Features

Published: Saturday May 26, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday May 26, 2013 MYT 3:43:04 PM

Welcome to the fight club

Move over, muay thai, here comes MMA, a sport that looks set for exponential growth in Malaysia.

THE night is young, the atmosphere charged. The caged fights are about to begin. But this is not a sports arena. It’s a bistro called Overtime in Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur.

Yet all that doesn’t matter once the two announcers step into the cage to introduce each of the fighters who will be competing in the Malaysian Fighting Championship (MFC) tonight. And the fighters come in all shapes and sizes. Not all of them look like martial arts exponents, yet all of them are mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters.

And you start to form opinions in your mind, about who will fall or remain standing. Gosh, surely the small guy will not stand a chance?

But that’s one of the exciting things about MMA – you can never judge a fighter by his size or build. It’s technique, skill, intelligence, speed, and not so much brute strength. It’s also confidence and flexibility, as Eric “The Natural” Kelly, a Filipino fighter based in Malaysia, has told me.

The small guy sometimes ends up getting the bigger guy to surrender (or “tap out”) in a painful submission hold, one of the moves in MMA (see glossary next page). The proverbial David and Goliath match-up and its denouement are alive and well in the pugilist’s cage.

“A good martial artist doesn’t have to look like a bodybuilder,” says Jack Low of Raw Think Tank, which promotes the F3 Fight Championship.

A majority of the matches this night do not go beyond the first round. Fights are stopped because of tap-outs or injuries. And the injuries are minor, but enough to warrant an end to the fights before anything serious happens.

Several fighters refuse to tap out – in one match, French referee Arnaud “The Game” Lepont, himself a fighter, is forced to stop the match before the fighter’s arm is broken in a submission hold, or he passes out completely from a choke hold.

During the fight between American Antonio “Brooklyn Monk” Graceffo and Malaysian Nik Harris, someone screams: “Whack that fat f*****!”

Sometime during the night, someone plonks into the seat next to me. He tells me he used to be a fighter too.

“When you get hit in the head, you won’t know what’s happening around you,” he says. “You’ll be so dazed you can’t react.”

I proceed to tell him about the time I was knocked out cold during taekwondo training years ago, but realise how wimpy that sounds in the midst of men pummelling each other in a cage.

Bigger than boxing

Just a few weeks before, I had attended the F3 Freestyle Full-Contact Fight Championship at Titiwangsa Stadium, KL, which showcased a mixture of muay thai and MMA matches. The event, sanctioned by the Youth and Sports Ministry, was more of a family affair with parents and their children in attendance, but the action was no less impactful.

In a match between two young fighters, Mohd Fouzien Mohd Fozi and Zeus Xian, the former was kicked in the shin and it was soon apparent that the guy had possibly fractured a bone.

Present was Dain Said, director of this year’s Bunohan, the acclaimed muay thai action drama, who attested to the addictiveness of fight events, having witnessed even elderly ladies baying for blood at some muay thai competitions.

On that night, seemingly docile audience members would suddenly spring to their feet and start screaming and egging the participants on.

While MMA is indeed becoming more popular in Malaysia, in truth, it has been around these parts since 2000. That was about the time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was gaining ground in the United States. In those days, the UFC met with a lot of resistance because of the perceived violent nature of the sport.

Back then, fighters didn’t wear gloves and hits to the groin and back of the head were allowed. In short, it was anything goes. But as the sport started to mature, more rules to protect fighters were put in place. Still, there was opposition, including from the likes of US Senator John McCain, also last election’s Republican presidential hopeful.

But today, MMA has become a sport bigger than boxing. Official figures show that MMA generates US$500mil (RM1.6bil) in pay-per-view in the US – double that of boxing. Even Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon with Warrior, a drama featuring caged fighting, and Haywire which starred US female MMA champ Gina Carano as a freelance operative with some nifty fight moves.

In Japan, MMA has been around since the 1900s, when “merikan” competitions were held, which involved throws, knockdowns and submissions. Later in the 1980s, the Shooto MMA organisation was formed in Japan.

