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Soldiering on to dream of an MMA world title

Singaporean Amir Khan, 20, has always faced obstacles. But despite serving full-time NS, he perseveres with a punishing schedule in order to keep alive his ambition of becoming the Republic's first MMA world champion.
Singaporean Amir Khan, 20, has always faced obstacles. But despite serving full-time NS, he perseveres with a punishing schedule in order to keep alive his ambition of becoming the Republic's first MMA world champion.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Life was never going to be straightforward for Amir Khan.

For starters, by pure coincidence, he shares the same name as the former British world champion boxer, renowned for his quick wit and swift knockouts.

The 20-year-old Singaporean is a self-described introvert, but - like the boxer - he has shown a similar talent in mixed martial arts (MMA) for flooring his opponents too.

DEFYING CONVENTION

My life has never followed the norm, and I hope it will lead me to do something special in MMA.

AMIR KHAN, who once tried his hand at taekwondo in primary school and found success as a junior golfer.

Before he even entered a ring though, he was taking a swing of a different kind.

At age 12, he was a scratch golfer in the United States, where he was sent to high school by his golf instructor father.

Amazingly, he mastered the sport that demands steady hands and Zen-like concentration despite having Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterised by involuntary twitches and tics.

But, when on the verge of breaking into the elite US junior circuit, Amir defied the odds again.

Deciding that golf "just didn't feel right", the former taekwondo practitioner switched instead to MMA, winning his first four amateur bouts in Louisiana.

He honed his skills there for nearly four years before returning to Singapore, aspiring to make himself a household name closer to home.

It would be easy to say the rest is history, but Amir is the first to admit he has yet to make it.

Nonetheless, he boasts a 3-1 win-loss record in One Championship - the best of any Singaporean fighter in Asia's premier MMA promotion.

In his home debut last November, two devastating elbows from Amir knocked out Pakistan's Waqar Umar less than two minutes into the fight.

On Nov 13, he takes on Filipino Jimmy Yabo, who holds a 4-1 record, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

American former Olympic wrestler Heath Sims, who coaches Amir at the Evolve Gym, believes his young charge is "one to two years" away from challenging for One's featherweight title. He said: "His stand-up game continues to improve, and he's becoming good in submissions and takedowns.

"The kid can mix it up."

Boy, does he work for it.

Since enlisting for full-time national service in May, Amir's daily routine is both demanding and mind-boggling.

He wakes up at 6am each day to run around the Mountbatten estate where he lives in a five-room flat with his parents and older brother.

Two hours later, he reports for duty at the Singapore Civil Defence Force 1st Division camp in Queensway.

Officers allow him time off in the afternoon to train at Evolve at Far East Square, in exchange for weekend guard duty.

He later shuttles back and forth again between camp and gym for an evening workout of grappling, kicking and punching.

It is a small sacrifice for a big goal.

"I want to be Singapore's first MMA world champion," Amir said with a determined stare.

"I'm tired," he admits, "but not discouraged."

It helps that proud dad Tajudeen Ansari doubles as his driver, chef and No. 1 fan, standing cage-side at almost every training session.

"He's Batman, I'm the butler," quipped the 55-year-old, who is of Thai-Indian parentage.

"Whatever support he needs, he can count on me."

Amir, who plans to turn professional after serving full-time NS, sets aside Friday nights and Sundays as "time with the girlfriend".

Still, MMA remains his first love - he cannot go to sleep without watching at least one training video or clip from an iconic fight.

Tourette's, he says, does not affect him in the ring. During his interview, however, his eyes twitched and head jerked several times.

"I refuse to take any medication; my opponents can't read my eyes, so it's an advantage of sorts," the youngster said with a wry smile.

Few can turn an affliction into an asset but Amir, after all, is used to defining his own path.

He said: "I feel Singaporean kids are sometimes afraid to do what they like; parents are telling them they must be engineers or doctors or lawyers.

"My life has never followed the norm, and I hope it will lead me to do something special in MMA."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'Soldiering on to dream of an MMA world title'. Print Edition | Subscribe