The origins of the ancient Khmer martial art of Yuthakun Khorm are open to debate. But there is one thing about this high-intensity combat technique, which is beginning to grow in popularity in modern-day Cambodia, that everyone agrees upon; it was designed for real fighting. This is no doubt the reason why Cambodian MMA stars, including Chan Rothana, are giving it a new lease of life by putting its techniques into practice in the octagon.

A Disputed History of Yuthakun Khorm

The revival of Yuthakun Khorm is largely down to the efforts of You Sinet, the founder and chairman of the Yuthakun Khorm Federation. He says his research has traced the origins of the discipline back to King Jayavarman VII, the most powerful ruler of the Khmer Empire, who reigned from c.1181–1218.

According to Sinet, it was one of the three components of the ‘Moha Yuthakun Khorm’, which roughly translates as the ‘Art of War’, along with military strategy and magic spells.

This is disputed by some others, particularly those who practice another ancient Cambodian martial art, I’Bokator, who argue that Yuthakun Khorm is just an umbrella term for various different martial arts disciplines which have been combined.

Whichever point-of-view is correct, no-one disputes Yuthakun Khorm long history. However, it appeared to be in terminal decline until relatively recently, when it was placed on University curriculums in Cambodian institutions. This saw a growth in the number of participants and exposed it to a whole new generation. And this was even before it began to find its place in MMA.

The last surviving Grand Masters

There are still relatively few Grand Masters of Yuthakun Khorm who survive to pass on the skills. Sixty-two-year-old Chan Bunthoeun is one and claims to have learned the skill from his father. He was a Commando in the Cambodian military in the 1960’s and 70’s and claims to have used Yuthakun Khorm many times in military campaigns, saying it saved his life several times. He also claims to have mastered the magic spells that traditionally were used alongside it.

He told the Phnom Penh Post “In addition to the strength of an elephant and the speed of a leopard, a Yuthakun Khorm warrior uses magic spells to help them knock down their opponents… For example, Moha Kamlang is a spell that makes you powerful during the fight.”

It is the more practical physical elements of the discipline which are attracting new disciples these days though. Yuthakun Khorm brings together various different fighting techniques, with practitioners learning hand-to-hand combat, various grappling techniques, and the use of swords, spears, and various other weapons.

Young people are increasingly taking it up as a form of self-defence or as a form of physical exercise. Seak Sethkathiya is a 26-year-old student from Kratie, who turned to Yuthakun Khorm when she moved to the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh. She told the Phnom Penh Post, “I left my hometown for Phnom Penh to study and work. My family is very worried about me, so I have to learn to defend myself.”

It is also still being used by some sections of the Cambodian military, but still, the number of people actively practising Yuthakun Khorm is thought to be as low as 2,000. This number is on the rise though, in no small part thanks to the use of the discipline by Cambodian MMA fighters, such as Chan Rothana.

MMA: The future of Yuthakun Khorm?

Chan Rothana is a Cambodian MMA fighter who competes in the Singaporean ONE Fighting Championship. He is the son of Chan Bunthoeun and attributes his success to his use of Yuthakun Khorm as opposed to the more popular Cambodian disciplines of l’Bokator and Kun Khmer.

“Many Cambodian Kun Khmer practitioners got into MMA but could not find success because Kun Khmer is mainly based on striking while standing,” he explained. “On the other hand, Yuthakun Khorm, with its ground and grappling techniques, allows me to compete so well in ONE FC.”

MMA’s popularity in Cambodia means that Chan Rathana presence in the main regional tournament will undoubtedly raise the profile of Yuthakun Khorm still further. And if he or other Cambodian MMA fighters can deploy it effectively in the octagon, then who knows how participation might escalate in the years ahead.

So, despite its ancient and disputed origins, its seems that it is Yuthakun Khorm suitability for the requirements of modern life, be that for professional fighters or enthusiastic amateurs, which will keep it alive into the 21st century and beyond.

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