A fist in the air!: Local MMA fighters selected to represent SL
Recently, two seasoned MMA fighters, Malinda Amarasinghe and Ajmal Yakoob, from a local club by the name Fight Soul were selected to represent Sri Lanka at the professional league this year by Soul of Warriors, one of the largest pro MMA leagues in India.
Malinda started his martial arts career back in 2007 as a wushu fighter. He made his way to national level, winning medals from the 90 kg+ division down to the 70 kg+ division and also represented Sri Lanka in 2008 at the second Junior World Championships in Wushu. With that, he also entered the arena of boxing in parallel through MAS, becoming a medallist in this field. Thereafter, he participated in the first-ever national Muay Thai tournament back in 2018, becoming a gold medallist and winning the Fighter of the Year award.
He proudly holds an undefeated record in Full Contact Karate at the national level, becoming the national champion in 2017, 2018, and 2019 in the 70-75 kg weight class. Aside from this, he has participated in the CFC Amateur League, winning both season one and season two and the Best Fighter award. It is no surprise that he has been chosen to represent Sri Lanka, when taking his numerous achievements in the sport into consideration.
Ajmal is the Co-Founder of Fight Soul House of Champions and the Director of Natural Grappling Colombo. His dream has always been to be a star fighter with his 13 years of martial arts experience, and he is well on his way to achieving it. There is no doubt that the two of them will bring pride and honour to Sri Lanka.
Brunch had an eye-opening chat with the two of them about their careers and the world of MMA in Sri Lanka.
Following are excerpts of the interview.
How did you get into the sport?
Malinda: I was always interested in martial arts from a very young age. Personally, we had boxers in our family so it was close to my heart.
Ajmal: Fascinated by martial arts and fitness, I started practising shaolin kung fu at the age of 16 years. Shaolin kung fu gave me the direction to where I am now having taken part in fights in Dubai, Thailand, and Sri Lanka as of 2021. My star entry was when Tam Khan gave me fights where I won some. I have been living and working in Dubai and I used to train at TK MMA Fitness owned by Tam Khan, who is an influential figure in Dubai, having close contacts to Mike Tyson and Khabib Nurmagomedov and other UFC superstars.
You were recently selected to represent Sri Lanka. How did that happen and what are your thoughts on it?
Malinda: Myself and Srimal being national champions, joined Fight Soul MMA and Natural Grappling BJJ back in 2020. Yakoob and Rosharn founded the organisation back in 2019. We, thereafter, tied up with former UFC fighter Will Chope who has an impressive professional MMA record of 50-plus fights across the world. He was offered the main event in Soul of Warriors and he recommended me as a strong fighter from Sri Lanka having an undefeated record in MMA and karate.
I am glad this happened as it opens up the opportunity for more Sri Lankans to fight professionally in the future, and we hope to use our organisation to extend this to other fighters locally. This will take Sri Lanka to new heights and put the country on the map as a combat sport talent hub such as Thailand, Russia, and the US.
Ajmal: I have already represented Sri Lanka in Dubai and Thailand, but this would be the first commercially concentrated representation. We created Fight Soul House of Champions with other top national athletes of martial arts in Sri Lanka to bring authentic and legit training to the Sri Lankan community. And we believe we could do that as we have many years of training and contesting to have been given our current titles. Therefore, we want to bring professional standards of MMA here in Sri Lanka currently, as there are many self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the art.
To answer your question above, we tied up with a past UFC fighter Will Chope and worked our way into securing professional MMA fights at Soul of Warriors for Malinda and I, so we can create a gateway and path for professional fights for other upcoming Sri Lankan MMA fighters. The SOW PRO MMA fights that Malinda and I are fighting will be the pro fights that Sri Lanka would experience in six, seven years.
What is your signature strike?
Malinda: I personally love the hook punch – it is a strike that generates power and needs precision to execute. It is a knockout punch and has served me well during tournaments.
Ajmal: I could say it is my spin heel kick that I won with in my fights in Thailand in 2019, the Sri Lankan National Muay Thai Championship against a tri-force combatant in 2018, and my MMA and Muay Thai fights in Dubai.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Malinda: While there are many influencers in my combat sports life, I believe that each fighter is a legend in his/her own right – be it boxing, karate, or any other sport that contributes to mixed martial arts. I try to learn as much as possible watching fights and develop my own unique blend. In that case, I would say all fighters inspire me in different ways.
Ajmal: I am a huge fan of Bruce Lee, but I cannot label him as my only inspiration as there are others who have equally contributed and given so much to the field of martial arts that make us the fighters we are today.
