Three clay pots hang in the jungle air. A man stands near them wearing the sacred armbands of an ancient Khmer warrior. Suddenly the man darts forward and executes a series of flying kicks, pulverizing the pots. This is a display of Cambodian kickboxing, bokator, Khmer for “to strike a lion.” According to myth, the founder of bokator killed a lion barehanded to defend his village. With roots going back nearly 2,000 years, bokator is a technique designed to kill. Rumor has it ancient bokator events included a ringside coffin to carry off the loser.
The first thing that jumps out when watching a bokator match is the dancing. According to American bokator black belt and historian Antonio Graceffo, competitors perform a ceremonial dance at the start of each match to honor their ancestors and continue dancing throughout the fight, filling the spaces between kicks, punches, and knees. The dancing also serves as a reminder that this is not actual bokator but sport, an exhibition. In true bokator combat, each strike would be thrown to kill.
A martial arts expert who left New York following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Graceffo was one of the first Westerners to earn a black belt in bokator. Describing why he traded the life of a private wealth manager for the austerities of a martial arts school in southeast Asia, Graceffo says, “I decided that life could be very short, ended at any second. We should follow our dreams now because tomorrow might not come.”
Anyone who has been the victim of an assault, anyone who’s suffered the loss of free will that comes from being the object of another person’s violence, is more likely to take measures to learn to defend themselves. In New York City, by law a person can obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm if they can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the police that they require one for self-defense, but for Graceffo, the 9/11 attacks moved him to seek out a different kind of self-defense training, something that would require real sacrifice. In Cambodia.
While the norms of law and order in a place like New York mean that only extreme circumstances justify recourse to deadly self-defense, Cambodia has not enjoyed the same expectation of peace. In 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime rose to power after a long and bloody civil war and set up a government whose public slogan was “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge instituted policies that led to widespread famine and genocide. Religious practices, intellectual scholarship, even some family communication were banned and punishable by death. Cambodia was a place where the need for self-defense was real and the past was distrusted. No wonder the regime outlawed bokator and killed many of its practitioners.
For one Cambodian, Master Sen Kim Saen (who survived the atrocities of Pol Pot’s regime even as his several of his family members were murdered), the imperative of self-defense was so undeniable that he choose to keep alive the ancient, deadly martial art of his people even though doing so exposed him to the risk of torture and death. While the Khmer Rouge enforced its “Zero Year” policy of eradicating any traces of pre-Pol Pot civilization, Master Saen clung in secrecy to his unique martial arts heritage, at times barely able to move, eating grass to survive.
Having endured over five years of the Khmer Rouge, Master Saen, his wife, and their newborn daughter finally escaped the horror and ghosts of Cambodia in 1980, moving first to Thailand then Texas and finally to Long Beach, California, where Master Saen found work dubbing voice-overs on Chinese action movies and established a Korean Hapkido school. For over a decade, he experienced his own hard-earned version of the American dream. Then in 1992, forgoing the success and security he had achieved in the U.S., Saen heeded a spiritual call to return to his homeland and ensure that bokator wouldn’t die out.
After returning to Cambodia Master Saen tried to gather other bokator masters from the countryside to help him teach the martial art to a new generation, but the ghosts of oppression and fear hung so heavily over the land that no one would talk openly, let alone join him in starting a school. But Saen persisted and by 2009 the sport was “on TV all of the time,” according to Antonio Graceffo. After Master Saen moved his school to the southwestern province of Takeo in 2011, his leading students took over his old academy in Phnom Penh, near the Olympic stadium, and started creating a new style of bokator, one that integrated the techniques of mixed martial arts.
“The young kids have changed the name to the Bokator MMA school and adding MMA to the training will ensure that it survives,” Graceffo says. “The complaint a lot of people had before … was that bokator couldn’t fight. By adding MMA training and fighting to the program, the kids are now all learning to fight on an international level.”
As the Cambodian people continue to emerge from the devastation of their civil war and to forge a new sense of cultural identity, bokator is becoming a symbol of Khmer dignity. The traditional martial art’s absorption into the worldwide MMA circuit has the potential to bring an image of a renewed Cambodia to international attention. Master Saen once said in a video interview, “Why do the Cambodian people kill each other? No one knows why.” Perhaps the bokator renewal will bring with it hope that such killing won’t happen in the future.
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