KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama): Getting a second chance at life may sound clichéd but for Mohd Irwan Noor Rashid, that's exactly what happened.
A second chance was what this gangster-turned-professional boxer got when he left his shady past behind him about two years ago and ventured into the world of Muay Thai, a martial art and combat sport.
Mohd Irwan, 22, who is from Teluk Intan, Perak, has set his sights on becoming a world-class Muay Thai fighter and is currently undergoing rigorous training at Discover Muay Thai academy located in Jalan Alor, here.
The academy was opened in 2015 to provide wayward youths and delinquents with a chance to reform by attending self-development and Muay Thai training programmes.
Mohd Irwan, who joined the academy in 2018, has so far already emerged champion at nine Muay Thai competitions in Malaysia and Thailand. This school dropout is now being viewed as a young talent with a bright future in the Thai combat sport.
Recalling his teenage years when he was hot-headed and loved picking fights with others, he said: "I was a rebel and didn't like to be controlled.
"When I went to secondary school, I would only hang out with adults. Should anyone disturb me or challenge me to a fight, we would surely come to blows," he told Bernama, adding that he has been in and out of the police lock-up more than eight times for being involved in brawls.
Mohd Irwan said he became a "free bird" after he stopped schooling in 2013 when he was in Form Three. He joined an underworld gang and got a job as a guard at an entertainment centre in Teluk Intan, earning RM1,500 a month.
"I was only 15 then and I did not at all care about school ... I was having too much fun doing whatever I was involved in then," he said, adding that his parents were unaware of his criminal activities.
His mother, however, managed to convince him to return to school. He did and even sat for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination in 2015 while still actively involved in gangsterism.
A new life
Sometime in 2018, Mohd Irwan's aunt, who lived in Petaling Jaya, asked him if he wanted to register himself at a Muay Thai training centre located in Kuala Lumpur and he promptly said 'yes' as he had learnt the basics of Thai boxing in his hometown and liked it.
Mohd Irwan, who is the youngest among six siblings, said: "My decision to join Discover Muay Thai academy was the best decision I had ever made. Not once did I think that I could get out of Teluk Intan, where I was born and raised, and pursue a career as a Muay Thai fighter."
Indeed, that was the turning point in his life. For the training stint at the academy, Mohd Irwan – as well as seven others aged between 16 and 25 who were also participating in the programme – were asked to stay in a hostel where they had to adhere to a tight daily schedule from 6am to 11pm.
"Initially, I thought I was there only to learn Muay Thai, but it turned out that discipline was given utmost importance and we also had to attend classes on religion and entrepreneurship, as well as learn English," he said, adding that Muay Thai training only started at 3pm.
Unlike the free-for-all street fights he used to get involved in as a wayward teen, Muay Thai places great emphasis on showing respect for one's opponent and other people, explained Mohd Irwan.
Best of all, his hot temper disappeared as a result of the discipline he was subjected to while undergoing training at the academy.
"The desire to pick a fight with others also disappeared. Overall, this art of self-defence has turned me into a better person," he added.
Another Discover Muay Thai academy trainee who reformed is Muhammad Shahmi Ismail, 22, who used to play truant and was expelled from school three times due to disciplinary issues.
He is now employed as a fitness trainer at a gymnasium in Puchong.
"I learnt to be more responsible after training for four months at the academy and it is helping me in my career. My life has transformed and I'm much more disciplined and have better time-management skills now," said Muhammad Shahmi, who was among the first batch of youths to join Discover Muay Thai academy when it first opened.
The academy was founded in 2015 as a social enterprise by Imran Harith, 30, and Khairul Azri Mohamad Halid, 32, who used to be active members of myHarapan, a non-governmental organisation.
Imran said he was inspired to set up the academy after he came across the Muay Thai camp concept in Thailand.
"I stayed in southern Thailand for months to learn Muay Thai. That was when I learnt about the Muay Thai camps where hostel facilities and training were provided to abandoned children, orphans and victims of human trafficking," he said.
Discover Muay Thai is a "spin-off" of the camp concept and to make it a reality, Imran and Khairul Azri collaborated with local Thai boxing training provider Dragon Muay Thai, which has a training facility in Jalan Alor, to use their centre to train youths taken under their wings.
"We wanted to help school dropouts, as well as youths who are poor, homeless and facing problems and devised a special training programme for them," said Imran.
Mental and spiritual health
Khairul Azri, meanwhile, said their training module does not only focus on developing the physical aspect but also mental and spiritual aspects.
"In shaping their character, we want to strike a correct balance between physical fitness and mental and spiritual fitness as well," he said.
Daily after dawn prayers, trainees are required to run at least seven kilometres.
Later, they have to attend English or religious classes before Muay Thai training under Thai coach Kru Slatan, who is a two-time World Muaythai Council champion.
At night, the trainees will assist coaches at the Dragon Muay Thai training centre to train students.
"They are paid for their services and these sessions give them early exposure to learning to become a physical trainer," Khairul Azri said, adding that after their stint, the participants are free to choose their own career path or seek the academy's help to find a job.
Notably, former Discover Muay Thai academy trainee Awangku Abdul Rahman went on to become a national athlete and even won a silver medal at the SEA Games in the Philippines last year.
The academy's fame, in the meantime, has grown and for its fifth intake earlier this month, more than 100 applications were received for eight places, according to Khairul Azri.
"We hope to get bigger premises for our academy so that we can take in more participants. But we will continue to focus on dropouts and troubled youths to give them a second chance at life so that they can become useful citizens who can contribute something to the nation," he added. – Bernama
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