I first got to know of Ridhwan Ahmad in 2015 when I found myself face-to-face with a life-size poster of him – gloves on, throwing a jab – at a bus stop near my old place.
Singapore was hosting the bi-annual Southeast Asian Games, and in an effort to drum-up support for the local athletes, the Singapore Sports Council thought to plaster their faces around the communities in which they resided.
Although not attending or having watched a single SEA Games sporting event that year, I acknowledge the partial success of that campaign, achieving its goal of bringing Ridhwan’s name to my attention.
My interview with him took place at Legends Fight Sport, a boxing gym he had started with a former school mate. Legends had recently shifted to its current location from where it opened on Valentine’s day in 2014, occupying a significantly bigger space than before.
Like any good boxing gym, you will find large industrial fans hanging from the side of the walls, a collection of lockers with nicknames scribbled across it, and the mandatory Muhammad Ali mural. In a building that looked considerably aged, the gym is clean, reflecting the sterile setting of most things in the country.
I shook the hand of Legend’s general manager Khairizal Azman, known around the gym as Rizal, whom I had interviewed the day before. He reminded me – as he had previously during our interview – that Ridhwan had a quiet disposition. His advice was to be patient, and if I kept going at him slowly, eventually Ridhwan would open up.
True to his boxing analogy, I found myself sitting at the building’s staircase landing with Ridhwan, having stretched a scheduled half-hour interview to two.
Two years removed from that SEA Games in 2015 – where he won his third Bronze medal in amateur boxing – I find promotions billing him as Singapore’s golden boy of boxing and with good reason.
Muhamad “the Chosen Wan” Ridhwan, currently has a professional record of 5-0-0. The 30-year-old had fought all his five professional bouts within the span of a year, having just turned pro in early 2016. Another super featherweight fight in the week following the interview has already been booked.
“Usually it depends on the fight. Because [in] the previous fights I have never been hurt, so I rest about two days, three days and I’m back at it.”
Ridhwan might be leading the physically demanding life of a professional athlete now but his youth was spent differently.
Due to a lack of natural resources, Singapore’s rise to becoming a first world nation is mostly accredited to its focus on academic results. One of the cost resulting from this, was a lack of prospect in pursuing a career in sports.
Not having sporting opportunities was fine with Ridhwan as having been diagnosed with a heart mummer very early on in his life meant having to sit out most of his physical education classes in school. Ridhwan settled for music and took up playing the Angklong, a traditional ethnic Malay musical instrument. In secondary school, he moved on from the Angklong to becoming a librarian.
A month after enrolling into a local polytechnic, Ridhwan dropped out of school not wanting to continue pursuing a diploma in Mechatronics. He tried to venture into cooking with dreams of opening his own café but reruns of old boxing matches at the restaurant introduced him to the “Sweet Science” and the bored teenager resolved to take up the sport as a hobby.
Ridhwan joined Kadir’s Boxing School, which was owned and operated by the famed “Godfather of Singapore Boxing”, Coach Kadir. For the first three months, Ridhwan’s training was a stale routine of running, skipping and jabbing. The boxing gym operated more on an open-gym system.
Seniors or old-timers – who happen to be training there at the same time – would provide inputs if they had noticed him. Mostly, he went unnoticed and was left to his own devices.
The monotony of the training proved too much for Ridhwan, but on the day he made up his mind to give up boxing, he was asked if he had wanted to compete in an amateur boxing match. He leapt at the opportunity even though up till then his only exposure so far to boxing had been running, skipping and jabbing.
Training for the upcoming fight moved on to include a bit of sparring and bag work but still not progressing to anything serious that he can remember of. Seventeen and thinking himself invincible, he headed into his first amateur bout confident and without a doubt he was going to win.
Initially supposing to fight an opponent of similar experience, a last minute change had him facing off with someone he had no business being in the ring with.
He remembers the pain from the first punch he received, the two standing eight counts, the towel being thrown-in by his corner, followed by leaving the ring crying. He was also convinced the people in the crowd were laughing at him as he walked away.
“That was the most important fight and most important loss I think in my boxing career,” he told me. “If I had won, I might have thought it was easy.”
I LOVE FIGHTING, BUT MY MAIN GOAL IS MORE ABOUT KEEPING THE SPORT ALIVE.
Upset with the organisers for the mismatch and afraid that Ridhwan would quit boxing, Coach Kadir went up to him shortly after the bout was over. “He said, ‘don’t blame yourself, it was my decision to stop the fight. This is not your mistake. I treat you like my son, you will fight another day’” Ridhwan recalled.
Coach Kadir although not in Ridhwan’s corner during the fight, had instructed his coaches to throw in the towel from ringside. The two of them did not have much contact with each other before this which left Ridhwan partly confounded but strangely comforted by his words. The former because he had hardly known Coach Kadir other than the odd hello. The latter – he confessed – because he never had a father figure growing up.
Although having just gone through and failed a trial by fire, Ridhwan wanted to carry on boxing. He went back to the gym two days after the fight and continued training, realizing that his training only seemed laid-back because he had not taken it seriously. Kadir noticed the change in the seventeen-year-old and started to pay more attention in overseeing his training.
For a long while, Singapore did not have an amateur boxing team which led to Kadir’s boxing team became the de-facto national team. Not being recognised by the SSC meant that Coach Kadir had to send his fighters to take part in overseas competition out of his own pocket.
