‘Sweet Savage’: Long Beach MMA fighter reconnects with her Cambodian heritage

Long before she was schooled in the art of knocking someone out, Sovannahry Em was taught to take life as it comes; bullying, domestic conflict, didn’t matter. She was to handle situations, to never be sad or angry, never be anything but well-mannered.

But not now. Not when she’s home in California and certainly not recently when she found herself in a cage in Singapore. Now, Sovannahry Em fights.

They call her the “Sweet Savage”—every professional fighter needs a nickname—and the latter half of the moniker was definitely on display in Singapore, on Jan. 29. She cut down her taller, heavier South Korean opponent, Choi Jeung Yun, a skilled kickboxer, pinned her torso and right arm to the mat and pummeled her face with left hooks that were equal parts precise and ferocious until the referee had no choice but to declare Em, 28, the winner by technical knockout.

Surrounded by empty seats, he raised the arm of the Cambodian American from Long Beach, declaring her the winner of this ONE Championship match—ONE being the largest Asian combat sport organization in the world.

“Man,” she said, catching her breath and flashing the smile that accounts for the “Sweet” of her nickname, “that was a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be.”

She could say the same about life. Though this match marked her second victory for the organization on her journey to become a World ONE Champion, she says her main goal remains to reconnect with her Cambodian heritage while becoming a role model for girls and women, particularly those living in Cambodia, who might not feel confident enough to stand up for themselves.

“There’s too much of a culture of women being quiet,” Em said. “We live in such a society that violence toward women is not so uncommon.”

Her remedy, she says, is simple: Every woman should know how to fight.

She is not talking about marching or calling your member of Congress; she believes every woman should know how to curl up her fist and defend herself.

Tatianna Morrison, mother of Sovannahry Em, holds a frame of her daughter as a young girl at her home in Central Long Beach on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

‘I guess I can be brave’

Since she can remember, Sovannahry Em has always avoided conflict. At home when she’d hear her mother and past boyfriends yelling at each other, Em and her younger siblings would do their best to ignore it. Now, her mother, Tatianna Morrison, said she feels remorse for exposing them to it, adding that she herself was fighting for a relationship she “shouldn’t have been fighting for.”

At school, Em also had “moments” of bullying. While she was “good at deflecting any kind of heat,” ultimately, she never stood up for herself.

“Growing up, I never had that muscle to battle that confrontation,” she said, or even to say something during her mother’s “rocky” relationships.

But one bully in middle school in Wyoming, where she partly grew up, awoke something in her. The bully, a girl, usually picked on other students daily, including Em, after gym in the locker rooms. Seeing the bully harassing another girl, Em became so upset that she was compelled to confront the bully. Em approached her, “told her off” and the bully challenged her to a fight at the park after school.

Ultimately, she didn’t fight the girl because it was impractical to ask her mom to drive her to the park, Em said, chuckling.

Regardless, that day, Em learned something about herself:

“I guess I can be brave.”

‘Little goddess warrior’

After spending her childhood living back-and-forth in SoCal and the Midwest, Em and her family finally settled down in Long Beach on Redondo Avenue and Seventh Street.

A few years after graduating from Wilson High School, Em got her first taste of combat sports at the DG Boxing gym in East Long Beach. Seeing her excel in boxing, the owner let her train there for free, which “went a long way,” Em said, who couldn’t afford to pay. Afterward she learned jiujitsu in a club at Cal State Long Beach and then joined the Long Beach Kickboxing Center near Downtown Long Beach.

Em went on to fight for Gladiator Challenge, an MMA organization, winning two KO matches, which helped jumpstart her professional career.

Em figures her first exposure to martial arts was from her mother, a Khmer Rouge survivor, who had a love for Kung Fu.

“My parents loved mixed martial arts too,” Morrison said, describing the intergenerational connection to fighting. “I watched Chinese Kung Fu movies a lot, and I would practice. I just loved it.”

She recalled Em becoming fond of martial arts when she began wrestling with her younger siblings at age 3.

“You are my little goddess warrior,” she remembers telling her daughter.

