Putting a Modern Spin on an Ancient Art
"We have to remember why we are in that ring. We are there
to hurt the other guy. We aren't in there to make love
to him. So, the quicker we can hurt him, the better. You
want him to think, 'I don't want to get hit like that again.'"
- Paddy Carson.
The pads POP! As a Khmer fighter nails them with a series
of perfect round house kicks. When the Khmers kick, the
leg comes around like a baseball bat and the shin smashes
into the target, decimating it. This is not Karate or
Tae Kwan Do, this is Pradal Serey, Khmer kickboxing.
"It's all technique. You have to get the technique
right first, then you will get the explosion on your punches
and kicks in the fight," says Paddy Carson, the owner
and principal trainer of Paddy's Gym in Phnom Penh.
Khmer pop music blares as Paddy's stable of about twenty
Khmer boxers go through their paces. The assistant coach
Socheat blows the whistle signaling the beginning of the
round. The fighters always train three minutes on, one
minute off, just as in a real boxing match.
Many trainers live by the adage "you will
fight the way you practice." Timing your workouts
will prepare your body for a professional fight.
Sports research has proven that western boxers have the
most powerful punches of any combat sports athlete. Paddy's
fighters use western boxing as a base for their Khmer
"You should learn to punch like a boxer but kick
and elbow like a Khmer boxer. Then you will have the whole
package," says Paddy, who has trained over 14 world
Before coming to Cambodia, Paddy worked as a trainer
in Thailand for 13 years. The first foreigner who was
ever granted a professional boxing license, he came to
Cambodia to help support Khmer boxing and has a dream
of building a Khmer fighter into a world title holder.
"I think elbows are better in Khmer boxing than
in Muay Thai. Unfortunately, Cambodia has had all civil
wars, and the Pradal Serey instructors were killed by
Pol Pot. So, throughout the twentieth century, Cambodian
boxing went up, and then down, and then up and down. Thailand
has gone continually up and up. Thailand has marketed
the sport all over the world. Thailand has joined the
international bodies and has produced world title holders.
If Thailand and the Philippines can produce world title
holders, I believe that Cambodia can too. The Khmers are
tough boys. They come from the provinces with nothing.
Some of them don't even have money for food, but they
train hard. They are respectful to me and the assistant
coach. They always bow when they see us. And now they
know that if they listen to what I teach them, they can
In addition to his professional Khmer boxers, Paddy has
a number of westerners training with him. It has almost
become a cliche for westerners to go live
in a camp in Thailand and study Muay Thai. But in Cambodia,
there are not a lot of gyms that are really equipped for
westerners. The average westerner who undertakes to learn
Khmer boxing is already past the age that Khmers
retire from the ring. Plus, the training and fighting
style need to be modified to match our larger bodies and
Some coaches stress high kicks and head kicks. They make
you stand at a bag and smash it as high as you can with
your shins. Paddy disagrees with this type of training.
"We are all built differently in this world. Some
people can do double flying spin kicks or whatever, but
some people can't. If you aren't a high kicker then what
do you want to do high kicks for? You do what you were
built to do. If you can't do high kicks, then do low kicks.
In Thailand, I told my foreign fighters, don't train and
fight like the Thais."
Paddy also does not believe a fighter should be too focused
on high kicks in a bout.
"It is stupid to try and kick your opponent in the
head in the early rounds when you are fresh and he is
fresh. You are never going to get it. How often in fights
do you see the guy get knocked out with a high kick? Almost
never. Wait till he is tired. Wear him down. Work the
body. Work the legs. In the later rounds, when he gets
tired, and you are still fresh, then you go for the head
Working the legs means repeatedly kicking your opponent's
thigh with your shin. A normal man can only withstand
two or three kicks to the thigh before his leg will
buckle and he goes down. Even a seasoned
fighter can be chopped down, like a tree, if you repeatedly
land the same kick on the same portion of his leg again
"My fighter, my world champion, was very short and
he used to fight people who were a foot taller than him.
He wasn't a high kicker, so I told him go in there, work
the legs, work the legs, and throw combinations. He knocked
his opponent out."
