MOHD Syarul Azman ‘Mighty Mike’ Mahen Abdullah stands alone. The months of gruelling training and diet have led to this moment. Striding out onto the lit stage, he immediately turns sideways and flexes, his massive biceps swelling like inner tubes. Thousands respond with applause, giving him a sense of accomplishment.
He smiles widely as he looks down at his body, then back up, making eye contact with judges. They stare at his dark, glistening oiled skin, inspecting the size, symmetry and definition of his muscles. He feels his veins bulge and spider-web across his chest. As the routine ends, he spreads his arms open and looks up.
And history is made for the second time round on October 2017. In blistering cold Ulanbaatar, Malaysia’s national anthem is played. It’s a foreign tune to the vast majority but a familiar one that brings tears to Mahen’s eyes as he’s crowned champion once again at the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship where more than 400 bodybuilders from 134 countries have come to compete. Clutching the Jalur Gemilang draped on his shoulders, he wills himself not to cry.
This was not a lifelong dream for Mahen, a 45-year-old office administrator from Kuala Lumpur. His path started some 19 years ago. “I guess you can say my success was built on broken dreams,” says Mahen wryly.
Mahen is an unlikely bodybuilding champion. He puts his positive, steely mindset down to a youth spent playing football. “I love football,” he declares adding: “I’ve always been passionate about the game.” A consummate sportsman back in school, he confides that he tried his hand in every sport. “I did everything! From marathons to sepak takraw to football!”
But football remained his first love. “When I was in Form 1, I started playing football seriously and got picked to represent the Under-15. Eventually I was selected for the KL team.” His football career was on the rise, and became a way out of an ordinary life for him and family. “We weren’t rich,” reveals Mahen.
His father passed away when he was 10 years old, and his mother single-handedly raised her four children on her hospital cook’s salary. But Mahen proved to be more than a handful for the struggling mother. “I was extremely naughty,” he admits with a rueful grin.
At her wits end, his mother placed him in an orphanage for a few years. “I lived at a home for orphans and underprivileged children run by the Pure Life Society,” he says. The discipline tempered him down. “They were tough and it was good for me.”
He regales me with stories of his life at the orphanage where he learnt to be independent — learning to do his own laundry, and having to clean drains, toilets and dormitories whenever he was punished. “They rotan-ed me when I was naughty!” he recalls with a grin.
Eventually he came back home after a stint at the orphanage. “Did you change?” I ask curiously. “I changed a lot!” he replies with a hearty laugh, but he quickly turns serious, adding softly: “I was glad to be home with my family.” Life wasn’t easy but with a budding football career on the way, Mahen soldiered on.
“I worked as a petrol pump attendant when I was in Form Four,” he adds, telling me that he spent his time juggling between school, football and working part-time to supplement the family income. “Money was always tight. Some days, I’d survive on one roti canai a day and pipe water,” he says candidly. Still, he proved to be exceptionally talented in football, and a promising career beckoned when he was selected for the Kuala Lumpur team.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Then injury struck. And Mahen was devastated. “I tore my ACL,” he says with a sigh. ACL or the anterior cruciate ligament is one of the key ligaments that help stabilise the knee joint, connecting the thighbone to the shinbone. For footballers, navigating their way back from a leg break, a cruciate tear or some such other nightmare can prove to be the death knell to their careers.
“I wasn’t ready to hang up my boots,” he admits. His debilitating injury landed Mahen in the City Council’s public gym (“It was my first time in a gym!”), to help strengthen his quads and hamstrings so he could play football again. The determined Liverpool fan returned to play football, but the same injury struck for the second time. And just like that, his football career was over.
“It was a dark phase for me,” he recalls, adding that it was a friend who encouraged him to pump iron, “...so we could at least look macho!” In the days before his body developed an identity of its own, Mahen had no idea what lurked inside him.
He worked out rigorously on his own and found his body slowly bulking up. “When I first started bodybuilding, people would laugh at me. I was so thin back then,” he recalls, adding he had not much knowledge about the sport until he was discovered while serving part-time in the Police Volunteer Force.
