Muhamad Ridhwan: Pain is no big deal in boxer's brave rise

by Rohit Brijnath, first published in The Straits Times

Focused and gritty, Muhamad Ridhwan is not scared of anything except looking foolish in the ring.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Few people get more out of life than athletes, a driven tribe who personify a set of virtues that we could all learn from. This week, The Sunday Times explores courage with boxing champion Muhamad Ridhwan in the fifth of a six-part weekly series brought to you by DBS Bank

Muhamad Ridhwan's left arm flicks out like the tongue of an inquiring snake and he exhales with a hiss. He's a concentrated blur as he works out at Vanda Boxing Club in Robinson Road, where a curtain of skipping ropes hangs on one wall and heavy bags keep swaying as if carrying the memory of a recent punch. In an air-conditioned room, you can hear the violence.

Singapore's premier professional boxer, a lean, flat-nosed, 55kg no-fat construction of muscle, cartilage, bone and sinew, has washed his mouthguard, wrapped his knuckles in gauze, pulled on a headguard, wears a patina of sweat and is now producing some ring music with his sparring partner.

Feet squeak and leather hits flesh and I can hear his soft-spoken words from earlier in the afternoon: "It can be quite addictive to hit someone hard."

Fisticuffs are as old as mankind and you can tell that through the vocabulary of sport. All those lines you hear in other sport - take it on the chin; blow by blow; down for the count; go down swinging - they come from this one. In the confines of the ring, imprisoned by ropes, courage is non-negotiable because you will get hit and it is going to hurt.

So what it's like?

A smile lurks on Ridhwan's face.

"Not as bad as my mother's slap."

Writers and fans toss the word "courage" around. We hail Rafael Nadal for not flinching when matchpoint down and laud the bravery required for a 2m putt on any Sunday evening. But boxing owns the word "courage" and wears it without fuss.

Fighters may have never read Joyce Carol Oates, but they will understand perfectly what she meant when she wrote: "Baseball, football, basketball - these quintessentially American pastimes are recognisably sports because they involve play: they are games. One plays football, one doesn't play boxing."

Ridhwan knows pain is included in his job description and he'll tell you, plainly, as if reciting from a shopping catalogue, that hard punches can leave you dizzy and the next day you feel aches in the shoulders and legs and find bruises on the forehead and, sometimes, like after his fight with Nataneal Sebastian last year, you sport black eyes for two weeks.

Achievements

2018

  • Wins International Boxing Organisation Inter-Continental Featherweight title

2017

  • Wins International Boxing Organisation International Super Featherweight title

2017

  • Wins Universal Boxing Organisation World Super Featherweight title

2017

  • Wins World Boxing Association Asia Super Featherweight title

 

What does his mother say?

"Try not to get hit as much," he grins.

But, really, no fear of pain?

No. "I'm not fearful of getting injured or of punches hurting."

Fear of getting hurt?

No. "Because I have accepted it's part of the job. And I am going to hurt somebody, so it's only fair."

Fear of anything?

Yes.

"Of looking foolish inside the ring. Lots of eyes are watching you. You are going against someone trained to knock you out. That can be quite scary because it's not behind closed doors, people can see it, talk about it, take a photo, take videos, it can go viral. If you get knocked down and knocked out, you're probably going to appear in someone's highlight video, and that's not fun."

Courage for Ridhwan - who has won all his 10 pro bouts, owns a world title and fights for the International Boxing Organisation World Super Bantamweight title in September - isn't just the willingness to endure pain, but something deeper, something learnt over the journeys of life. Ask about courage and he pauses like a contemplative diver on a high board and then leaps into his answer.

Courage is something not natural for me. It's something I have to build in my mind every day. It takes practice to be brave.

MUHAMAD RIDHWAN

"For me, courage is having the guts to do what many say is impossible. Different people are afraid of different things. It depends on what is stopping them from growing. Courage is about taking the step to get through that stage of being uncomfortable and then grow to be the person they are meant to be."

He's not finished.

"(Courage) is something not natural for me. It's something I have to build in my mind every day. It takes practice to be brave."

Courage is picking a hard dream like professional boxing in a city with little history in it and with not much expertise in it. Courage is doing every hard thing required for that dream, like finding jobs that allow you time to box.

So Ridhwan has worked as a waiter and a cook, a cleaner and a pest controller. He's delivered washing machines and unloaded goods at a warehouse. He's travelled to Cebu in the Philippines to train, paid his way there, lived in a room of six boxers, hand-washed his clothes, ate too much canned tuna and what he discovered is something more profound than mere boxing.

"Patience," he says when I ask what all this teaches him. "Patience is much stronger than courage. Anybody can be courageous at a point of time. But patience is something that lasts. Patience to stay the course, to believe in the dream, that all this will eventually lead somewhere."

He is somewhere.

He's the kid that washed cars who is now the International Boxing Organisation Inter-Continental Featherweight champion. It's not the heftiest title, but it's something. The boy who bought DVDs of Rocky I, II, III from Mustafa Centre now works at the two gyms - and a food stall - he co-owns and will travel to people's houses to coach them on left hooks if it helps him earn a living.

Even as there is something heroic to his humility, he also understands what he has made of himself: "I'm the first to be at this level, first to fight 12-round fights, first one to go for a world title."

There is a poetry to some fighters and poets inside some fighters and Ridhwan is a bit of the latter and it's fun to just lean back and listen to him speak on his craft.

"It's beautiful," he says of boxing and insists it is more creative and complicated than just two people throwing punches. More like a scientific dance of survival. He talks about how boxers use their feet to get close or move out of reach, the tricks they master of slipping punches and weaving, the science required not merely in throwing a hard punch, but landing it.

He's 30 now, not quite old, though boxing and fairy-tale endings rarely meet in the ring. I ask what his end goal is and he says, "I just love to fight", but then adds: "Maybe, if I can create a path for people after me. If someone can be motivated to be a better individual because he sees the way I work towards my goal." By bravely clearing a pathway for others, he is living more.

Late in the afternoon, his sparring done, I ask him a final question on camera. What small piece of advice would he give average Singaporeans? Perhaps he'll say work hard. Give 100 per cent. Dream big. All those pleasant, stock answers. Instead, this man who uses his fists to extinguish dreams offers us an answer full of hope.

"Be kind," says the boxer.

After an afternoon of ferocity, he still finds the gentlest of parting shots.

 

Living more is a celebration of life itself. Here’s to the dreamers, the competitors and the champions - the ones who through character, heart and will have unlocked their potential and seized life’s opportunities. DBS – Live more, Bank less.