Nominee #1: Muhamad Ridhwan (boxing)

Fighting his way to the top

Singapore boxer Muhamad Ridhwan won three pro boxing titles last year, including the Universal Boxing Organisation's world super featherweight title.
Muhamad Ridhwan won three professional boxing titles last year, most notably the IBO International super featherweight title in October.
Muhamad Ridhwan won three professional boxing titles last year, most notably the IBO International super featherweight title in October.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Ridhwan's steady progress has not gone to his head as he targets more success

He had lunch with Manny Pacquiao, trained at Floyd Mayweather Jr's gym in Las Vegas, became Singapore's first professional boxing world champion, and was labelled "inspiring" by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Muhamad Ridhwan could not have asked for a better 2017.

The 30-year-old won three pro boxing titles last year, most notably the International Boxing Organization (IBO) International super featherweight title in October.

When asked for three words to describe his year, Ridhwan - one of five nominees for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year award - said: "Thrilling. Crazy. Painful."

The award, launched in 2008, is backed by F&N's 100Plus.

"It's a great honour to be nominated for this award alongside other successful athletes, and it's satisfying to know that all the sacrifice and hard work I have put in, is paying off," said Ridhwan.

Indeed, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the former national boxer - from suffering three consecutive tearful SEA Games semi-final losses to becoming arguably the most recognisable local face in the sport with a perfect record of nine wins (eight knockouts) from nine fights.

Muhamad Ridhwan won three professional boxing titles last year, most notably the IBO International super featherweight title in October.
Muhamad Ridhwan won three professional boxing titles last year, most notably the IBO International super featherweight title in October. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

He says he is "humbled" when strangers approach him and tell him they have seen him on television or read about him in newspapers.

It is a far cry from his pro debut in the Philippines in February 2016, when he hardly made any headlines following a decision victory over Filipino Melchor Roda on the undercard of Pinoy Pride 35.

If that appearance was low impact, even less impactful was the payout. He still keeps a creased, folded piece of paper in his wallet, part of which reads "Net purse: 2,165 pesos". Or S$55.67.

Instead of keeping his meagre earnings, Ridhwan gave them to the coaches who had trained him in a run-down boxing gym in Cebu, where he spent two months training before his debut.

"At that point, I felt the coaches were struggling and needed the money more than me," he said.

Local boxing great Syed Abdul Kadir, the 1974 Sportsman of the Year, says Ridhwan has enjoyed steady success in the pro ranks because of his level-headedness.

"He is always grounded and respectful, especially to his elders," Kadir, who coached Ridhwan in the national amateur set-up from 2005 to 2015, told ST. "One other thing is his work ethic. In the beginning, he did not show any real potential, but he worked harder than anyone else."

A big part of Ridhwan's rise has been the support of boxing promoters Ringstar. After signing a three-year contract with Ringstar in April last year, another two years was recently added to his deal.

Ringstar founder Scott O' Farrell said: "We've spent well over $500,000 promoting Ridhwan as a headliner boxer. That's a big push.

"On his end, Ridhwan has also delivered. He's now in the Top 50 in the world, and...  I think Ridhwan is destined to be a world champion. He's an ambassador for the sport in the country.

"Also, he's got a big heart for helping people, kids in orphanages... He's an inspiration to a lot of people, so I think he can also be a public figure after his boxing career ends."

If 2017 was a watershed year, 2018 could be even better for Ridhwan.

He is preparing for an IBO intercontinental featherweight title match with Filipino Jeson Umbal on April 20 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. The contest doubles up as a world title eliminator bout, meaning the winner will be guaranteed a shot at the vacant world title.

"Right now, I'm the 59th-ranked featherweight boxer in the world. The goal is to keep going up the rankings. The opportunity to compete for belts will come as a result of that," said Ridhwan.

"For now, I just want to keep fighting the top guys and maintain my winning streak."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Fighting his way to the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe