TUM TUM. Tum tum. The sound is low but persistent, akin to the pounding of a war drum. Or the steady beating of the human heart. It permeates the cavernous arena, where in the darkened stands, thousands of neon blue glow sticks gleam ominously like light sabres, swishing every which way in anticipation of a kill.
In the centre of the arena, two men prowl restlessly inside a ring that’s bathed in blinding spotlights. Their muscled upper body bare, they remind me of gladiators ready to do battle. The leaner of the two, his hair in cornrow braids, catches my attention. It’s the Jungle Cat or Muhammad Aiman Raziz Affindi, one of Malaysia’s fastest rising young martial arts talents and one of the standout fighters from the famous ONE Championship (Asia’s largest sports media property) stable.
He’s here at the Baoshan Arena in Shanghai to attempt the unexpected — to claim the scalp of former Shanghai Open BJJ Champion and undefeated “Rock Man” Chen Lei from China at the ONE: Beyond the Horizon showcase.
“C’mon Aiman!” The urgency of the call startles me, piercing my reverie. But it’s only my own voice inside my head egging the Bali-based Malaysian to spoil the party for the partisan home crowd. A sudden roar signals the beginning of the battle and before I know it, I too am swept up in the euphoria of fight night.
“My mother... I kept seeing her in my mind. Every time he tried to take me down, I kept telling myself, just keep going. I have to win this for her. She has sacrificed so much,” begins Aiman, his voice cracking as tears threaten to escape. He blinks. And a single tear slides down his cheek. Wiping it away hastily, the 23-year-old from Negeri Sembilan smiles sheepishly before continuing with his story.
Adds Aiman: “When things get tough, you push your mind to think about things that can motivate you. And in that fight, I could only think of my mum. I remember thinking that if I let go and not fight, it’s like I’m letting go of my mum. So I told myself to just keep fighting.”
We’re in the media room or ‘back stage’ of the arena, cocooned from all the action that’s taking place just beyond the four walls. Despite that, the buzz from the stands is still palpable, occasionally pierced by the loud bellows of the ring announcer announcing the outcome of a fight. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Because for Aiman, he has got what he came for.
Just moments earlier, the Jungle Cat, the Malaysian’s fight moniker, had been leaping with joy inside the ring, surrounded by his equally jubilant Bali MMA teammates-cum-corner men, celebrating his surprise victory over Chen. It’s the biggest win of his career in ONE Championship so far and extends his winning streak to three bouts, and his record to 5-2.
“That’s how I planned it. I wanted it to end by the second round,” confides this former MIMMA Featherweight Champion, his American drawl growing thicker in his elation. The second round had seen him raise the tempo after a slow start and make use of his strikes to good effect, connecting with a solid short right hand, before landing a spinning back-fist and a spectacular flying knee.
It was obvious that his confidence grew from then on and when Chen attempted a takedown, the Jungle Cat expertly avoided him, blithely sidestepping the ‘Rock Man’ before grabbing his opponent’s neck. With the stealth of a tiger, he’d leapt onto Chen’s back, locked up a body triangle, before subjecting the Chinese fighter to a rear-naked choke with a palm to palm grip. With Aiman’s hold getting deeper and deeper, Chen struggled to survive the choke. Exactly on the 4:35 mark in the second round, the home favourite had no choice but to tap out.
Eyes lighting up, Aiman recalls: “By the second round, I’d warmed up sufficiently and was able to just go in and do my thing. I could read him by then. I knew his plan was to take me down. So I changed my angle. By the time I got on his back, I had to make a split second decision — whether to take the back or just move away and keep fighting standing up. I opted to take the back and it was worth it because I got the finish.”
Conspiratorially, he confides that he’d expected his opponent to be a tougher proposition. “Funnily enough, he wasn’t. I didn’t feel any danger when he took me down that one time. He was strong but not tough. I felt I was a step ahead every single time. He took me down once and props to him. When I got that choke, I thought maybe he was going to hold on. But once I started squeezing, I knew that he wasn’t going to last.”
However, Aiman is swift to add that there’s much that he needs to work on despite his victory. Modestly, the Pilah-born fighter concedes: “That kind of performance against tougher guys might not yield the same result. I was a little bit hesitant. I know I still have a lot of things to work on. I need to get stronger, faster and improve my skills. It’s not going to get any easier after this.”
As Aiman bows his head in contemplation, I couldn’t resist asking him about his selection of ‘walkout’ song, the song a fighter chooses to accompany him when he makes that long walk to the ring/cage. Was it Malique, I muse aloud, recognising the Malaysian rapper’s distinctive voice.
“Yes, it was Malique’s Mantera Beradu! “Kuhunuskan keris musuh ada pistol, Tradisi kekalkan adaptasi harus betul.”” replies Aiman, beaming, as he attempts the rap. “It means like...my enemy has a better weapon and I only have my keris but I still want to fight and I’ll fight to the end. The lyrics are inspiring and I wanted to walk out to that. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Malay rap music.”
