Winning a belt and the Thai King’s Trophy at a Thai fighting event at the end of 2022 made Thoeun Theara, 25, the most famous boxer in Cambodia today. He also became the first Kun Khmer boxer to be recognized by the World Muaythai Organization (WMO), which still ranks him first in the 72.5 kg weight category.

Theara’s life didn’t begin so glamorously, however, as he spent years working as a labourer in Thailand with his parents from a young age. After that he began life as a construction worker in many different places and was even a brick maker at one point.

His success as a boxer and the resulting fame was unexpected and took everyone by surprise – especially Theara.

“I never thought I could build a reputation like today to honour the nation and raise the profile of our Khmer boxing because in the past I was just a worker in Thailand and I did not have an opportunity to get educated like other kids. I grew up in a sawmill in Thailand where my parents were lumberjacks,” Theara tells The Post.

As the only son in a family of four children, Theara did not get any chances to study at all. He left his hometown in Prey Veng province to live in Thailand with his parents when he was a child and he grew up seeing his parents work hard as lumberjacks for a business in Saraburi province.

At the age of 10 he decided to work in a bakery shop where he earned 300 baht a day. In addition to working full-time from 7 am until the evening, Theara also worked overtime until 11pm in order to earn the sum of 5,000 baht per month ($150).

When Theara was 15 (in 2013) he visited his hometown in Prey Veng with his parents and they decided to stay in Cambodia and work for a brick making business nearby.

Theara and his parents decided to return to Thailand to work again in 2016 where they all got jobs as metal closet blacksmiths. They worked based on the orders of customers and the new job helped them to save a decent amount of money because they were earning 15,000 baht a month each.

Unfortunately this new job only lasted for one year before they were unemployed again, which forced Theara and his parents to return to Cambodia in 2017 and Theara worked as a construction worker again in Phnom Penh, earning just 40,000 riel a day.

While working construction Theara was advised by a friend to train at the agriculture ministry’s boxing club near Aeon Mall Phnom Penh with the trainer Yuth Phu Thong, who is also the club president.

“I trained with my friends without letting my parents know. I have loved and wanted to practice boxing since I was 15 years old. At that time, I liked to watch the fights of Eh Phu Thong and Meun Sophea. As for boxing in Thailand, I like Buakaw [Banchamek]’s fights and when I saw him win championships I wanted to practice boxing to build a reputation like theirs,” Theara said.

With an innately powerful physique as well as the strength that comes from working hard as a labourer, Theara was able to quickly develop his skills and made his first fight appearance in a private arena in 2017. He finished that year unbeaten after winning nine consecutive fights and getting one draw.

Boxing trainer Phu Thong – who has an allied club in Thailand – decided to send Theara to train and compete in that country and in his bouts from 2018 to early 2020, Theara met many famous Thai boxers in the ring and went toe to toe with them and won more than 30 times.

For over two years in Thailand, Theara built his reputation up and made Cambodian fans long for him to return to Cambodia, which he finally did in mid-2020.

“The decision to return to Cambodia was made by me and no one forced me. It was my own decision because I wanted to return to promote our Khmer martial arts and at the same time I also have a family in Cambodia,” said Theara, adding that he married a Khmer woman named Meymey in 2020 and they now have a daughter.

Theara’s return to Kun Khmer boxing fell short of expectations for many at first because after four fights he had to take a long pause due to an injury, but then at the end of 2022 he stunned everyone at the competition for the Thai King’s Trophy when he made expert use of his elbows to open a wide cut over Thai strongman Saiyok Sakchainrong’s right eye that kept bleeding until the doctor was forced to stop the fight in the first round.

“I could not find any words to describe my feeling, I just shed tears to show my excitement. This is the most important victory and the most exciting moment I have ever encountered in my life,” Theara said of his upset win.

“I did not expect to do so well myself, but winning this belt meant making a huge impression for our Khmer martial arts and doing a lot for the promotion of it abroad, with so much more recognition, as our martial arts was then ranked in the world rankings for the first time,” Theara added.

In addition to winning the trophy and the belt at the Thai King’s tourney, Theara received a total of nearly $30,000 in prize money officially, plus a series of donations from local boxing fanatics including another $10,000 and three plots of land – one each in Kandal, Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

“Winning this belt has made my life easier and I want to use the money that I own to build a house in Phnom Penh. But I still do not have land in Phnom Penh, so if there is a donor who can give me one lot of land in Phnom Penh that would be great, because I want to live in Phnom Penh, then I can train and fight easily,” the boxer said.

After defeating Thailand’s Saiyok in the 72.5kg final, Theara went on to beat Thailand’s Beckham by one point in Town Arena. After the victory, the WMO decided to recognise Khmer martial arts and put Theara in first place in the 72.5 kg weight category.

But now Theara has slipped into second place, with Belgium’s Youssef Boughanem taking over in first place, Beckham in third place, David Pennimpede of the US in fourth place and Saiyok in fifth place.

However, for the international friendly match at PNN TV Arena on January 14, 2023, Theara knocked out another strong Thai boxer Kang Kiet Nawi in the fifth round, showing that he had no intention of ceding the number one spot for long.

However, Theara said that he has ambitions to win a belt at a bigger event on the international stage. His next goal is to win a title at a ONE Championship event.

“I see some of the most famous fighters in the world, they have won many champions and titles, so my ambition does not stop after winning a title in Thailand. I want to get more chances to win big trophies on the international stage. If there is an opportunity to compete in the ONE Championship, it would be better because I want to test my ability with world-class fighters so that I know more clearly what my potential level is,” he said.