Tatianna Morrison, mother of Sovannahry Em, holds a frame of her daughter as a young girl at her home in Central Long Beach on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

The ‘Sweet Savage’

The Sweet Savage is 5-feet-4 inches with a shy voice and squared glasses; when away from the cage, it’s no stretch to say her personality is kind and rather tender.

Fighting became an outlet to offset her gentleness and bring “balance” to her life, she said. She had avoided conflict for so long, so facing off with an opponent allowed a way to “face a fear of mine.”

It seems incredible that fear is any part of Em’s makeup. Before a fight, any emotion, whether excitement or anxiety, disappears. and, in its place, comes a “raw,” “animalistic,” and “laser focus.” During matches, she strikes heads with fury and velocity and eventually coils herself around her opponents’ bodies, like a python devouring prey.

Sovannahry Em, 28, left, grapples and punches her opponent, Choi Jeong Yun, 22, during their catchweight match for ONE Championship, which was aired from Singapore on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Photo courtesy of ONE Championship.

Training during COVID and redemption

When Morrison and her husband separated, Em took on the shared role of caring for her siblings. Through caregiving, Em learned patience something that actually shows up in her fighting style.

In her match with Choi, for example,  Em grappled her opponent for two rounds–even though Choi repeatedly escaped her grasp. Unrelenting, she chased and chopped at Choi until she ultimately tapped out.

Justen Hamilton, Em’s trainer, said he thinks it’s “still a bit of a mystery” as to how Em won the fight, given that COVID-19 restrictions impeded Em’s training regime, meaning she could only practice with him.

Hamilton became Em’s trainer about three years ago after using her as a test subject for a dissertation on women MMA athletes. To thank her, he gave Em free private fighting lessons at his martial arts academy. After that, she asked him to become her trainer. He found that Em was an already talented fighter, primarily as a striker. To make her more well-rounded, he focused her to grapple, to “blend” the combat moves and strike while on the ground.

“She can really exceed in any area of the sport,” he said.

Another vital skill learned was being tactical and strategic when fighting. Choi, who was a skilled kickboxer with longer limbs, endangered Em’s chances of winning if she stayed in the upright position. Em saw that she didn’t.

Em won her debut match at ONE Championship against Ukrainian opponent Iryna Kyselova within the first round. But Em said that her over-confidence got in the way for her second match against Brazilian opponent, Rayane Basto, who made Em tap out with a guillotine headlock in the first round.

“My ego, it got too big,” she said.

That swift loss had Em doubt her vigor as a fighter. But she bounced back with the victory over Choi, fueling her goal of becoming a world champion.

“You don’t get better without some sort of challenge,” she said.

ONE Championship spokesperson Tammy Chan said via email that they have not yet decided Em’s next opponent.

Long Beach native Sovannahry Em, 28, left, wins a mixed martial arts catchweight match against her opponent, Choi Jeong Yun, 22, far right, for ONE Championship, which was aired from Singapore on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Photo courtesy of ONE Championship.

Cambodia: ‘in memory of those people’

After joining the organization, she’s been able to travel the world, offering her the potential to fight in Cambodia and learn more about her heritage. Her achievements have also helped her reconnect with her father and his family, who’ve congratulated her on her wins.

Em, who currently lives in Ventura County with her boyfriend, studies with a Khmer tutor as she hopes to become a public figure for women in Cambodia.

Tharoth Sam, a “badass” fighter and actress from Cambodia who has been a role model for Cambodian women to jump out of traditional gender roles, inspired this idea in Em.

Thus far, Em informally taught two of her younger siblings some combat moves such as boxing, grappling, jiujitsu and bokator, an ancient Cambodian martial art. Em also helps with the video lessons for Hamilton’s martial arts academy. She said she would especially like if her younger sister, Tania, learns.

Bokator was one of the many arts that nearly vanished after the Khmer Rouge killed millions in the 1970s along with the culture they built. While strengthening girls and women is her main goal, she fights for her Cambodian heritage.

“Everything I’m doing is in memory of those people.”

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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