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Pro-Boxing is About Money and Fame. Here’s What It Costs When You Fight for Neither

Pro-Boxing is About Money and Fame. Here’s What It Costs When You Fight for Neither

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All images by Cheryl Tang.

Freedom.

What does that mean to you? And where do you go to feel it?

A remote island in the Caribbean? Where cell reception is non-existent, thereby offering an escape from the constant barrage of work emails? A confessional in church? After you trade penance for absolution? Perhaps a walk in the park is enough for you to feel free.

Freedom can be found in all of these places. Or none of them. Everyone defines the term differently and there is no one, or even correct answer. But no matter where you’d expect someone to find it, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t think of a 20 by 20 foot ring, surrounded on each side by 4 ropes designed to keep its occupants locked in continuous clashes of fists and body.  

Unless you’re 31-year-old Muhamad Ridhwan, or, “The Chosen Wan”.

To this Singaporean professional boxer, somewhere between getting hit repeatedly in the face and torso; somewhere in the middle of the predatory dance only fighters do; somewhere deep in the eyes of the sweaty, muscled man before himself whose sole intention is to send his brain crashing into the inside of his skull, Ridhwan finds his slice of freedom.

Yeah, I didn’t get it either.

 

“Seriously? Freedom?” I ask incredulously, trying to fathom a universe in which getting punched over and over again could be, in any way, deemed liberating.

“Yup,” comes his gentle reply. The pro boxer has just finished his afternoon training session and as soon as he catches his breath, he continues:

“If I prepare well, the ring is my playground and I can display my skills. Winning is great but there’ve been times where I won but didn’t feel satisfied. And there’ve been times I lost but  walked out of the ring, feeling like I won. It’s not about winning. It’s about being able to express myself, and fighting/winning the way I want to, even if it makes the bout more difficult.”

But what about the violence? What about the aggression? Do you fight angry? Is it necessary in order to punch harder? How does it feel after delivering that final knockout blow?

It’s the first time I’d ever had the chance to talk to a fighter, and I was thrilled at the thought of finding out what goes through boxers’ heads when they beat the living shit out of each other. The questions tumble from my mouth faster than I can form them.

Ridhwan doesn’t share my enthusiasm. Maybe he’s too exhausted from training. Or maybe the novelty of his job has long since worn thin. Either way, his reply is once again calm and composed.

Patiently, he tells me it’s highly dependent on the boxer in question and what they find works for them. Some must fight angry. Others are “silent killers”, expressionless as they throw every possible permutation of jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. 

This is him. He has to remain calm, focused on how he’s going to react to his opponent in order to win.

That said, Ridhwan concedes that he does have to be a little inhumane to be able to dish out this kind of punishment. The “sweet spot”, where meticulously measured control meets unshackled rage, is what he aims for. And judging from the vast array of pages cut from newspapers and magazines taped to the wall behind him, it’s clear he knows how to find it.

Earlier, when I first set foot in Legends Fight Sport—the boxing gym Ridhwan co-founded with Fairuz Mohamed in 2014—that colourful collage of clippings stood out from the monochrome of black heavy bags, dumbbells, and rubber mats. 

There, I stood facing a wall that’s a highlight reel of his many accomplishments. On a page yellowed with age, a younger Ridhwan stands victorious in the middle of a ring, his face a picture of unbridled joy, arms raised in triumph while a green title belt hugs his waist tightly. In another, I learn that he was nominated for The Straits Times’ athlete of the year. Elsewhere, he poses with closed fists next to Scott O’Farrell, his ex-manager and founder/CEO of Ringstar Asia (Ridhwan’s old promotional company), Scott standing between him and Namibian Paulus Ambunda. In Scott’s hands: the IBO (International Boxing Organisation) World Super Bantam title belt.

For the uninitiated, there are 4 major sanctioning bodies in the realm of pro-boxing. Namely, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and finally, the World Boxing Council (WBC). 

Think of it this way: the big 4 make up division one—the highest echelons of the sport and, of course, the most prestigious. Holding a belt from any one of them means you’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s a statement in itself. Ali held 2. Tyson simultaneously held 3. Pacquaio has held all 4 at one point or other in his career.

The IBO is the biggest and most “legit” outside of this big 4; part of division two and a stepping stone to division one. Which only means that when that photo of Ridhwan was taken in 2018, he was well on his way to his dream of fighting the biggest names in the sport. Not bad for someone who only turned pro a couple of years ago.

 

In February 2016, the former national boxer who competed in 4 SEA games and won 3 bronze medals turned professional.

He shares that turning pro had always been the plan (since it would help raise his gym’s profile), and after failing to clinch that elusive gold medal on 4 different occasions, saw it as a sign to finally make the switch.

