Monday January 14, 2013
Melvin Yeoh goes off the beaten track to reach out to teens
By ALLAN KOAY
Melvin Yeoh has gone off the beaten track to reach out to teens in need of guidance.
IT was like any other schoolday, but teacher Melvin Yeoh knew trouble was brewing. He had been told that someone was looking for him. A student whom he had punished had brought his big brother to the school and was looking for revenge.
Yeoh duly stepped out to meet the man, all prepared for any violent eventuality. But when the man saw that it was Yeoh, he turned to his younger brother and slapped him.
“Don’t you know who that is?” the man shouted at his sibling. “He was my sifu (master)!”
Yeoh, 32, recalls the incident with a laugh. It has been many years, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. For a decade now, he has been training troubled teenagers in mixed martial arts (MMA), teaching them discipline and getting them off the streets and out of trouble. The story of his life is very much like a Hollywood movie. In fact, like Kevin James’ character in Here Comes The Boom, he is also a schoolteacher by day and an MMA fighter by night. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Right about 7pm every day in Taman Mount Austin, Johor Baru, at a certain row of shops, you can hear the sounds of punching bags being rightfully walloped and the familiar metal clang of gym equipment serving their purpose.
When we met Yeoh, he had just come straight from the school, and was still in his teacher’s attire. Once upstairs in his gym, Ultimate MMA Academy, Yeoh dons a pair of white shorts and gets to work immediately, powering through a set of endurance exercises. ONE Fighting Championship is dangling the proverbial carrot – a “Malaysian National Champion” title at ONE FC: Return of Warriors – and Yeoh has to be ready to fight for it on Feb 2 at Stadium Putra in Kuala Lumpur.
It will be the biggest fight of his life. Yeoh will square off against Raymond “Rocket” Tiew, in front of an audience of thousands, to proceed to the next level of the national championship.
Yeoh’s coach is Kimberly Lee Tan, a Filipino fighter based in Johor Baru. Both men are pioneers of MMA in Malaysia. They were knee-deep in the sport at a time when the rest of the country could not even differentiate MMA from a certain medical association. Yeoh learned taekwon-do when he was only 14, and muay thai when he was older. Since 2002, he has been teaching and training in MMA, and has a professional MMA record of six wins and one loss.
The gym is busy this evening, as it is every evening, with teenagers and adults working out, and going a few rounds with the punching bags. The gym is of modest size, a few floors above some eateries, so with the windows wide open, the people in the gym have to endure the sweet smell of food while burning calories.
There is an octagonal cage in the middle of the gym, which Yeoh and the kids enter to start their boxing and grappling lessons. Yeoh instructs with no mercy, much like a drill seargent. Yet the kids are having fun, sometimes laughing while executing their hooks and uppercuts.
“Keep your chin down!” Yeoh shouts at one of them. “What are you, Robocop? Tuck in that chin, come on!”
Later, he tells me: “I don’t mince words when I deal with the kids. I tick them off when they do something wrong. But they understand me and know what I’m trying to do for them. I always tell them to work hard and success will follow.”
Not long ago, Yeoh was in the restroom of a department store, when he felt a knife against his back. He soon realised he was being robbed by a teenager. He took out his wallet and other belongings but when he saw a chance, he disarmed the boy and used an MMA move on the boy’s arm.
But instead of fighting back or trying to run away, the boy asked in surprise: “How did you do that?”
Yeoh then told the boy to visit his gym if he wanted to learn how. When the boy turned up at the gym, he was impressed and told Yeoh it was exactly what he had been wanting to do with his life.
And today, that teenager, Zeus Lim, is one of the brightest prospects in Malaysian MMA, having chalked up an impressive fight record at various tournaments.
“Now he’s a very good boy, he doesn’t even use swear words anymore,” says Yeoh. “After training for only three months, he took on some big fights. He’s really fearless. I didn’t want to put him in fights yet, but he kept saying he wanted to do it.”
Lim remembers trying to rob Yeoh, and calls it a “shameful” incident.
“I had no job then,” says the polite 18-year-old. “The way he got rid of my knife was really fast, like in the movies.”
He says when Yeoh is teaching in the gym, he can be strict. “But when he’s having fun, he’s like one of the kids,” Lim laughs. “I love to fight; I used to have a bad temper. He has taught me how to control myself and not to hurt anyone. I’ve changed a lot. Now, I only fight as a sport.”