What do you think about the MMA scene in Sri Lanka?
Malinda: It is definitely growing, given the global interest in MMA and the UFC/One Championship. A lot of traditional arts are moving into MMA and this also causes problems because you can’t brand everything MMA and still teach traditional moves. In Sri Lanka, I feel a certain standard should be maintained – be it competitions, fighters, or coaches – and there is more room to grow in these areas. We can’t have unprofessional conduct and sub-par standards as these can be accessed from across the world if posted on social media, etc. This can either create a positive or negative brand for Sri Lankan talent in the future. Therefore, there should be very clear guidelines and proper methods to assess coaches’ capabilities in the country.
I have always said that you can’t learn to swim by watching a YouTube video. You need to do it physically, so in the same way, if you do not have practical experience in a martial art, the question arises as to the competency of teaching the art to other students.
Ajmal: It needs more authenticity, originality, unity, and less bias with no agendas. We have much room for growth, and we do have some good fighters; that’s why through Fight Soul House of Champions, we plan to take Sri Lanka to newer heights with martial arts.
Has the pandemic affected the sport and you personally?
Malinda: Definitely. Training centres being closed, the lack of competitions, and restricted travel have all contributed to slowing down my usual routine. I feel this situation will change over time, but currently it does restrict my training regime.
Ajmal: Yes and no. Yes, like everyone and all businesses that have been affected. No because it pushes you to perform better amidst obstacles. From observing the general public, what we’ve observed is that the people who train and take up this art as a form of fitness/training have helped themselves to have a positive life transformation such as personal growth and combating mental difficulties.
What were some of the challenges you faced in your career?
Malinda: In certain instances, a lack of facilities and support did play a part in fighting internationally, but the local teams and organisations I have worked with have definitely backed me on all fronts. I am extremely grateful for the support given to me over the years in all martial arts I have excelled in.
Ajmal: To get here, I had to do it on my own. My parents did not hand me out anything except love and motivation, as I am the sole caretaker. I come from humble beginnings from Slave Island but with big dreams. I had to work a nine-to-five job and commute three hours daily to TK MMA in Dubai after work and plan meals until 2 a.m., apart from the many hours of training. But my challenges have always been worth it and I love my challenges.
What does it mean for you to be a fighter?
Malinda: This is one of the most important aspects of my life. I have a beautiful family. My wife and two children give me the strength and support I need to continue on my journey and I could not have achieved this without them.
When I fight, be it in the ring, mattress, and in the future an Octagon, I always consider it as my own space. I own it and no one will take that away from me; it drives me to fight and win, and I feel that this is my secret to success. Being a martial artist has given me the discipline and strength required to go on in life and I am thankful to be a national combat fighter.
Ajmal: Living the dream and using my abilities to bring back something to Sri Lanka. I am able to contribute to the MMA industry in Sri Lanka and pave a way for other upcoming fighters.
If you could have one dream fight with anyone, who would it be?
Malinda: Definitely Conor McGregor – he’s one of the best strikers out there and I would love to have the opportunity to face him.
What do you want to be remembered for at the end of your career?
Malinda: As a knockout artist, in several of my fights, I have knocked out my opponents. Everyone remembers Tyson for the frequency and power of his knockouts, so I would like to continue winning by knockouts and be remembered as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest knockout champions.
Ajmal: I want to be remembered for how I helped change the MMA game in Sri Lanka and bring professional MMA to Sri Lanka. I want to inspire others to follow their dreams.
What advice would you give someone who is considering a career as a pro MMA fighter?
Malinda: I feel that training, nutrition, and rest are the cornerstones of becoming a good athlete. If a MMA fighter takes this to mind, absorbs it, and lives it, then they can truly achieve greatness in this sport.
Ajmal: Work hard, be humble, and be committed. Being humble is very important as there are some people out here who just win one local fight and act like they are global champions. Martial arts is about being humble and respectful, and it will take you places. The big fish, little pond effect in the martial arts circle here in Sri Lanka needs to go.
What’s next for you? Any plans for the future?
Malinda: The plan is to train hard and pick up my first professional win at Soul of Warriors, thereafter Rosharn, myself, and the team are in the process of building the path for more professional fights in the future. I want this to be the opening for other fighters to get their chance in the international arena – this will be my greatest contribution to Sri Lanka as a dedicated martial artist.
Ajmal: We do have a lot of exciting things planned. To begin with, we want to win the Soul Of Warriors Professional Fight. All I can say is stay tuned.