Any fan of American cinema is intimately acquainted with this sports movie trope: a rag-tag team of misfits is finally blessed with top-of-the-line gear before they take on the league heavyweights. Cue the training montage.
But its ubiquity in coming-of-age sports films has not changed the fact that for some sports, it is a painfully honest facsimile. Few know this better than mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters in Southeast Asia, where the long legacies of ancient fighting styles – serving as part of the bedrock of MMA – have done little to attract major funding for those seeking to dedicate themselves to it full time.
This is where Joe Conway found his niche.
The Boston native visited the Kingdom in 2012 while living and working as a banker in Hong Kong with his wife and was immediately hooked. But his love for MMA can be traced back to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
“My wife and I went to the Muay Thai fights on Friday nights after we were handed a flyer on the street,” he says. “It was amazing to see the respect the fighters showed toward one another, their skill and how they moved around the ring. It was not like Western boxers but more like a fighting dance.”
He started taking MMA classes at his gym in Hong Kong and became even more involved in the sport when he moved back to the US, incorporating kickboxing into his daily workouts thanks to a professional MMA fighter pumping iron at the same gym.
He returned to Cambodia last April to train in Kun Khmer – a traditional fighting style pioneered here and now used as part of the training for MMA bouts – and found himself at Selapak Gym, training alongside burgeoning MMA stalwart Chan Rothana and professional fighter Kev Hemmorlor, amongst a host of other wily Khmer fight vets and nascent martial arts neophytes.
He immediately struck up a friendship with the fighters as well as gym manager and promoter Benoit Rigallaud.
“I loved it so much. Training with Rothana was unlike anything I had ever done. He is such a positive person and a great teacher. I noticed after the group classes that were so hard and hot, how happy and positive everyone was,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”
The camaraderie and positivity did not, however, make up for the woeful lack of training equipment at the gym for each fighter. Many of the fighters, Conway says, were training in flip-flops.
The need for better gear bugged Conway even as he left the country to head home. But on a stop in Hong Kong, he decided it was time to pitch in.
“The training was great but their equipment was a little shabby and Selapak didn’t have enough of the right kinds of equipment. On that trip my next stop was Hong Kong so I shipped them a few kick pads and gloves from there,” Conway says.
“I got a list of what other equipment they needed from Benoit, and over the next few months I sent more pads and some good quality Fairfax bags.”
Throughout his time in Southeast Asia, Conway said he was always looking for a way to give back, and he decided to dive head-first into what would eventually become Fight for Cambodia (FFC).
“I was so happy because I felt like I found the right people to partner with for the idea I had to invest in people through martial arts. I was, and still am, a beginner. But I understand how helpful martial arts is for physical fitness as well as mental toughness,” he says.
He formed an official charitable corporation and obtained tax-exempt status in July 2015, launching the non-profit officially a month later. The US charity arm of the organization helps with fundraising efforts and spreads awareness as well as updates on how the fighters are doing to their benefactors.
The instant impact of his efforts was visceral, Conway said.
He thought back to his second visit to Cambodia last October, when he took a group of students from the gym out to a market to buy running shoes and training clothes.
“Most of the guys did construction jobs so they didn’t have any extra clothes for training. I did not realize that most of them were getting the first pair of sneakers they had ever had,” Conway says.
“Fight for Cambodia grew over the past year and a half in small steps. I enjoy seeing someone like my friend Pheng, who just worked an 11-hour day on a tuk-tuk, come in for class because he loves it so much. The guys who are living and working away from their families wear their team shorts and are feeling pride. The guys all walk a little taller in their new shoes and team uniforms.”
Now quickly moving through its second year, FFC is supporting athletes and coaches with training equipment, workout clothes and team uniforms. They’ve also donated a Gi – a jiu jitsu uniform – to the H/Art Jiu Jitsu Academy in Phnom Penh, but its main partner in Cambodia is Selapak.
Rothana had no shortage of kind words for Conway and FFC, adding that they were an integral part of Selapak.
“FFC brings training equipment and support for fighters while allowing them to get excellent training,” Rothana says. “Selapak would not have been able to do any of this alone.”
Conway, FFC and those at Selapak have now forged a bond that goes far beyond fighting, and the assistance being funneled to the gym is allowing it to provide more services for emerging fighters interested in training there.
“After training with us, he understood the challenges we were facing to support the athletes. Selapak has a lot of plans but no money,” Rigallaud says.
“Joe started to help Selapak with his own money and the foundation, allowing us to bring in more equipment and fitness wear and helped us bring Cambodian fighters to training camps at Tiger Muay Thai.”
Conway’s business acumen has been a boon for the gym as well, as he helps advise their board on future plans and strategies while beefing up their fundraising efforts.
In the future, Conway is hoping to take the Selapak team to the US to meet with members of the Cambodian-American community and further bonds between the MMA gyms in both countries. He also would like to see Selapak gyms across Cambodia supporting traditional fighting styles like Kun Khmer and Yuthakun Khom, which are now being popularized on the international MMA stage through elite fighters like Rothana, Khon Sichan of Team Phnom Penh MMA and Thai Rithy of Cambodian Top Team.
“The people I met training at Selapak were major factors in starting my organization in Cambodia,” he says.
“Rothana’s mission is to teach people about Khmer culture and arts. He is such a positive person and I can see how he is teaching the young Khmer students in fighting techniques, but also about respect, honor and how to be a good person.
“Many young men and women left their provinces to work in Phnom Penh and use Selapak as a place to train. Rothana is like a brother to many of them. I wanted to support this positivity and experience it myself.”
FFC has no plans yet to expand beyond Cambodia, but Conway was in Phnom Penh last week with Burmese fighter Phoe Thaw, who came to train at Selapak ahead of his third ONE Championship bout in Yangon on October 7. Despite being 2-0 in his MMA career, Thaw’s gym in Myanmar had very little fight gear, so FFC sent a few packages their way.
“There is little to no MMA training in Myanmar today. My motivation was for Thaw to learn so he can teach others in his country,” Conway says.
Thaw knew the Selapak crew from previous ONE Championship bouts and said his time in Cambodia was invaluable both as a fighter and as someone looking to open their own gym.
“I gained so much experience from Rothana. He is a very good trainer and fighter. He is patient and clearly loves what he does,” Thaw says.
But FFC’s goals stretch far beyond fight skills and tactics. The organization, Conway said, is interested in improving people, not just as fighters but as human beings.
“My goal for FFC is to get people skills for fighting in the short term as well as life skills for the long term,” he says.
“The men and women learning at Selapak get an education beyond fighting. They are learning to be better people to each other and their communities.”