In doing so, he parted ways with his very first coach; the man a 17-year-old Ridhwan found online and went to to learn everything he now knows about boxing: ex-Olympian (1972) and the first Singaporean to win a medal for boxing in the Commonwealth games, Syed Kadir.

Back then, after completing his O’ levels and waiting for his course in mechatronics engineering at Temasek Polytechnic to start, Ridhwan worked as a waiter at Sakura restaurant in Simpang Bedok to earn extra pocket money. The restaurant was where he spent most of his time, and after bonding with his much older chef colleagues, grew increasingly interested in the culinary arts.

“I was working from 4 PM to 4 AM almost every day when I was 17. That was all I did and I was always there before my shift started. By 12pm, in fact. I wasn’t even paid for those extra hours! I just went early because I wanted to learn how to make the sauce or whatever,” he tells me.

Eventually, school started. Unsurprisingly, like any teenager, it turned out that Ridhwan wasn’t all that interested in what he was learning. Engineering was simply a course everyone seemed to be doing. In his own words, it was “safe”. Needless to say, the man who has always valued freedom dropped out after a month.

This meant that even more of Ridhwan’s time was spent in Simpang Bedok—a place known for its many TVs that usually screen soccer matches in the evenings. After midnight, however, it was a different story. Classic boxing matches courtesy of ESPN were broadcast instead.

“Boxing was all the abangs would talk about. I was always the youngest so they’d tell me how Singapore used to be really good at the sport. As far as I know, none of them ever boxed but they really hyped it up. They were so passionate about it!  Naturally, I got sucked in and the one name that kept popping up was coach Kadir’s. I didn’t even know who he was then.” 

It was enough. The fire was kindled. In addition to looking up the man his colleagues perpetually talked about, and eventually signing up for a month’s trial in his boxing school, Ridhwan also made a trip to Mustafa Centre to buy DVDs of Rocky I, II, III, and IV, binge-watching all of them at one go. 

But as is so often the case, real life looks nothing like Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. Instead of slugging it out and going toe to toe with Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang, Ridhwan found himself constantly working on boxing fundamentals. Training sessions were centred around running, skipping, and mastering basic punches. In his own words, it was “boring”.

Tired of being so far removed from the action, Ridhwan made the decision to quit as soon as he finished the month’s worth of training sessions that were already paid for. As luck would have it, the day he walked in to announce his premature retirement was the day his coach approached him and asked if he’d like to participate in an upcoming fight. 

Just like that, a boxer was born.

In an unexpected moment of pensiveness, Ridhwan tells me that he honestly cannot imagine how his life would’ve turned out if his coach hadn’t said those words to him. He says he might’ve become a chef since he was already collecting recipes and experimenting in the kitchen, smiling as he looks back on the beginning of his boxing journey.

 

On his face during his first amateur match though, was the furthest thing from a smile—there were only tears. Despite training only once or twice a week due to work commitments, Ridhwan felt super confident of a win. All the way up till he ate his first punch. As soon as it landed, his eyes started to water. Likewise, he wasn’t ready for the subsequent flurry of hits. Badly unnerved at how badly his boy was struggling, coach Kadir quickly threw in the towel.

It was all over. He had lost. And then came the waterworks. Incredibly disappointed, Ridhwan made straight for the washroom to let it all out. And it’s here, in the resulting blend of dejection and abject misery, that we find what makes the man with the soothing voice and piercing gaze truly special. The shame of falling short of his own expectations, he could get over. What was more upsetting was letting his coach down.  

“Losing was especially tough to deal with because I kept seeing my coach try to revive the boxing scene in Singapore. And he relied on a few others and me to do it. He said that we were one of the best batches he’s had in a few years and I guess he saw something in us that we couldn’t see in ourselves. It was only right for us to try our best for him. For the gym. For our own pride. For the love of the sport.”

After licking his wounds, Ridhwan, filled with a renewed sense of purpose, returned to the gym a couple of days later and began training hard not just himself but for everyone else with him on his boxing journey—something he’s followed through on all these years.

And well, what can I say. The stars aligned and everything fell into place. The then-Singapore Sports Council (SSC) sat up and took notice of how well coach Kadir’s boys were doing during the many self-funded trips—both for training camps and competitions—overseas. The wins piled up. The medals came in every shade, swinging like pendulums from their necks. These boys had something to prove; eventually, the SSC approached coach Kadir with a proposal to form Team Singapore Boxing. They agreed. 

Things got even better for Ridhwan after he retired from amateur boxing. 11 professional wins on the trot (8 by way of knockout) proved just how good the pugilist was. Everything was great and he seemed to be destined to reach his dreams of going pound for pound with the best boxers the world had to offer, while also being the best boxer the republic has ever seen.

