The air felt electric that night. It was one of those feelings that run through your bones, tense up your shoulders, wet your palms and heighten your senses. With fights like these a KO was inevitable — it just came down to who made the first mistake.
From the gambling pits beside the ring, men in oversized button-down shirts and dark slacks stood on their toes to get a good look at the Cambodian walking to the ring. In the stands, Thais waited in anticipation for their countryman to be called out next. Among them, pockets of Cambodians raised their arms and waved their flags and cheered for their compatriot.
Rob Cox, fellow commentator, talked into the mic about the lead up to the fight. His voice carried an energy that could only represent the long-awaited climax of some epic journey, a build up of what had been six months in the making.
Thoeun Theara, the shorter, top-heavy Cambodian superstar who’d been climbing the ranks at MAX Muay Thai, entered the ring and waited for his opponent, Kitti Taksinrayong, the tall and lean Thai who’d been making his mark at MAX for his devastating knees, to come out next.
Anything can happen I thought. And I was one of the fortunate ones to be sitting ringside for what was the most anticipated fight of the year at MAX Muay Thai.
I’d been calling fights at MAX for eighteen months before this fight. And although I’d witnessed the savage beauty of some unforgettable moments, this fight would be different. The stakes were higher. Not only were the bragging rights for the seventy-kilogram division up for grabs, but the weight of two nations lay on both fighters’ shoulders.
Thailand and Cambodia share a long and somewhat violent history. In 2008, a mishap by Google Maps turned into a border dispute as both countries warred over the land which housed Preah Vihear Temple. Injuries and deaths resulted on both sides before it was decided by mediators that the temple belonged to Cambodians, and Thailand and Cambodia finally agreed to withdraw from the conflict.
In 2003, a Cambodian newspaper, Light of Angkor, reported that Thai actress Suvanant Kongying said that Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and esteemed Cambodian cultural icon, actually belonged to the Thais. Riots broke out at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, where Cambodians burned images of the Thai royal family and set fire to the embassy. Thais had to flee the city for their safety.
In retaliation, Thais protested outside the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand and burned Cambodian flags. In the end, it turned out the newspaper’s report was fabricated. The instigators from the newspaper were arrested and charged. But the damage was already done. And the tragic events only strengthened the centuries-old animosity that both nations had for each other.
When those riots broke out in 2003, Kitti Taksinrayong and Thoeun Theara were only three years old. Muay Thai might not have yet been on their radars. But once they started their careers as pugilists it was inevitable that their paths would eventually cross at MAX Muay Thai.
Leading up to this night, Kitti defeated some of the biggest Western names at MAX, including Valetin Thibaut and Luke Bar, both by decision. On the other end of the ring, Thoeun had been destroying every Thai they put in front of him, first earning an impressive win over the 70 kilogram gatekeeper Yodbandit Sitjaymeow, then scoring two vicious elbow knockouts against Namkabuan Kiatnavi and Yoddiesel Lukjaomaesaithong.
With each victory, the chatter of the fighters one day fighting each other increased. And in early December of 2017, the fight was scheduled for MAX’s New Year’s Eve show. But just a few weeks before the fight Kitti opted to take a boxing match and withdrew from his scheduled fight against Thoeun. Disappointment ensued. At MAX. On social media. And in the Muay Thai community. But fans on both sides of the border demanded the fight still happen.
The fight was again scheduled, this time for March 2018. And the buzz returned. It appeared fans would finally get what they’d been waiting for. But just a few days before the fight, Kitti fell ill and was forced to pull out. Speculations on whether Kitti actually wanted to fight Thoeun began circulating. And it seemed the fight everyone wanted would never come to fruition.
So on 7 May, when the giant LCD screen slid open and Kitti Taksinrayong stepped under the lights and through the smoke and out to the ring at MAX Muay Thai Stadium, everyone knew this fight was happening, including Thoeun Theara, who was already in the ring, drawing the support of his Cambodian fans.
“Here we go—round number one,” said Rob Cox. And thus the most anticipated fight of the year began.
As a commentator, these are the fights you long for. The fight speaks for itself. You simply try to communicate to the viewers the atmosphere and excitement through emotion and word. And on that night, thousands of us—fans, commentators, coaches, fighters—we all spoke the same language. It was a language of anticipation, because everyone knew at any time that anything could happen, and when it did, all that tension would come spilling over. In screams, in cheers and in raw emotion.
And for the better part of two rounds that tension hung on a precipice, until finally, Kitti dropped Thoeun after a barrage of knees. And Thoeun, for the first time in his career at MAX, lay on the canvas with his eyes closed—not unconscious, but unable. Kitti stood over him with a look I’d never seen before. It was raw contempt. When Thoeun opened his eyes he looked as if he’d felt the wrath of a nation.