In the Philippines, there is the URCC (Universal Reality Combat Championship) founded in 2002.

Kimberly Lee Tan, 42, a Filipino fighter now based in Johor Baru, took part in the TPI (Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia) Fighting Championship in Indonesia back in 2000. Kim, as he is popularly known, was one of the “prototype” MMA fighters in this region.

But in Malaysia, the sport is still in its infancy. Most fight promoters and the fighters themselves say Malaysians are largely into muay thai. When it comes to MMA’s ground fighting, it is still too early for them to grasp the concept.

Mix and match

An MMA competition is very much like Capcom’s classic Street Fighter videogame. You have fighters of differing disciplines and styles squaring up to each other, and the result is anyone’s guess. Could a sumo wrestler such as Honda beat a karate exponent like Ryu? Could Chinese martial artist Chun Li defeat boxing expert Balrog?

“If I pit a taekwondo guy against a muay thai guy, it’s going to be exciting because then I can say this martial art is more effective in some ways than that martial art,” said the Singapore-based Jason Lim, ONE Fighting Championship’s director of online media and publications. “Everyone is always asking which martial art is superior. And MMA solves that question.”

Paul Teo, owner of MMA gym MuayFit in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, who also organises the MFC, set up just such an event back in 1995. He put together a fight that pitted exponents of various martial arts, including silat and taekwondo, against each other. There were more than 60 competitors.

“And some people ended up fighting outside the stadium because they couldn’t agree with the referee’s decisions,” Teo laughed.

Last Sept 11, Teo set up an MMA caged event in Sunway Pyramid, PJ, with 63 fighters from 10 countries. According to him, some 5,000 people stopped to watch all throughout that day.

The real history of MMA traces it back to the days of the ancient Olympics, to a sport called Pankration. Of course, Bruce Lee then popularised the concept of mixing different martial art forms in the 1960s and 70s. But the first step towards MMA’s mass acceptance was when, in 1993, the Gracie family brought the concept of the Brazilian combat sport Vale Tudo to the US, which led to the founding of the UFC.

Helio Gracie and his brother Carlos were the creators of modern Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Helio’s son, Royce, then became a legend in the UFC for beating opponents twice his size. It wasn’t just about punching or kicking. Fighting now involved both stand-up striking and ground techniques.

Foothold in Malaysia

Just how popular is MMA in Malaysia? Barely had I stepped into MuayFit when someone called the gym to ask about its MMA classes. The gym holds classes for various martial arts, including Krav Maga and muay thai, but according to Teo, MMA has been steadily gaining popularity as a form of self-defence and also exercise.

In fact, MuayFit is just one of many MMA gyms mushrooming in the city lately, such as Monarchy MMA Combat Fitness and Leverage Combat Academy.

Later, two guys in their 20s came into MuayFit and signed up for membership while watching the MuayFit MMA team train.

“Yeah, I’ve watched the UFC matches on TV, and I’ve always had an interest in MMA,” one of them told me when asked.

The MMA team, including Eric Kelly (who has already made a name for himself in the URCC), Briton Peter Davis, local guys Raymond “Rocket” Tiew and Sam “Swag” Chan, and Allamurad “Pretty Boy” Karayev from Turkmenistan, among others, were going through their brutal “boot camp” regime, preparing for the upcoming ONE FC event on June 23.

Dubbed “Asia’s largest MMA event”, ONE FC has held showdowns in Jakarta and Singapore, and will now be making its KL debut. Davis will be up against Singapore’s Quek “The Hulk” Kim Hock, while one of the most anticipated matches is between Malaysian Adam “Shogun” Kayoom and American Gregor Gracie, a third-generation member of MMA royalty.

For MMA fans, it is the Grand Prix of Asian combat sports, but the ordinary Malaysian fight fan would probably not see what the fuss is about.

But Victor Cui, the CEO of ONE FC, believes it will not be too difficult for Malaysians, or Asians in general, to get into this sport.

“Martial arts have had their home in Asia for the last 5,000 years,” said Cui. “Bruce Lee, Jet Li, taekwondo, karate, wushu, silat, muay thai – that’s all Asian-based. So for the common sports fan to get into MMA, it’s very easy.”