But you know what they say: the higher you go, the further the fall. Through no fault of his own, it all came crashing back down to earth.

 

One fateful night in September 2018, Ridhwan lost a fight to the aforementioned Paulus Ambunda for the vacant IBO title.

Ridhwan himself readily admits that he deserved to lose. 

“Fair and square, I lost. No excuses,” are his exact words. But then again, the odds were never really in his favour.

Before we go any further, it’s time for another lesson for the uninitiated.

Pro boxing 101: the “boxing” in pro boxing, or what happens in the ring, is far less important than who the professionals trading blows actually are. Amateur boxing is a sport where the focus is on the two fighters in the ring putting their skills to the test. Pro boxing, on the other hand, is an event. Organised and marketed by promoters. With one aim: profit. 

In other words, what pro boxing is well and truly centred around, is money (ahem, Logan Paul v KSI). More specifically, the cash from TV broadcast deals, sponsorships, ticket sales, etc—all of which come rolling in thanks to the massive hype surrounding a huge fight. And how do you create hype and ensure a large audience? By giving people what they want to see: drama, or a good storyline.

There are a few ways promotions can do this. One involves plenty of schmoozing/“building relationships” with other promotions (domestic and foreign), with the aim of cutting a ton of deals. Say you have a stable of 10 fighters, and I have a stable of 10 fighters. So let’s hold an event, pit them against one another, have them talk smack to and about each other in the media, and tadah! Rudimentary hype. Market the event properly and a sold-out show will be yours in no time. Well, depending on where you stage your event, but more on that later.

Another way of generating excitement is by making the bout a title fight. As mentioned, other than the big 4 sanctioning bodies, there are plenty of other smaller ones, each with a number of their own title belts. Sometimes, these titles happen to be vacant, and so promotions hone in on them and the weight class the belts are in. Then, they look at their stable of fighters to see who can possibly fight at that weight. With a few connections here, and a little shuffling of fighters there, you suddenly have a potential title fight. 

Think about it: would you rather pay to watch two relatively unknown fighters duke it out? Or does someone billed as a 6-title holder sound more enticing to watch? Yeah, exactly. 

It’s about marketing, manoeuvring fighters around, and selling. And of course, all of this costs a staggering amount of money. If you want a grand show, you need a grand venue, i.e Suntec City, the Indoor Stadium, or Marina Bay Sands—all of which don’t come cheap. When it comes to building relationships, the plane tickets for sending fighters overseas to attend costly training camps require cash. Coaches, cornermen, sparring partners, and fighters themselves, all need to get paid.

Oh, and if it’s a title fight, promotions have to negotiate with, and pay for the commission (whose title belt it is) to fly down and sanction the fight. (The WBC only flies business class so … you do the math.)

Because everything’s entirely profit driven, loyalty is sometimes hard to come by. But again, more on that later. For now, back to what happened to Ridhwan.

 

First and foremost, Ridhwan is a featherweight, the weight class the title fight with Paulus was originally supposed to be in. A couple of days later, however, Scott then said that the fight would be held at the super bantamweight class, and asked his fighter if he still wanted to do it. Ridhwan replied that he’d talk to his coach, Rey Caitom Jr, a former Philippine amateur boxing champion Ridhwan knew from his time spent in the Philippines preparing for his first SEA Games.  

Rey said no. He told Ridhwan it just wasn’t worth killing himself trying to make weight. Scott told him to think about it anyway. 

But here’s the thing: money talks. A few weeks later, Scott came back offering more money. This time, Rey, on behalf of his student and himself, said they’d think about it. Ridhwan never saw that money.

“The moment Rey said that, I knew it was a big mistake. But I respected my coach back then so I said okay, even though it would be extremely tough. We had to drop the weight early. The training was intense, made worse by the fact that I almost didn’t eat or drink for long periods of time in order to cut. I don’t think we got the right sparring partners as well.”

Faced with the option of choosing a sparring partner that fought in a style similar to Paulus and one who was his own friend, Rey unsurprisingly chose the latter.

Out of his depth, slightly panicked, and thoroughly unprepared, Ridhwan lost.

“Losing that fight felt horrible. I couldn’t be at my 100%, and to make matters worse, it was in front of a mainstream crowd. A lot of them had never watched boxing before and the first fight they went to see ended up with me losing. I felt like it was a bad representation of Singaporean boxing and I felt like I let a lot of people down.”

And yet, once again, it wasn’t the loss that saddened him the most. It was the fallout.

 

Rey ghosted him after that defeat, momentarily signing with Ringstar as a fighter before returning to the Philippines.

