Mixed martial arts: Ooi back where it began in KL

Former national swimmer May Ooi likens MMA to speed chess, in that there are many elements in it with split-second decisions to make.
Former national swimmer May Ooi likens MMA to speed chess, in that there are many elements in it with split-second decisions to make.PHOTO: SHIN MIN

MMA fighter in One Championship debut 28 years after earning SEA Games swim bronzes

Almost 30 years have passed since May Ooi made her SEA Games debut in Kuala Lumpur in 1989 as a 13-year-old CHIJ Katong Convent student, winning two swimming bronze medals.

Tomorrow, the Malaysian capital - coincidentally where the biennial Games are taking place - will again be the stage where Ooi, now 41, makes another sporting debut.

No medals to win this time. Instead, the swimmer-turned-mixed martial arts (MMA) exponent will be fighting in her maiden One Championship bout at the Quest for Greatness event.

She faces home favourite strawweight Ann Osman at the Stadium Negara. Said Ooi, the 1989 Sportsgirl of the Year: "It's like history repeating itself in an odd way.

"I remembered nobody expected me to win a medal, I just went in hoping not to finish last.

"There's also no pressure on me now too. I'm relaxed but there'll be a pretty big adrenaline rush for me. Regardless of whether there's a fight or not, I'll still be training for MMA as a hobby."

She eventually won four golds, eight silvers and six bronze medals over five SEA Games, and also competed at the 1992 Olympics. Even though she retired from swimming in 1998, Ooi - now a trained medical doctor - feels she is fitter than her younger self.

Citing Dara Torres, the American who won the 50m freestyle silver at her fifth Olympics in 2008 when she was 41, she quipped: "I'm not the only freak around.

"I feel faster, I'm explosive, I feel stronger. Compared to the past, everything from training to nutrition nowadays is refined to keep you (in top shape)."

She likes MMA because of how dynamic it is. She said: "I like being stimulated in all areas. Swimming can be a bit monotonous. The blue line is always 50m and it never changes.

"MMA is like speed chess. There are many elements in it and split-second decisions you have to make. For instance, in a transition, do I keep standing, or go for a takedown to bring the game to the ground?"

Coming from a background where she was used to trimming milli-seconds off her swim laps, she will need to leverage on her speed inside the cage too.

Ooi added: "There's no room for mistakes in swimming. But in fighting, it's more forgiving because even if you make a mistake, you can still come back."

There is another reason why tomorrow's bout will be a special and an emotional one for Ooi.

Her former fiance Silvio Romero da Silva died at age 38 in a motorbike accident in Bali last December. Eight years ago, the Brazilian coach had introduced her to martial arts through capoeira, a Brazilian discipline which strikes amid music and dance.

"Every punch, kick and takedown I make reminds me of him. I'll remember who taught me all these things and its journey," said Ooi, who teaches capoeira to about 300 children at the Brazilian Cultural Centre at Turf Club Road.

"He had been talking about this opponent and it was the fight he had wanted from day one.

"I don't get emotional about it, but the fight will be dedicated to him."

After the fight, Ooi will stay back in KL to cheer on the Singapore women's rugby sevens team, whom she trained during their off-season, at the SEA Games .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Ooi back where it began in KL'. Print Edition | Subscribe