His sacrifice paid-off as Ridhwan credits his international exposure and experience to his time with Kadir.
When Coach Kadir was made the president of the Singapore Amateur Boxing Association(SABA), a national team was established proper for the 2009 SEA Games. Winning a string of national competitions prior allowed for Ridhwan a smooth transition to the Singapore squad. He lost in the first round of that games, only to win a bronze medal each in the subsequent three SEA Games which followed.
Transitioning to become a professional boxer in 2016 required a bit of getting used to. He had to acclimatize to the significant increase in power of the punches he took, a lesson he learnt from getting beaten up during sparring in the Philippines while training for his first professional fight there.
“The key difference is the punches, the power of the punches and the strength of the boxers,” speaking of the incident.
He finds he has to promote himself often, needing to build hype; something he did not have to do when he was an amateur. And while fighting for his country meant he had to win, fighting as a professional now meant that he had to do it entertainingly.
The lack of professional boxers as sparring partners also adds to the problem. Unable to spar with professionals – simply because there are not many – results in him having to look overseas.
Unfortunately, Legends is still a small operation and it requires him to be present most of the time. He would ultimately prefer to fly sparring partners in but is still far away from that goal cost-wise.
Currently preparing for his sixth professional bout, he trains twice a day, going for conditioning in the morning and working on the technical aspect of the fight in the afternoon.
He watches his diet for the weight cut by restricting himself mostly to sweet potatoes, boiled eggs and vegetables. If he is on track to making weight, he treats himself to some chicken. Not having the luxury of hiring a nutritionist, his dieting mantra is just to eat less.
His last opponent was Indonesian Jason Butar Butar, a veteran with 24 wins and 20 losses.
The number of losses stood out to me when I was doing research for the interview and I subsequently found that Ridhwan’s opponents in his five professional fights had a combined record of 39-68-4.
Ridhwan went on to defeat Butar by knockout in the fifth round and sets up a perfect scenario for his next bout at Singapore FC against Waldo Sabu for the WBA Asia Super Featherweight Championship on the 8 of April.
FULL DETAILS: SINGAPORE FC 5 ‘COMBAT REDEFINED’
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that he was fighting bums to pad his record, but he quickly dispels that notion. He talks me through the opponent selection process and tells me that the event promoter will usually present to him about five names of which he will always choose the best offered.
More often than not, the chosen fighters will only take the fight if it takes place in their home country or if they are offered more money. One-by one they drop out for different reasons and in the end, he is left with only one or two willing fighters to choose from.
He believes that nobody will hold the view that he is padding his record once he wins a regional title, which was the main goal he had set for himself to achieve when he turned pro in 2016. Once that happens, the awarding body should have a say in deciding who he defends the belt against and it will become harder to suggest that he chooses easy fights.
This lack of opposition highlights the state the local boxing scene is in. Singapore, being only 50km long and 27km wide, creates its own set of issues for local gyms. The six million odd population with little interest in the sport not only leaves the boxing community small, but also hampers the quality and level of competition.
Close proximity to one another, causes the competition between gyms to become cut-throat. Some gyms do not get their events sanctions by SABA while other do not allow their fighters to take part in tournaments organized by Legends, even though Legends had sent their fighters to participate in theirs. Others just partake in the act of bad mouthing.
His passion becomes more noticeable – appearing visibly more animated – describing how ridiculous the growth of the sport is being impeded by such petty problems.
Restricting fighters from participating in events makes it harder for SABA to identify those with potential for grooming and there is also the fear that these fighters might inherit such mentality from their coaches and perpetuate it when they take over.
“All the gyms should come together. You want Singapore to be better or only your gym to be better,” he questioned his absent peers.
Ridhwan also acknowledges there are good fighters from other gyms, not being approached by SABA. These fighters have given up everything but there seems to be no proper system in place to pick-out and develop them. The idea of approaching SABA has crossed his mind but he does not want his actions to appear as a political move within the association.
Believing no new generation of fighters are being developed and with the fear that there will be no one to take over from the current one, Ridhwan and his business partner Fairuz, has taken it on themselves to prevent that.
The plans is to mimic the business model of overseas gyms, helping boys from broken homes by nurturing them in the craft from a very young age and investing in those who show potential. The idea is expensive and still in its infancy but it could possibly force the competition to up their game.
“If we really want it, we can,” he says talking about the boxing community as a collective. “We have the knowledge and contacts for it to be done.”
Juggling being a business owner, a coach and a professional boxer, he keeps his social circle small but his heart big. Playing big brother to his fight team at Legends, he makes it a point to follow their group chat to keep himself updated. Being informed means he know how to keep them focused. It also means he knows their story and that makes their wins and loses even more meaningful for him.
Thinking of friends from his amateur boxing days, he hopes that one day Legends will become big enough so that they can come work with him. The idea is to grow the sport by keeping people from leaving it. A small part probably also due to sentimentality.
Watching him thaw away uncharacteristically and speaking candidly in the two hours, I see how exhausted he must really be. Mentally and physically fatigued, he recognizes it too, the toll brought upon by the different hats he wears.
I ask him if he will ever reach a breaking point and quit boxing altogether. For now, it does not look likely.
“I love fighting. I think the real challenge is to make it last. But my main goal is more about keeping the sport alive.”