Leaning back in his chair, Ridhwan shrugs and tells me he isn’t bitter about what happened. He’s a businessman too, and knows it was nothing personal. He’s just disappointed.

Shortly after that fight (which costed them dearly), Ringstar ran into cash flow issues. The company had grown exceptionally quickly, but that was only in terms of reach. And reach isn’t much good if it’s not able to be monetised. It didn’t help that Scott had blown through the initial investment money equally fast either. 

The company that not only owed Ridhwan $15,000 (half of his fight purse from the fight with Paulus), but also to which he was contractually bound to, was in the red.

It got to the point where a number of staff worked for 3 months without pay. One even had to postpone his wedding. Yet Scott kept promising them he would speak to investors to secure another round of funding. The promoter who “wings it a lot” didn’t get it.

The 12th of April, 2019, was the day Scott resigned. He sold his 20% shares in the company, wrote a press release, and is now based in Africa, where his wife is from. To date, Ridhwan is still owed that 15 grand. He shares that he has taken legal action, but even if Ridhwan wins, he still loses.

Even if Ringstar fails to pay the money order issued by the bailiff, there are no assets to seize apart from a couple of old boxing gloves in the abandoned office. It’s an events company after all. Furthermore, Ridhwan would still have his own legal fees to pay. It just wouldn’t be worth it.

As such, he’s all but given up on ever seeing that sum of money again, treating it as a costly lesson in misplaced trust. He’s moved on. 

Today, Ridhwan is still without a promotional company, something he says makes it extremely difficult to book matches. But while the boxer may be down, he’s definitely not out. 

“I want to keep fighting because I don’t want my ranking to get worse. So I approached other local promotions but while they said they don’t mind having me, they don’t have any money. I have to find my own way; my own fights. I don’t get paid to fight but I still have to be able to pay my coach, for my trips up to train with him, my opponent’s fight purse, his flight ticket, his accommodation, his food, his cornermen. I use what I earn from the gym and sometimes I dip into my savings. It’s always a struggle.”

These days, things are beginning to look up. His current mentor is Alexey Volodin, a Russian coach based in Kuala Lumpur. Judging from how convincingly Ridhwan won his fights under new guidance, it’s clear the pair work well together. The climb to the top is back on.  

For now at least, Ridhwan’s mind is clear. The boxer is focused and is diligently preparing for his next match. In fact, I can’t help feeling like he’s itching to get back to work. Before I go, Ridhwan beams at me before thanking me for taking the time to listen to his story. He reaches out a palm tightly wrapped in tape. 

We shake hands.  

Honestly though? I should’ve raised his.

 

Ridhwan is, in every sense of the word, a fighter. During the course of his career, he’s taken countless shots to the head, the body, and sometimes, even the heart. Pain—physical, mental, and emotional—is a familiar friend. The struggle, is an opponent he fights every single day.

Yet he’s never backed down, always coming back both wiser and stronger than ever before.

In fact, when I ask Ridhwan to describe himself in a word, the boxer doesn’t pick “tough”. Or “strong”. He goes for “relentless”.

And I suppose that’s unsurprising coming from anyone who does what he loves and loves what he does. However, what sets this man apart is his maturity in realising that boxing is not just about himself. 

He might be called selfish for wanting to win the way he wants to win. Yes, he might have his own dreams of being the best by beating the best. Yes, it might be just two men squaring off in the middle of the ring. But whenever Ridhwan throws a punch, he knows that its impact is felt by more than just the person it lands on.

Whether for his clients who share their personal struggles with him as they jab the heavy bag to within an inch of its inanimate life; whether for the guys in prison who look up to him and see him as motivation to be better; whether for his country, wanting to show the world that a Singaporean boxer can succeed on the grandest of stages, he has always boxed for everyone in his corner. And then some. 

Unlike Tyson, Ali, or Mayweather—as far as I can tell—Ridhwan has very little in the way of ego.

In that respect, he’s like Pacquiao, the affable champ everyone can’t help but adore.

Pacquiao, however, had a nation behind him, cheering him on and supporting him no matter what. 

Ridhwan? Not so much. His cornermen are just not there. 

But the man is relentless. It doesn’t phase him much. Even if no one knows his name, his face, or his story, Ridhwan will still continue fighting for what he believes in. 

Because in that ring, somewhere between getting hit repeatedly in the face and torso; somewhere in the middle of the predatory dance only fighters do; somewhere deep in the eyes of the sweaty, muscled man before himself whose sole intention is to send his brain crashing into the inside of his skull, Ridhwan is free.  

 

If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it? Or just let it slip? Tell us: community@ricemedia.co

 

Author

Justin Vanderstraaten Staff writer