Like with many other Cambodians, Kenya Prach fled his homeland shortly after Khmer Rouge took over, first to Thailand, and then to the United States, to escape a genocidal regime and then a raging civil war. Trained at a young age, Prach became a Muay Thai sensation in Thailand, before bringing his skills and craft to the US, where he excelled in boxing. The San Francisco-based master also trained more than a thousand students, many of whom became champions in Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu, Taekwondo and boxing.
In this Q & A with Khmer Times Deputy Sports Editor Jose Rodriguez T. Senase, Prach tells about his accomplishments, journey towards becoming a legend inside the ring and in the classroom, his encounters with racism and his plans to help Cambodian fighters reach the highest levels in boxing and martial arts.
KT: You have an interesting life story. You started learning martial arts at seven, fled your homeland to escape the Killing Fields, and became a successful Muay Thai fighter in Thailand and boxer in the US. While deep into martial arts, you also dabbled in the campaign to promote human rights. Please tell us about your background.
Kenya Prach: I was born and raised in Battambang, Cambodia. I learned martial arts at a young age because my parents sent me to a temple in Siem Reap to learn the discipline and to continue my education. After I escaped from Khmer Rouge, I came to the US and started to teach Cambodian Fighting Bokator, Pradal Serey, Bokator ground submission and boxing.
KT: Who inspired or influenced you to go into martial arts?
Kenya Prach: My uncle was the person who inspired me to learn martial arts because he was an outstanding martial artist. He told me the story of Bokator and I became interested to learn more.
KT: You became a legend in Muay Thai, at one time becoming the youngest local Muay Thai champion. How would you describe your experience as a Muay Thai fighter in Thailand?
Kenya Prach: I first went to Thailand in early 1979. I had no fighting experience at the time but I had to fight for money to support my family in the refugee camp. Due to the lack of Muay Thai experience, I had a hard time and was defeated badly at the beginning. After a few fights and after watching other competitions, I figured out the strengths and weaknesses of Muay Thai. It didn’t take me long to dissect the Muay Thai style and I was able to incorporate the unique Bokator techniques to win the fights.
KT: After spending some time in Thailand, you immigrated to the US and became a success in the boxing ring. How would you differentiate the Thailand experience from the one in the US?
Kenya Prach: I first joined a (school) boxing team in the US in 1982. Muay Thai was not a well-known sport in the US at that time. People in the US only knew Bruce Lee. I didn’t know what boxing was until I joined the school team. The boxing competitions in the US were much easier than the Thailand fights for obvious reasons. In boxing, all I needed was to pay attention to my opponents’ hand movements. Since this was for school competitions, the intensity and fighter skills were not as intense compared to Thailand’s professional fights.
KT: What were the challenges you faced on the way to stardom? How did you overcome them?
Kenya Prach: The biggest challenge I had was racism. It is sad to say that there were favoritisms in the competitions so I didn’t get fair outcomes from many of the fights. Instead of getting the spectators’ support, I was booted because of my ethnicity. I did not let this bother me; instead, I used this as my inspiration to be the best to prove to the Americans that I was better than any of their fighters.
KT: Later on, you started teaching Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu, Taekwondo and boxing. What was your motivation or what pushed you to establish a training programme? Who were your students and what were their nationalities?
Kenya Prach: I started to teach because I love martial arts, any kind of martial arts. Since Bokator is not a well-known martial art in the US or any other countries, I could only start with the ones which were familiar to the population. My goal is to promote Cambodian Martial Arts, with the hope it will become as popular as other forms of martial arts. After 30+ years of teaching, my students are from all ethnicity, ages, and all levels of professionals.
KT: Please tell us more about this programme. How many people have benefited from your training? Who are some of the prominent athletes who trained under your care?
Kenya Prach: For the past 30+ years, I taught/trained countless number of people. I have students who earned their title belts and became US national champions. My students did not only benefit from the fight titles, many of them looked at me as their mentor and I turned many teenagers’ lives around. They learned how to respect others, to be humble and always try to help others in need. To me, this is far more important than their achievements in the ring. I think all of my students are champions.
KT: How would you describe martial arts in Cambodia? Is there a future for martial arts in the Kingdom?
Kenya Prach: Cambodian martial arts have their own unique styles and are used for different purposes, like combat fighting, self-defense and others. Bokator is just one of the Cambodian martial arts. I definitely see the potential to extend our unique martial arts to the world with authentic training, which is why I have been extensively promoting Cambodian martial arts for the past 30 over years.
KT: What are your future plans to help Cambodia and Cambodian martial arts fighters?
Kenya Prach: My goal is to see more Cambodian athletes participate in world sport events. I don’t only teach Cambodian martial arts, I can train or find trainers for Cambodian athletes who want to compete in the Olympics, for example, or to pursue their careers at a professional level.