Holding out for a hero

In just a decade, MMA has become the stuff of which legends are made and on which myths are built. Take, for example, the recent incident in Los Angeles, California, where two MMA fighters walked into a robbery in their hotel; they promptly wrestled the armed intruder to the floor, got him in a choke hold, and held him there until the cops arrived.

People love stories like this, and more of the triumph of the underdog. MMA fight organisers and gym owners such as Teo would tell you that at this moment, MMA in Malaysia appeals to the middle class because it is an expensive sport. Lim said the sport needs to go mainstream.

Surely MMA needs stories such as those of footballers who came out of the slums and became global superstars. Cui said it is already happening in MMA – Thai fighters of impoverished backgrounds, or fighters who are taxi drivers. Singapore’s first female fighter, Nicole Chua, 27, is an accountant by day who comes from a working-class background and lives with her family in a Housing and Development Board flat.

Both Low and Teo strongly believe MMA needs colourful characters in the way boxing has benefited from Muhammad Ali and his trash-talking.

“I love what Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m so bad I make medicine sick,’” said Low. “If someone in Asian MMA could do something like that, it would be fantastic.”

Like every sport, MMA has its own legends. The Gracie family is one. Another is Fedor Emilianenko, the Russian fighter once dubbed “the baddest man in the world”. He was once slammed on his head by an opponent, yet came back with a knockout punch to win the fight. Commentators observed that he actually looked bored when entering the ring.

World Wrestling Entertainment icon Brock Lesnar went from professional wrestling to MMA, and brought much fanfare to the UFC, although his much-touted debut did not quite live up to fans’ expectations.

Then there is 42-year-old Jiang Long Yun from China, a former businessman who got hooked on MMA after seeing a match on TV, then gave up his business to train full-time. In his match against Thai boxing superstar Yodsanan Sityodtong, Yodsanan was at one time dragging Jiang by his ankle and raining blows on him. But Jiang came back forcefully and won the fight with a submission move.

There are still others – Tito Ortiz, Jon “Bones” Jones, Chuck Liddell.

Cui named a few fighters in Asia whom he believes add colour to the sport. One is Jiang, another is Davis, a model-actor based in KL. From the Philippines are Ole Laursen, a former kickboxing champion, and Eduard “Landslide” Folayang, a multiple-gold medallist in wushu. And in Malaysia, there is Kayoom, a jiu-jitsu black-belter with an outstanding record in muay thai, whom Cui thinks is one of Asia’s best fighters.

Both Cui and Lim believe that one day there will be MMA sportsmen who will transcend the sport and sell out stadiums just by the mere mention of their names.

Arena of growth

In its relatively short time in Malaysia, MMA has grown in interesting ways. One instance is the Ultimate MMA Academy in Johor Baru, started by a schoolteacher named Melvin Yeoh, 31. At this gym, Yeoh helps problematic teenagers to stay out of trouble by training them in MMA.

“Some of these kids like to fight, and instead of fighting on the streets and getting into trouble, they can fight in a legal place and feel like heroes,” said Yeoh.

In fact, some of the kids he has trained have gone on to do well in their studies. One became an engineer in Singapore, another joined Singapore law enforcement.

His academy, said Yeoh, was the first MMA gym to be opened in Malaysia in 2006.

“At the time, even muay thai wasn’t well known yet,” he recalled.

Today, the fanbase in Malaysia is growing, as is the pool of fighters and aspiring fighters. Low said the events on the circuit, such as the MFC, the F3 and Ultimate Beatdown in Johor, constantly unearth fresh young talent.

“We talk to these young guys and encourage them to go for proper training,” he said.

Lim concluded: “We sincerely believe that one day in Asia, MMA will be even bigger than football. Unlike in the US, most people here grew up with a background in some form of martial arts. Fight sports are ingrained in us.”

ONE Fighting Championship’s inaugural KL event, dubbed Destiny Of Warriors, takes place at Stadium Negara in Kuala Lumpur on June 23. Tickets are on sale now. For more details, visit www.onefc.com.

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