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November winner: Tiffany Teo

ST Star of the Month: Juggling sport and life

She enjoys best of both worlds, fighting in One C'ship and helping special needs kids

Tiffany Teo lives a double life as a part-time behavioural therapist and a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.

Some days, she shuttles in between training at the Juggernaut Fight Club and the homes of four children and teens ranging between the ages of six and 13.

She has to switch from trading punches and grappling with sweaty bodies in the gritty environment at Juggernaut gym in Hong Kong Street, to helping kids with special needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism at their homes.

None of them are aware that the patient bespectacled 27-year-old actually packs a wallop and deft submission moves inside the cage.

Even though her stock is fast rising in the MMA scene, especially after she picked up her biggest win by beating Egyptian boxer Walaa Abbas on her One Championship debut last month to go a perfect 4-0, Teo does not want to give up her part-time job just to focus on her fighting career.

She said: "I have thought about it (giving up) before. It's two different fields altogether.

"Work itself can be really draining and tiring but coming to the gym is a way of letting out my stress. And it is difficult to make a living solely out of fighting.

"And I like the fulfilment of knowing that at the end of the day, you know that you have made a difference in people's lives."

While she may not enjoy the benefits of training full-time, she takes pride in representing athletes who have to juggle work and sports.

Teo said: "I know other professional fighters who juggle with another job outside of the gym too. But I guess it's not the norm in Singapore.

"It's good to let people know that you can pursue the sport while having a day job as well."

"The only downside to it is to have to explain to people what you are doing because it's not a 9-5pm job."

The youngest of three children, whose parents finally watched her first fight at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Nov 11, said: "My parents have given me the green light but I guess they have always wanted me to stop doing it."

In 2014, she left her first full-time job as a research coordinator at the National University of Singapore and A*Star to "focus on fighting".

And now, working part-time has given her greater flexibility in planning her schedule around the training sessions.

She was even able to take up a rare offer to be a private coach to train Bruneian princess Khaliilah Khalilatul Bolqiah last year.

Over the course of three one-month stints in Brunei, the country where coincidentally she was born, Teo brushed up on her Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) there. Prior to that, she was mainly a boxer.

Teo, who was promoted to a BJJ blue belt only on Wednesday, said: "I watched YouTube videos and my mind was only on BJJ. That's why I improved. And in the final month when I was there, I trained with the intention of competing."

With her skills sharpened, it sets the stage for Teo to make her professional MMA debut earlier this year. She said: "The challenge was to combine the two skills in MMA. Striking is as important as your ground game - when you're striking, you've got to look for openings for takedowns."

Yet she did not immediately accept the offer to fight in One Championship. Her apprehension was because she had felt that she was still raw and new to the scene. But she proved her worth when the time arrived last month.

Her coach and Juggernaut's boss Arvind Lalwani, 36, said: "Of course, fighting at One is big-time and (One chairman) Chatri (Sityodtong) saw something in her. But we've got time and I still wanted to develop her with more fights.

"It is uncommon to find female fighters like her who is so committed. If you find a good one like her, you want to develop her talent.

"Tiffany is one of the local female flag-bearers in the sport."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Juggling sport and life'. Print Edition | Subscribe