“It was a childhood ambition of mine to become a policeman!” he exclaims with a grin, adding that he joined the force after leaving school. While working out at the gym in the KL police headquarters, he met former world bodybuilding champions Othman Yahya and Sazali Samad who, along with other colleagues, urged him to give bodybuilding a go. “’You look good,’ they said, ‘...but you need conditioning and proper training.’”
The discipline, he soon discovered, was all-encompassing. “I’m a typical Indian man with a hankering for rice and curry. They put me on a diet comprising plain rice, a smidgen of sambal belacan, salad and grilled chicken. It was hard to swallow that!”
Soon, he could feel his body awakening, a machine whirring to life. He knew some¬thing serious was happening so he continued with the rigorous diet regimen. As he took up bodybuilding seriously, Mahen recalls bringing his own meals for wedding dinners, losing friends who couldn’t understand his new obsession, spending endless hours at the gym and mulling seriously over nutri-tion. “It can be a lonely pursuit,” he admits, adding: “Even my mother was aghast at the discipline I subjected myself to.”
He couldn’t believe how much he changed. In time, the one-time KL football player discovered the art of the sport, seeing his body as a dynamic organism that could be sculpted with the help of training, diet and health supplements.
Eventually, his determination and discipline would bring many successes: “I eventually won the National Bodybuilding Championship five times, and Champ of the Champs, twice!’ He was then advised to go professional and focus on international competitions.
He has not looked back since. Marking his world meet debut with a silver in 2010, the father of three claimed three successive bronze medals in 2012. In 2015, Mahen won the Asian title for the first time in Uzbekistan before taking another silver at the world meet. In 2016, he took the gold medal for the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship and repeated his winning streak the following year in Mongolia. 2017 also saw a hattrick of wins which included his third Asian Championships title in Seoul and a win at the Hangzhou Invitational in China.
Still, bodybuilding remains a cult sport and not one that’s recognised by most sporting bodies, especially in Malaysia. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that bodybuilders aren’t athletes and that they’re not even participating in a sport. “Weight-training and diet plans found in bodybuilding is the foundation of many professional sports,” asserts Mahen.
The truth of the matter however is that the true competition takes places behind the scenes during the off-season. Body¬builders put their minds and bodies to the test, lifting, eating and sculpting, while the stage is to showcase the result of their hard work. Measuring caloric intake and dedi¬cating time to shape their bodies can be a daunting, rigorous and often thankless process. “It’s a combination of science and mathematics,” he says.
Furthermore it’s not an easy sport to obtain funding. Mahen points out that the prohibitive cost of most of his preparations ends up coming from his own pocket, which includes his dietary needs, training and even travelling for competitions, although he does get to use the facilities at the National Sports Council and is provided medical aid by the National Sports Institute.
He also trains himself, adding candidly that he can’t afford a coach. “You don’t get the kind of widespread support that’s available for other more popular sports like football or badminton,” he says. “It’s easy to overlook a sport that’s not featured in major sports competitions such as the SEA games and the Olympics.”
The obscurity of his sport was made obvious at the National Sports Gala held in March recently where he was one of the nominees for the National Sportsman of the Year award.
His name was inadvertently missed out during the Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s speech while there was no life-sized replica of him unlike other nominees for the same award displayed outside the banquet hall at Hilton KL. The snub does sting, he admits, albeit reluctantly but he’s determined to plough on. “I’ve come this far,” he remarks, shrugging his shoulders.
He has certainly come far. Now he is a walking muscle chart, as if lifted from the wall of a biology class. When he flexes, he expands like a rippled blowfish. His shoul¬ders are broad knots of deltoids and trapeziuses. His back is a relief map of impenetrable terrain.
But underneath all that is a sense of discipline, sacrifice and stability he credits to his mother. “I dedicated my first World Championship gold medal to her. She’s my everything,” he says quietly before concluding with a smile: “I’ve worked hard for this and will continue to do so for my next competition in October. I will keep the flag flying high for as long as I can.”