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Lukewarm interest in Mixed Martial Arts in Singapore

Singapore is home to ONE Fighting Championship, which is Asia's biggest promotion for competitive Mixed Martial Arts. Yet, local interest in the sport remains lukewarm.

SINGAPORE: The sport of competitive Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been around since the 1990s, and Singapore is home to ONE Fighting Championship, which is Asia's biggest promotion for the sport. Yet, local interest in MMA remains lukewarm over the years.

It was a night of hard hits and gruelling resilience on Friday (August 1), as 18 MMA fighters slugged it out in the inaugural REBEL Fighting Championship Battle Royale tournament. Emerging victorious from the struggle were two Singaporean professional fighters - May Ooi and Syafiq 'The Slasher' Samad - to the cheers of the almost 5,000-strong audience.

But beyond the ringside, the sport has been slow in capturing the hearts and minds of the Singaporean mainstream public, despite the local presence of MMA behemoths ONE Fighting Championship (FC) and world leader Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Singapore-based ONE FC hosts two matches at the Singapore Indoor Stadium each year, while the UFC made its debut Singaporean entry in January this year at Marina Bay Sands.

Justin Leong, CEO of REBEL Fighting Championship, said: “It's quite hard to get someone to spark the interest in local fighters. It's going to take a lot of time to educate locals about the sport and get locals actually behind an individual, similar to how locals were into the Singapore team when Fandi Ahmad was there. If we have a Singaporean that can perform on a high level and on an individual basis and is marketable, and has an interesting story behind it, then it can definitely drive the audience.”

But that alone might not be enough - Singaporean fighters also agree that many fail to see the hard work behind the performances and elaborate fighter introductions.

Ms Ooi, former Olympian and professional MMA debutant, said: “It's not about all that glamour, and all that lights. It's not all that. Most of it is a lot of gruelling hard training, dieting to make your weight. It's tough on the body, it's tough on the mind, and you have to recover within 24 hours to fight.” Mr Syafiq, a professional MMA fighter and polytechnic student, said: “Many have tried, but very few make it. It's not as easy as it seems. People think it's all flashy, it's all fun.”

Each of them also has their own stories. Ms Ooi is better known as a former national Olympic swimmer who went on to study and practice medicine before finally settling into her fighting career. Syafiq's motivation to enter the martial arts world comes from a childhood of bullying, having survived having his hair set on fire as well as an attack by a gang of men armed with machetes.

For Mr Leong, it is stories of struggle that hold the key to not only growing interest in the local scene and its fighters, but revamping and propelling the sport forward on the worldwide stage. "Individuals that stand out (are the key). Boxing always had individuals - Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Bruce Lee - you need these guys. If either company can find any of these guys first - UFC, ONE FC or me, then we succeed, really. Then we become the biggest company in the world. Because that's what sells tickets, that's what makes people interested, and that's what makes you interested."

But he may already have found two such individuals in both Ms Ooi and Mr Syafiq. "Day by day, I know people are following me. My fights, what I do in terms of training. I look to fight against the best in the future, and I'm working my way up there right now,” said Mr Syafiq.

Ms Ooi, who trains other women at the Brazilian Fight Club MMA, is already well on the path of inspiring others to follow in her footsteps. "You're gonna see a generation of assassins," she said. "There's a six-year-old up there looking at me, going 'I'm going to be like her'. And her mother's going, 'You are moulding my little daughter's mind'. And she doesn't mind it."

As the fighters continue their battles on the international stage, it might just be some time before Singapore cheers its own heavy-hitting icons. 

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