It’s 4:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and pouring rain outside in January, an unwelcome way to begin a special day with famed world champion Manny Pacquiao. Yet, Cambodia’s first female MMA fighter, Tharoth Sam (4-2-0) – known as “Little Frog” – is conditioned to steer past adversity.
As a hungry child, she would forage for frogs, gaining a nickname that would become her brand in her professional life.
On this day, the 28-year old fighter has been invited to do what no other Cambodian has done; to train alongside her hero, eight-division world champion and current WBA welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao (60-7-2, 39 KOs) as he prepares to defend against four-division world champion Adrien Broner (33-3-1, 1NC, 24 KOs) tomorrow at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. “I need to know what it takes to be a world champion,” Sam says, who in Cambodia is the only female on the country’s list of top five fighters. Like all young fighters — especially those from developing countries – she looks to Manny’s story for inspiration.
“The very first day that I met him in person at his house, to me It was like something in the dream,” Sam explained to MMA Crossfire. “I still can’t believe it! I’m pretty sure he came from the hard work, and used to have the hard situation life style like me. I talked about about it when I was working out with him, that I was almost gave up during training, but I didn’t. I still kept on going. I wanted to show people that even when it’s the hardest, Khmer women like me still push through it untill the end.”
Pacquiao, 40, grew up on the streets of the Philippines scrounging for food. He learned to fight in order to survive, which led to pro bouts at only 16 years of age. Then in 2001, at 22, Manny came to America with virtually no name recognition outside the Philippines. Today, as boxing’s only eight-division world champion, “PacMan” has a legacy and list of achievements well beyond the ring: a celebrated musician, senator in the Philippine parliament and quite possibly, his country’s next president.
Manny saw Tharoth, who is also an actress, budding singer, and rising star in her country, as a younger version of himself.
Since her childhood, Tharoth wanted to inspire change, determined to challenge her country’s traditional gender roles where women competing in sport is frowned upon. “I wanted to be a role model for girls and show that women can be strong as men,” Sam said. A special interest in fighting led her to an elder, Sean Kim San, who was reviving a uniquely Cambodian martial art she’d never heard of, one that would shape her destiny.
Cambodia’s ancient fighting style of Bokator was nearly decimated by the deadly Khmer Rouge regime 40 years ago when they committed genocide and tried to destroy the country’s old traditions. Under grandmaster Kim Sean’s tutelage, Sam became part of a wave of young Cambodian practitioners trying to carry Bokator beyond Cambodia’s borders to the world. Her journey, as part of the struggle to revive Bokator, is chronicled in the film Surviving Bokator. She just wrapped up a promotional tour of the documentary at film festivals throughout North America.
Learning of Tharoth’s story, Pacquaio invited her to train with his team during her stopover in Los Angeles. The morning workout proved to be more intense for “Little Frog” than anything anticipated, as in her homeland professional athletes do not have the same access to training expertise and nutrition as their western counterparts. Determined, she worked to keep pace with Pacquiao and his team, forcing herself past the pain of his proprietary abdominal crunches. All the while, Manny continued to push her when it seemed she might let up. It turned out that Pacquiao was everything she imagined him to be; caring and wanting her to succeed like him.
“PacMan always pushed everyone to keep going,” Sam said. “And I was so honoured at the same time that he kept an eye on me to make sure I didn’t give up, which all the fighters needed that. My belly, my core, and my neck were so sore, but it was worth it. I learned something new and the experience to run and do the sit up with the world champion. I named it “Manny Suicide Sit-Up,” she laughed. “I would like to say thanks to him and the team, I’ve learned a lot from him. The endurance, the behaviour, the caring, the knowledge, etc. I am inspired by him. I will teach these to the children and women here in my country of Cambodia.”
Afterwards, Pacquiao autographed a red Everlast glove for Tharoth and the two took selfies together. He weighs in later today in Las Vegas for his championship bout with Broner. Sam returned to Cambodia, signing autographs for all of the excited young girls awaiting her return at the Phnom Penh airport. But she has one special wish for The PacMan:
“I wish him the best of luck, God bless him and we all believe him that he will win, no matter what.”