ONE Championship ‘warrior’ Muhammad Aiman aka Jungle Cat is ready to pounce against Kun Khmer specialist Rin Saroth at ONE: Visions of Victory fight night
The pounding of the rain against the zinc roof of the modest but vibrant Bali MMA gym in the surf utopia of Canggu, Bali is merciless. The wind no longer whispers but hisses ominously, as a silver streak zips across the sombre sky.
“The moniker ‘Jungle Cat’ came from my old coach because he says that’s how I fight. I guess I prowl and jump around a lot,” begins former Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA) Featherweight champion, Muhammad Aiman a.k.a. Jungle Cat, raising his voice as he battles to be heard above the growls of the thunder.
One of the country’s fastest rising young martial arts talents and one of the standout fighters from the famous ONE Championship stable (Asia’s largest sports media property), the Negri Sembilan lad, synonymous for his wild flowing locks, has been honing his craft out of Bali for the last two years.
But he’s looking forward to returning to home soil next week for his clash against Cambodia’s Rin Saroth for the ONE: Visions of Victory showcase to be held at the Axiata Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur on March 9. His opponent, the 24-year-old Saroth is a Kun Khmer specialist with over 130 Kun Khmer bouts to his name, of which 110 were wins.
But for now, cradling his glass of fruit smoothie in the modest cafe located at the entrance of the Bali MMA gym, the 23-year-old is pretty contented to take it easy and allow his mouth to do the talking.
Fresh from a demo session in the gym, his lithe and muscular body now modestly covered by a dark gym vest, he shares that, just like a cat, he prefers to take his time prowling around his opponent before moving in for the kill. “I like to break my opponent slowly,” confides Aiman, his hitherto earnest face breaking into a sheepish smile. “I try to control the fight on the feet for as long as I can because that’s where I’m comfortable. My strength is my striking.”
His last fight, he regales enthusiastically, was last year in November at the Singapore Indoor Stadium against China’s Yang Fei for the ONE: Immortal Pursuit showcase. He won by a unanimous decision. “Again, with that fight, I made sure I exercised patience and didn’t rush anything. I learnt my lesson after my previous loss against Danny Kingad at the ONE: Kings of Destiny showcase in the Philippines earlier in April.”
Towards the end of that particular contest, Aiman found himself resorting to a defensive game as he tried to stave off punches, elbows and knees to the head. Suffice to say, that’s definitely NOT in his game plan come March 9 — especially NOT in front of an adoring home crowd.
FIGHT NIGHT NERVES
Nothing beats the feeling of emerging out of the ‘tunnel’ and into the roar of the crowd as you make the long walk to the cage, the sound of pumping music accompanying your every step, shares Aiman, his eyes shining, when I prod him to ‘take me’ to a typical ‘fight night’.
But then he chuckles as if something funny had just crossed his mind. Noting my look of confusion, he swiftly shares: “Actually to be honest, every single time I start to make my way out for a fight, I always have these ‘voices’ in my head. It’d go something like, ‘why do I do this? Why am I fighting again?’ It happens EVERY single time. But, once ‘my song’ comes on and I hear the roar of the crowd, all those voices are silenced. I get in the zone and I KNOW why I’m there!”
Like most fighters, Aiman too has his rousing ‘fight song’; the song that’s blared out as he makes the ‘walk’ to the cage. “When I’m fighting in Malaysia, I’ll use Diddy-Dirty Money’s Coming Home !” How apt!
Once he reaches the cage, Aiman will have his ‘corner men’ to calm his nerves and help give him that extra ‘push’. The group might comprise his trainer, manager and/or a fellow fighter and teammate. Smiling, he shares: “I like having Gianni Subba (another talented Bali-based Malaysian and ONE Championship fighter who will also be fighting on March 9) in my corner. People like him help to keep me motivated and to just stay in the zone.”
What kind of opponent does he fear most? “Someone who I know is nice!” replies Aiman, his slight American twang growing more discernible. Smiling, he adds: “It’s not easy to like. want to hit someone who’s nice, right? But that’s just before you get into the cage la. Once we’re inside, we know what we need to do.”
The words ‘giving up’ don’t feature in the Jungle Cat’s dictionary. “It has been drummed into my head that every single position is a fight, there’s no rest and you don’t ever give up. You just keep going. This is what I take with me every time. Whenever I feel nervous or edgy, I just repeat this mantra in my head.”
The Seremban native has called Bali home for the last two years, a decision he made in order to realise his dream of being a world champion one day. “I can’t play around anymore if I want to do this,” he says simply, adding: “When I go home, I don’t train that much. When I was still in Malaysia, I did have a couple of gyms that I frequented but definitely they were nowhere near this Bali MMA set-up. This gym is one of the top gyms in Asia and what I love most is the feeling of being like one big family here.”
A typical day for Aiman begins early. He’d be up by 5.30am and if it’s not raining, he’ll head to the beach for some surfing. “Then I’ll return to the gym and have my breakfast before helping out with classes. My own training only starts about midday. I train every day except Sunday.” What does he do on his day off? “I surf and sleep. And surf again,” replies Aiman, chuckling heartily.
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, recalls Aiman. 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’s trajectory. 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. Aiman went on to represent his district and excelled. “It dawned on me then that I’d finally found something that I could be really good at,” he confides. And for someone who had 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. It intrigued me so I decided to study some of the techniques which I’d seen and try them out myself,” recalls Aiman. 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.
Excited, 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.”
Were his parents happy with his chosen career path? A mischievous chuckle ensues before he replies: “Well, if they were unhappy, they certainly didn’t tell me! That said, dad did hint that I should go to college and get a ‘normal’ job. And mum? She suggested I find a job with Immigration where a friend worked!”
After his MIMMA triumph, Aiman knew that this was the path that he wanted to travel. Not that he was uninterested in studying but as he puts it: “I was ok at school but not particularly academic. That said, I was really good at English because I watched a lot of movies. Drawing was also something I was good at; I guess I took after my dad.”
After a string of amateur bouts, which culminated in him winning the MIMMA Featherweight Championship, the youngster turned professional in April 2016. It wasn’t long before he finally stepped onto the global stage with his debut in ONE Championship.
These days, his mum Haliza is probably relieved that her son didn’t follow her advice to work with Immigration! As his biggest supporter and manager, she helps navigate his path, ensuring that he doesn’t stray too far from it. Chuckling, Aiman says: “Mum is one determined woman. She’s really good at pushing for sponsorships. Do you know she went to see KJ (Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister for Youth and Sports) and talked to him about getting some support? I think I need to pay her more!”
Go to www.onefc.com for details.
1.If you can be an animal, what would you be?
A raven. I don’t know why. Raven is not a good bird kan? Well, I like it!
2.Three things you can’t do without?
Surfing, training and my mum.
Food. I love desserts. I love fried chicken. I just thank God that I have high metabolism.
Raven (DC Comics’ fictional super hero). I like super heroes that can fly. I also like her because she has short hair. I like women with short hair!
5.Who inspires you?
My team - Team No Friends. They’re my gang here!
6.What other sport do you wish you could play?
Skateboarding. I can do it but I’m not very good at it.
7.Other passions besides martial arts?
Surfing and drawing portraits. I draw portraits when the mood hits, mostly at night or when I’m feeling really tired. It’s very therapeutic.