Yeoh knows troubled teenagers. He was one himself. Growing up in Perlis, he and his twin brother would get into all sorts of trouble.
“I got into fights a lot,” says Yeoh, the son of an accountant and a seamstress. “Take a look at my hands and legs – they’re full of scars.”
He shows me a scar near his left temple, where he was hit with a screwdriver. While he has gone straight, studying hard and earning a scholarship at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, then graduating with a degree in sports science, his twin brother has gone missing.
“I tried to work in other jobs, but I felt directionless,” says Yeoh. “When I worked in a nine-to-five job, I felt that my life had no meaning. So I figured helping teenagers is something I like, perhaps because back when I was young, no one helped me. I had to learn everything the hard way. You see, me and my brother, there was no one to help us when we were young. He ended up on the wrong path in life. I was lucky, because I have a good memory and I could remember all my lessons in school, so I did better in my studies.”
During his third year at university, Yeoh took up some jobs to support himself. He worked in a shopping mall and taught at a tuition centre. One day, a man tried to rob the tuition centre, but Yeoh beat him up and chased him away.
“The Form Two students I was teaching saw what I did and asked me to teach them some of the moves,” he says. “I invited them to my house and taught them some self-defence moves and a bit of martial arts.”
After graduation, he rented a house and lived there with seven cats, while continuing to teach MMA to students. At 22, he became a schoolteacher, teaching physical education mostly.
“After that, more and more people wanted to train with me,” says Yeoh. “So I used my savings to open a gym. I needed a place to train too, and most gym memberships were too expensive for me.”
Times were tough for him, and they would get tougher. He met the love of his life, a fellow schoolteacher, and proposed to her in 2006.
“The first thing I asked her was, ‘Are you willing to live in the gym with me?’ ” he says with a laugh. “She said yes, and convinced her family that I could be trusted to do something with my life.”
When their first child was born prematurely, they had to spend quite a sum and Yeoh ended up in debt for a long while.
“There were many instances where I doubted myself and wondered if I had made the wrong choice,” he says. “There were times when I couldn’t pay the rent. Thankfully, the landlord gave me some leeway. Sometimes my wife and I had to give tuition classes in the gym. Some parents wondered why my ‘tuition centre’ had punching bags. It was hilarious.”
In 2006, a few well-to-do gym members offered to help Yeoh upgrade his gym. Together with some of his own money, Yeoh opened a bigger and better equipped gym in Taman Mount Austin. In 2009, he and his wife had a second child; by then, they were more stable financially.
Yeoh reckons, over the years, he has trained about 500 young people in MMA. He keeps a record of every one of them, noting down the problems that each teenager faced. “I’m like a doctor in a hospital,” he laughs.
He has since sent the kids for international and local tournaments, and they have returned with medals.
With MMA gyms sprouting up all over the country, Yeoh decided to organise fight events; the different gyms could send their fighters and Yeoh’s students could get some fight experience, too.
The events started out small. Called Fight Night, these events have metamorphosised into big, bi-monthly affairs in Johor Baru called Ultimate Beatdown, drawing crowds of hundreds.
Jack Low of KL-based Raw Think Tank, helps to organise these events. Low, who calls Yeoh the most ethical person he knows, says: “Yeoh educated me on almost all that I know about the sport of MMA, and he helped to connect me to tonnes of people that I know today. He aims to educate kids beyond the school syllabus, and teach them about life. He has trained muay thai champion Halsteinn Ng and MMA prospect, Zeus Lim.”
Yeoh believes not everyone can be saved, but if he could change the lives of 50 kids out of every 500, he thinks that is good enough.
“My brother and I loved to fight a lot, because we wanted attention,” he says. “It’s the same with the kids I train. I understand their way of thinking now. When you’re a teenager, and you can’t do much but you want attention and people to care about you, you get into trouble just so people will take notice.
“In school, when I see a student who is always causing trouble, I know that in his heart, he’s lonely. The first thing I’d do is memorise his name, and then I would always call out his name during class. It would let him know that the teacher does take notice of him.”
The Star is the official print partner for ONE FC: Return of Warriors. You can visit Melvin Yeoh’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/melvinyeohmma, and Ultimate MMA Academy’s blog at ultimategym.blogspot.com/.