Growing up, Aiman spent the bulk of his formative years being on the move because of his father’s job. Dad was an accountant and his work took him everywhere. By the time he (Aiman) was 15, the family relocated back to his birth state and home was Seremban.
As a youngster, Aiman loved sports. But he never really excelled at any particular one. “I enjoyed football and rugby. And I was also a runner at school. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed all these games, I was never really good at them.”
That was before he discovered boxing at the age of 15. This was to be the turning point in his life. Recalls Aiman: “It felt good to finally KNOW that there’s something that I could be good at. I remember the state’s team came to my school and did a talk. They invited those who were interested to come to their gym and try the sport out. And I did — for a couple of months.”
He turned out to be a natural and went on to represent his district. “It dawned on me then that I’d finally found something that I could be really good at,” confides Aiman. And for someone who’d never won anything on the field at school, it was like an epiphany of sorts for the youngster.
Although he eventually represented his home state and was also in the running to compete in SUKMA, Aiman grew restless. And it was during this period that he discovered MMA. “I was 17 and I happened to catch an MMA fight on YouTube. I was intrigued so I decided to study some of the techniques which I’d seen and try them out myself.” It was a friend who alerted him to the Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA), the first largest All-Malaysian mixed martial arts amateur tournament in the country.
Aiman, the eldest of four siblings, did try out for it but wasn’t successful. ‘I didn’t get in but I was put in the reserves,” he remembers. And as fate would have it, he got his chance when a fighter who was due for his fight succumbed to injuries. “It was a week before the fight so I was called to step in. I ended up performing really well and won. I was 18 then and the youngest in that bracket. That’s how doors finally opened for me because more people began to know about me. By then I could train at any gym I wanted.”
JUNGLE CAT BITES
ON PERFORMING AND PUTTING ON A GOOD SHOW:
“I always want to leave my audience with a memorable fight. Win or lose. I don’t want to have those fights where I win but no one really remembers it. With this kind of mindset, you don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. I’ve been fighting MMA for six years. And with every fight, it feels like my first fight. The fire is still there. If I get tired, I don’t feel nervous or down. There were times when I actually put pressure on myself to win; when I got tired, I freaked out. That’s how you lose to yourself — not to your opponent.”
ON NOT WANTING TO FIGHT ALL THE TIME:
“I’m not the sort of fighter that needs to fight all the time. It’s a lot of pressure you know. I like living! Not a lot of fighters say that. Some of my best friends fight five times a year. I could never do that. Cutting weight and fighting five times a year... that’s tough! Fighting is my life but I feel that if you don’t have to fight, don’t fight. But if you need to, then fight!
ON HAVING A ‘PLAN B’:
“I know a fighter’s life is a short one, but I always tell people that I don’t have a fall back plan. This is my life. There’s no ‘Plan B’. My mum used to tell me when I was younger that I needed to have a Plan B. But I don’t. All the great people never had a ‘Plan B’ I guess. They just go for it. Even though they fail, they continue to go for it.”
ON HIS OTHER TALENTS:
“Before fighting came into my life, I was always a good artist but not enough to make a career of it la. But I do like drawing portraits. I taught myself. My dad is a good artist too.”
ON A FIGHTER’S LIFE:
“It’s not all glamorous. On the weekend, you have fun and you go to the beach. It’s actually a dream life for me but at the same time, it’s hard. Your body gets hurt and you ache. But I never get tired of training. In a fight sometimes I get nervous and I ask myself why do I do this, but not once has it crossed my mind to quit. I tried going to college and I’ve worked before... it can be a good life. But it’s not what I want. As a child I was a restless soul. I felt like I was different from everybody else. The conventional life wasn’t for me. I guess this is what I’m born to do.”
ON HIS HERO:
“My hero is my fellow ONE fighter EV Ting (also a Malaysian). He was the one that convinced me that I could do this. I’d been training with him since I was 19 when I was still fighting amateur and attending college at the same time. I was going back and forth from Seremban to KL to train.
In between classes, I used to take the KTM and go to KL to train and then take the KTM back and go to class. I’ve heard him say in some interviews that he doesn’t have a Plan B. And one day it clicked in my head. I also want to go with the flow.”
ON HIS ULTIMATE GOAL?
“I want to be a force of good. I want to be able to earn enough so I can help the less fortunate. I’m not good at it now because I don’t have the means. During the recent earthquake in Bali, there was a lot of people who needed help. I wished I could have done more. I feel like there’s a hole in my heart that I need to fill. I need to achieve that sense of peace. Maybe this peace can be attained if I can do more good.”
ON HIS FAVOURITE SAYING:
“Be a warrior in a garden. Don’t be a gardener in a war.”