Cambodia’s attempt to develop a homegrown legion of mixed martial arts fighters began anew Sunday with the second season of Khmer Warrior Championship, a reality television series based loosely on The Ultimate Fighter.
Over the next 16 weeks, 24 fighters in three weight divisions will compete in a round-robin format with the winners crowned 2014 champions. The weight divisions are 54, 60 and 65 kilograms.
A combat-sport juggernaut in most of the world, MMA is still new to this tiny Southeast Asian nation, where the indigenous fighting style looks nearly identical to Muay Thai.
Cambodia held its first MMA bouts only a year ago, and to local crowds the world’s fastest growing sport was little more than an unknown foreign spectacle. But the first season of the KWC reality series played well, and local fans have embraced cage fighting with a quickness.
"I think we have turned the corner," says South African trainer Alan McCune, who helps coach the KWC fighters in jiu jitsu and submission wrestling. "People here now know what MMA is. Now it’s just a matter of developing the sport."
Fights in the first season looked a lot like Kun Khmer in a cage. Combatants were relatively unversed in lateral footwork and unskilled in the finer points of submission grappling. The show hired McCune midway through the season in an attempt to kick start the ground game.
"I’ve had four weeks with them," McCune said of the new crop, who began training a month ago, "four weeks to try and beat the Kun Khmer out of them."
The results are already obvious. The rhythmic, toe-tapping styles of standup kickboxing have vanished, replaced with a more nimble, bob-and-weave style typical of MMA.
On the inaugural night, each of the five fights ended in the mount position with the man on top pummeling his opponent and forcing a referee stoppage. But there were many submission attempts along the way: a few rear naked chokes, a few arm bars, a few heel hooks.
"I am very happy," McCune said.