Mai eyes bokator gold at SEA Games

April 16, 2023 - 07:44
At 34, Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai's life has taken a big turn after a long absence from competition. She has decided to return to action this summer as one of Việt Nam's representatives at the 32nd SEA Games in her new role as a bokator fighter.


CHAMP: Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai of Việt Nam announced as winner of the women's 55kg category at the Southeast Asian Bokator Championship in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in early April. Photo courtesy of Cambodia Kun Bokator Federation

Thanh Hà

Despite retiring from international competition for 12 years after winning at the 26th Southeast Asian Games in 2011, Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai is still known as an 'unbeatable' fighter who has dominated Việt Nam's domestic martial arts, kickboxing, and Muay Thai communities.

Now at 34, Mai's life has taken a big turn. She has decided to return to action this summer as one of Việt Nam's representatives at the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia in her new role as a "bokator" fighter.

Bokator is an old battlefield martial art first used by ancient Khmer military groups. It is one of the oldest existing fighting systems, originating from Cambodia.

Although it is a different genre of martial art, Mai is expected to win a gold medal after her triumph at the Southeast Asian Bokator Championship, which ended on April 3 in Phnom Penh.

"I am back to the competition after four years as coaches persuaded me to fight at the National Sports Games (NSG) for my home province of An Giang," Mai told Việt Nam News.

"Then I was picked to be on the bokator team for the SEA Games. I was a little nervous, worrying that I couldn't get my best physique for international fighting at my age. But I was also thrilled and proud to have the chance to serve my country again after all these years."

It will be her third SEA Games in her third martial art, and she hopes to contribute to Việt Nam's gold medal tally.

Born to fight

Born in 1989 in Châu Phú District, An Giang, Mai grew up with three siblings in a farming family.

KICKING ON: Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai (right) competes in the first regional bokator championship in early April in Cambodia. She won gold. — Photo courtesy of Cambodia Kun Bokator Federation

Mai attended a martial arts class when she was 14 years old in 2003, just for fun. Three months later, she was picked for the provincial team.

"It took time and a lot of work. Sometimes, I was so exhausted that I wanted to quit. But my family lifted me up, encouraging me to overcome all difficulties. My efforts would be wasted if I was out," Mai said.

Mai reset her mind and stepped slowly but stably forward. She became one of the top national martial artists.

After her first title at the national youth championship in 2004, Mai dominated for the next 14 years, grabbing two golds at the world championships in 2016 and 2018.

She infuriated all her rivals with her stubbornness, endurance, and strong desire to be a champion.

PRACTISE: Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai with teammates in preparation for the 32nd SEA Games. — Photo

In 2009, kickboxing was introduced in Việt Nam and Mai was one of the first Vietnamese practising the sport. After several months of practise, the talented fighter tested her skills at an Asian Martial Arts Games and scored a gold. She then topped the podium at the Indoor Games.

In the same year, Mai was called to the national Muay Thai team, which was also new to Việt Nam to prepare for the 25th SEA Games. Her outstanding performance in Laos gave her a gold, although she had practised Thai boxing for just two weeks.

In the 26th Games in Indonesia, Mai secured a bronze in kickboxing.

She also made her mark in other competitions, such as with a kickboxing gold at the 2013 Asian Indoor Martial Art Games, a kickboxing silver at the 2013 Combat Games, a Vietnamese traditional martial art gold at the 2016 Asian Beach Games and golds at the 2016 and 2018 World Vietnamese Traditional Martial Art Championships.

In early 2019, Mai retired and opened her own martial art centre in her home town to seek and nurture young kung fu fighters.

But it seems she cannot stop from being a martial art pioneer. In the 32nd SEA Games, bakator will be held for the first time, and Mai was the first person Vietnamese officials thought of when watching her performance at the NSG.

Multi-purpose martial artist

Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai (right) is Việt Nam's bokator golden hope at the 32nd SEA Games. — Photo

Bokator, the traditional martial art of Cambodian soldiers, uses a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting. The art is based on the study of life in nature. For example, there are the styles of elephant, duck, crab, horse, bird and crocodile, all using different techniques.

Some of the weapons used in bokator include the bamboo staff, short sticks and swords.

"It has many similarities to Việt Nam's traditional martial arts. When fighting, we can strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, and head. The difference is in the form and rules of combat and the way to count points for fighters," Mai said.

"My teammates and I learnt a lot from Cambodian experts who came to provide further information and train us intensively about the rules, technique, maximum points, and other details in early March. "

ULTIMATE FIGHTER: Nguyễn Thị Tuyết Mai (right) will compete in the third martial art in her third SEA Games in May in Cambodia. — Photo

According to head coach Lê Công Bút, Mai is the most experienced athlete in the team as she has practised and competed for almost 20 years. Her technique and experience are expected to help her get the highest results at the Games.

"I have only known bokator for about a month and have trained hard since then. A gold medal at the regional championship is a strong push for me," said Mai.

"My age is an issue, but the coaching board will map out a suitable plan for me. I believe that with this support, my determination and confidence will help me win a gold for Việt Nam." VNS