Paddy is not suggesting that high kicking is a bad thing,
only that it must be appropriate for your ability.
"If you were a high kicker then I would train you
that way. Not that I couldn't teach you that, but why
do that all the time. Go for the body, go for the arms."
Very few fighters go for the arms. This means kicking
your opponent in the biceps with your shins. Very few
people can stand up this type of punishment. The arms
will quickly become useless. Eh Phou Thoung, Cambodia's
greatest kickboxing champion, is known for kicking his
opponents in the biceps. In his career, he has broken
the arms of several of them.
"Ninety percent of head kicks don't reach their
target. The opponent sees it coming and he blocks with
his leg or his shin, and possibly, you hurt your leg.
Don't do that! Wait till he throws a high kick, then attack.
a high kick, he is wide open and it takes longer for the
leg to come down. He is defenseless and off balance the
whole time. When the opponent does the high kick, kick
his base leg."
opponent throws the high right kick, his left leg, the
base leg, is a wide-open, inviting target. You can lean
or duck your head slightly to avoid the high
kick. At the same time, shoot a kick in and hit the inside
of his left thigh or calf muscle. With all the weight
on that one leg, there is a good chance the man will go
down. At the very least, he will be in a lot of pain.
"When I was fighting, I was a take down artist. I
would catch the kick, trap the leg, and kick the base
leg out from under him. This is something we don't see
enough of here. You also don't see a lot of inside low
kicks. I tell my guys smash the inside kick just above
the inside of the knee."
Bringing modern innovations to a centuries-old sport
that is so steeped in tradition and national pride can
be difficult. Reasonably, the Khmer fighters are resistant
to adopt new techniques brought to them by a westerner.
Paddy, however, has found a clever way around this resistance.
"I teach Richard, my foreign fighter, all the new
techniques first. Then, the Khmers see him improve, and
they pick it up and improve too."
Having an extensive background in both western boxing
and professional kickboxing in the west, Paddy stresses
movement and position.
"When you kick, the foot has to come back to perfect
position again so you can throw another technique. Some
of the Thais and Khmers throw a kick and it is thirty
seconds till they do something else. You need to be moving
and doing something all the time. If you watch the big
kickboxing matches on cable and listen to the foreign
commentators from Australia, they are saying if the Thais
don't start doing combinations they will not be able to
keep up with the western fighters. I have been doing that
for twenty years, teaching my guys combinations."
Kicking is almost the only thing that many coaches teach.
Once a guy has a decent kick, they put him in the ring
and expect him to win.
"Richard is still a novice, but he is kicking like
a guy who has had thirty fights. But now he needs to get
the ring craft. When you get in the ring on fight night,
with all the lights and TV cameras, you get nervous and
lose thirty percent of your energy from nervousness. It
is only when you have been in the ring a lot getting in
the ring again and again that you will calm down. And
you will fight in the ring the same way you practice."
"This is an advantage of Khmers and Thais. Many
of them have had seventy-five fights, and they don't get
nervous at all. But they have other problems. Now, we
have Thais going to England with seventy fights and losing
to a guy with thirty fights." Paddy explains that the
emphasis on kicking in Cambodia and Thailand has lead to
neglect of the punching aspect of the art.
"The Thais and Khmers are quite static when they
fight. They get knocked out sometimes by punches that
wouldn't knock out another fighter. In the west, the sport
is being dominated by people with boxing and kicking background.
But here, they aren't learning the boxing. I have seen
fighters here knocked out with a jab."
Having trained and fought on both sides of the border
and both sides of the globe, Paddy sees the strengths
and weaknesses of the Thai fighters and believes that,
with his help, the Khmers can exploit those weaknesses
and become world champions.
"If a western boxer can learn Muay Thai and go to
Thailand and win a title, then I believe that Khmer boxers
can do it."
Once the Khmers start winning international competitions,
then they will be able to reclaim the name Pradal Serey
and tell the world the true origin of Southeast Asian kickboxing.
by Antonio Graceffo
For more about the author and his travels go to his website
www.speakingadventure.com or contact him directly at
If you are going to Phnom Penh and you want to train
with Paddy, contact him at email@example.com