-class belts and prizes like cars. I think I still have time to do it. My body is still strong, even though I am now 25 years old,” he says.