Pioneering Malaysian MMA fighter Melvin 'Overkill' Yeoh goes for broke.
MELVIN Yeoh is a man with a lot to lose these days. The Malaysian mixed martial arts pioneer, widely revered in the local MMA scene, will enter the cage at ONE Fighting Championship’s event this Friday with a lot on his shoulders. And it’s a burden, mostly born of his passion for the sport and for helping troubled teenagers, which he carries willingly.
For one, his gym, Ultimate MMA Academy in Taman Mount Austin, Johor Baru, is being forced to close.
“The property prices in that area have risen threefold, so my landlord has decided to sell the shoplot before 2014,” said Yeoh. “And we are forced to move. Honestly, this is too bad for us. It will cost me a lot to move to a new place.”
Yeoh, a schoolteacher by day and an MMA fighter and trainer at night, is well known in Johor Baru for his efforts in helping teenagers stay off the streets and out of trouble by getting them to train in martial arts at his gym.
Over the years, he has managed to help many teens turn over a new leaf, and some of them have gone on to become successful professionals such as policemen, Customs officers, chefs and accountants.
Yeoh opened the gym in Taman Setia Indah, Johor Baru, in 2006, and also lived in it with his wife and first son. In 2010, it moved to the current location. And now the future is uncertain.
He also had plans to start a hostel for troubled teens and visitors to his academy. But that is also temporarily shelved.
“I wanted to rent another unit to have some rooms and a kitchen,” Yeoh explained. “Fighters and adventurers like Daniel Mashamaite (former South African world muay thai champ) and (author and martial artist) Antonio Graceffo and many others have visited, trained and lived in our gym for nearly a year. They slept on the mats. So if we have this hostel, it would be easier for future visitors.”
Because of his current predicament, Yeoh said he has to win at all costs when he faces Sabahan AJ “Pyro” Lias Mansor at ONE FC: Warrior Spirit for the Malaysian National Championship title.
“I have to win this fight so that I would have enough money to move our gym to another location,” said Yeoh. “This is not just about fighting for fun or as a sport. It’s about saving my gym.”
Fighting in ONE FC, he said, has gotten him some recognition and sponsorship. In his last match in February this year, he beat Raymond Tiew with a triangle choke in the second round to advance to the Malaysian National Championship final. He was to square off with Jian Kai Chee for the title, but Jian dropped out owing to injury.
“I don’t care so much about the recognition and stuff because this is my passion,” said Yeoh. “I have a day job as a teacher, and the gym only operates at night. But yes, being recognised does help a lot in terms of running my mini-gym. At least I don’t need to worry about the rent.”
Even with such enormous pressure on him this time, Yeoh remains positive and will not let it affect his performance.
“I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with stress and anxiety,” said the 32-year-old Perlis native.
He was once a troubled teen himself, but changed for the better through martial arts, even graduating from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia with a degree in sports science. “I just know, as a professional fighter, when the bell rings, I just need to do my job, get the win and entertain the crowd.”
Yeoh started training in taekwondo when he was 13, and a year later, began learning muay thai. He was already competing in muay thai fights in his teens, and today has nearly 50 amateur and professional muay thai fights under his belt.
He got into MMA in 2004, and trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He is busy preparing for his bout with AJ Lias, a fitness trainer with a muscular physique. Yeoh regards this fight as a contest of his hard-won skills against his opponent’s physical strength.
And true to his gym’s reputation as a community facility, Yeoh’s “boys” as he calls them come to help him train and spar every evening. Young up-and-coming fighters such as Yves Tan and Zeus Lim, who are Yeoh’s martial arts students, return the favour by becoming viable sparring partners. In between taking care of his two young sons and teaching in school, Yeoh squeezes in time to build up his cardio and test his skills against his students.
Not only that, Yeoh is also busy setting up the 13th instalment of Ultimate Beatdown, the longest-running MMA event in Malaysia, which he founded.
Ultimate Beatdown started out as a small event in his gym about six years ago, but has grown so much that this show on Nov 30 will be held in KSL City Mall Hotel and Resort in Johor Baru, its biggest venue to date. Each show draws crowds of about 500 to 700 people, some of them travelling across the Causeway just for the event.
“This time we have more sponsors, a bigger cage, a better quality fight card and we’re kickstarting our tournament series,” said Yeoh. “But we still give many spots to amateur fighters to gain experience, which is the main objective of Ultimate Beatdown.”
The event has been the training ground for Malaysian amateur fighters long before the Malaysian Invasion MMA amateur circuit came into being. It is achievements like this that have won Yeoh respect as a pioneer of Malaysian MMA. That, and the fact that he is one of the very few local fighters who trains on home ground when many others opt for places such as Thailand and the United States to prepare for their matches.
“My best friend and trainer Kim Lee Tan wanted to sponsor my training overseas,” Yeoh revealed. “But I know what I’m facing, I know I have responsibilities towards my family, school students and gym students. I can’t just leave everything like that. Plus, I believe in my team and my boys’ ability to be my sparring partners.”
As for juggling a school job and a fight career, Yeoh has a simple motivation.
“My principal warned me that if I don’t finish my work in school, I would have to take my work into the cage and finish it during my fight,” he joked.
*ONE FC: Warrior Spirit will be held at Stadium Putra, Bukit Jalil, KL, this Friday, Nov 15, at 7pm. Tickets are available at redtix.airasia.com. Livestream of the event will be available at www.onefc.livesport.tv.
Note: ONE FC has announced that Adam Shahir Kayoom, who was slated to fight Nobutatsu Suzuki in the main event, has injured a rib during training and is forced to bow out. Taking his place is undefeated Portuguese champion Vitor Pinto.