I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace

As told to Zochada Tat and Addi Somekh
Afterword by Michael G. Vann, Ph.D.

224 pages with 80 illustrations, including maps.
October 2022. Hardcover.
Ebook also available.

$26.95 | 9781954600072 (hc)

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From champion to refugee to martial-arts teacher, a kickboxing innovator tells of his career, remarkable survival and journey toward self-understanding.

When I was 6 years old, my grandmother told me, “The rice won’t bear grain if it stands tall, but it will if it bows.” I have always followed her advice: “Be calm, be kind, be brave.” To this day, because of my grandmother, I am not afraid of anybody.

Oum Ry grew up on a Central Cambodian island in the Mekong River in a family of silver engravers. When his family couldn’t afford his food or schooling, he lived with monks until seeking out masters of Cambodian kickboxing, a martial art called Pradal Serey. He was the smallest kid but would become national champion at 23 years old. Over 15 years, he toured Southeast Asia and without ever suffering a knock-out won more than 250 fights. After a young man’s dream-life of stardom, parties, and girls, his new wife gave birth to a child in 1975, two months before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and pushed the country into an abyss of mass executions, disease, and famine.

Oum Ry survived the genocide though much of his family perished. He was saved many times from death in Cambodia due to fame, talent, and his resilience, but suffered a life-threatening attack during Southern California’s epic gang violence of the 1990s. Earlier, as a refugee in Chicago, Oum Ry worked cleaning hotels, knowing no English. Within a few years, he had an investor and opened one of the first kickboxing gyms in the United States, and was raising a daughter, Zochada, who took her first steps in the ring.

This book is his oral history and includes a historical introduction, maps, and photos. Like Muay Thai, Pradal Serey is used in mixed martial arts and the UFC. The book culminates with Oum Ry’s return trip to Cambodia in 2022 with his daughter to reunite with recently discovered family and to pass on Pradal Serey traditions to the next generation.

PRAISE

“The story of the legendary martial arts fighter and kickboxer Oum Ry is by turns pulse-pounding, disturbing, and powerful. His is an astonishing life told beautifully by his daughter Zochada Tat and Addi Somekh. The book will grip you from its first pages and not let you go.”
—Jeff Chang, author of Water Mirror Echo: Bruce Lee and the Making of Asian America and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

“This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously. [… Daughter] Zochada Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation. […] Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing. […] For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.”
– Dr. JoAnn LoSavio, Washington State University, Vancouver

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

Oum Ry, born in Central Cambodia in 1944, was an international kickboxing champion for many years. From 1963 to 1975, he fought over 300 times, winning 250 matches without ever getting knocked out, and became one of the most famous people in his country. This was all before the Cambodian genocide, of which most of his family were victims. He was persecuted, starved, recruited by rebel factions as a bodyguard, and after the war fled to the border of Thailand, where he lived in the infamous 007 refugee camp. In December 1980, his immigration was sponsored by an American pastor and he came to the Chicago area, where he raised a family and learned English by working as a janitor in a hotel. In 1987 he founded Long Beach Kickboxing, one of the oldest kickboxing gyms in the United States. His gym has been open 6 days a week for the last 33 years, training several kickboxing champions and keeping countless kids out of gangs.


Zochada Tat is Oum Ry’s daughter, an author, and kickboxing instructor. She took her first steps in the ring at Long Beach Kickboxing and has trained with him throughout her life. She traveled with him to Cambodia in February 2022 and helped transcribe and translate his oral history.

Addi Somekh is an author and an instructor of critical thinking at University of California Santa Cruz.

Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at California State University, Sacramento, who specializes in Southeast Asia during the era of colonialism and the Cold War. He is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity and his work can be found in Jacobin and The Diplomat.