Competitive sports are both a metaphor for and actualisation of the human capacity for transcendence. But the high stakes receive a further, more dizzying elevation when bodies are explicitly pitted against each other in the win-lose finality of combat. As we celebrate the legacy of the human body this month, we tip our hats to these three fighters and Evolve MMA athletes who have pledged their bodies to the demands of their calling, and experienced the kind of epiphanies that can only blossom into consciousness when you commit your whole self to your purpose.
Let’s go back to the beginning: what made you want to pursue combat sports?
Darren Goh: I watched a lot of wrestling and action-packed shows when I was young and became an early fan. I was always intrigued and curious about how it would be to undergo and withstand the training and discipline required of a martial artist. I was also very skinny and small when I was younger, and figured I should pick up a sport I had interest in to help build myself up physically.
I told my parents and they were hesitant at first as they thought it’d be too strenuous for me, but chose to arrange for a proper trial and that’s when they found Evolve MMA online. They were not sure of what to expect and definitely had reservations, but when they came down with me on the first day, they realised there were so many other children who were way younger than me, aged six to 10, and that the youngest you can enrol your child is four years old. That was when it shifted for them too, and I’ve never looked back since.
Alex Silva: I think it was God's plan! Growing up, I was bullied because I was smaller than my peers at the time. I discovered Bruce Lee films, which then led to me trying out different classes like kung fu and capoeira to learn how to defend myself. It was not till I was 13 that I discovered my love for Brazilian jiu-jitsu when I first saw Royce Gracie demolish the larger opposition. After that, I left behind the other disciplines and focused on excelling in the ‘gentle art’, and it has been an evolving journey since. I transitioned to MMA and developed stand-up skills under the tutelage of Evolve MMA world champions and Muay Thai and boxing instructors.
Hiroki Akimoto: I always dreamed of becoming a professional martial artist from a very young age. When I was seven years old, I got into a fight at school and lost. [My opponent] was learning karate at the time, and that’s when I knew I wanted to learn the martial art to become strong and defend myself. When I first started Kyokushin karate, I promised my parents that no matter how hard it gets, I will never give up. They gave me their full support, and by the time I was 15 years old, I started to take it a lot more seriously and resolved to pursue my dreams and dedicate my life to making my mark in the sport. I moved to Singapore to join Evolve MMA in 2018 to surround myself with the best and to sharpen my skills under the elite world champions instructors in their respective disciplines. It has been a remarkable journey ever since.
Darren, as a Singaporean, what do you think of the perception of combat sports in Singapore? Is Singapore a nurturing environment for fighters?
Darren: I’d say that there is a strong interest for martial arts in Asia, and it’s continuing to grow. Just within my circle of friends and age group, it’s seen as more of a lifestyle activity and exercise that people try to squeeze in during their lunch or free time than the common misconception you might hear. We are so exposed to the world of martial arts and the values it imparts compared to our parents, who didn’t have so much of during their time. They just didn’t know better.
There are platforms within the sporting community that help provide access to a nurturing environment for martial arts athletes. At Evolve MMA, they have a developmental programme to identify and nurture the next generation of martial artists known as the Evolve Future World Champions Programme. The programme offers a complimentary lifetime training at Evolve MMA, full sponsorship for all expenses for major tournaments (including entrance fees, airfare and hotel stay), amongst other benefits. It was introduced in 2020 and designed to provide support for talented martial artists that will enable them to fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams.
There are so many ways to help nurture an athlete, and organisations like Evolve MMA do their best to groom and grow local talent with the platform and reach they have. But a lot of it also comes down to the individual athlete—what you do with your accomplishments, the drive you have towards making a name for yourself in the sport you are pursuing, and what you choose to do with the influence of the people around you. It takes a village.
You have been competing since 2016. What’s changed the most for you as a fighter?
Darren: I became a lot more independent and disciplined about reaching my goals. I’ve put myself in a circle and environment where there are no concessions and you have to hold yourself to a higher level of expectation, standard and discipline, be it making weight for a competition, or putting in the hours to train to constantly improve your game and technique. It has made the biggest change in my overall lifestyle because I had to be intentional about things. It forced me to be strategic about managing my time and schedule. I plan my schedule around my training and dietary plans.
The excitement has always been there from day one and I don’t think that’s something that will change. As athletes, our goal is to always chase and win the biggest competitions. For me, that was when I won gold in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and Pan Kids in 2018. It’s a major competition with a big organiser and the level was different and way tougher than the ones I had previously competed in. My next goal to get a gold in Abu Dhabi World Pro and IBJJF Worlds in 2023.
Hiroki, as someone who made his name in the arena of karate, what do you think sets it apart from other forms of martial arts?
Hiroki: To me, karate is a martial art that trains the spirit. We do not rejoice after a victory.
You’ll be defending your title of One Bantamweight Kickboxing World Champion in November against Thailand’s Petchtanong Petchfergus. With the stakes being so high, what sort of headspace are you in as fight day approaches?
Hiroki: All fights are the same to me, and not much has changed in that aspect since my debut at One Championship. I’m mainly focused on what is within my control and what I can do to improve and better myself each time and after every fight.
What effect has combat sports had on your mental health?
Darren: I’d say I am able to control my emotions a lot better now, and I’m not so uptight about things. It’s also credit to the community I have at Evolve MMA that brings us together. We have very strong bonds, and we constantly look out for each other in and outside of the gym. That’s an important aspect to take note of in your training or fitness journey. It’s who you surround yourself with, and what kind of environment you expose yourself to. You have to be aware. Due to the nature of how technical Brazilian jiu-jitsu is as a sport, it made me very curious to see how far I can go, how much I can learn, what is my game. It’s a constant push for more to try to figure it out, and that comes with putting time in.
Hiroki: There is a level of difficulty in everything we do in life, and martial arts has given me the ability to build resilience and mental strength. It’s made me strong; it’s allowed me to face things head-on, address my challenges and work on them. In this sport, you can’t lie or fake your way through it. How much you give to it and how committed you are to it, is what you possibly get back in return, and sometimes even that is not enough. You have to learn to be strong. Every day is different in the gym and you have to adapt. It trains us physically as much as it does mentally, and I build from there each time.
Alex: I learned control and restraint, when to react and when to just stay calm. It made me strong and helped build mental resilience and strength to overcome any challenges that might come my way.
Alex, you’ve had an impressive career in the ring. How do you like to celebrate after a win?
Alex: I like to celebrate with my Evolve MMA team and family over dinner at Brazilian Churrasco.
Your story is truly inspiring. Every time you step in the ring, where do you draw from mentally and emotionally?
Alex: From God, my family and my team.
What has been the toughest part of your combat sports journey and how do you deal with it? Is it something that can be overcome?
Darren: The toughest part is honing the ability to control your emotions instead of letting them control you. Sometimes, and more often than not, a former training partner or even a close training partner will end up as your direct opponent in competition, simply because of the belt and weight class category. In scenarios like that, you have to put friendship aside and trust that there is a mutual understanding because you’re both going head-to-head for the win. It’s painful for me sometimes, but once we’re off the mat, there’s no bad blood or hate or negative feelings towards each other.
One person will always have to be the bigger man. It’s a highly technical and competitive sport, and the common mindset is usually may the best man win. For me, my priority is to leave it all on the mat and to give it my everything so I can walk away with no regrets, regardless of the outcome. Your priority should be to make sure you gave it your all.
As for overcoming it, that’s something I’m still trying to figure out. It takes time and experience to overcome these kinds of situations, and when you’re at this level of the sport, you’re expected to understand. The sport is all about respect and gratitude for each other. It’s honestly a very humbling sport because you’re always learning from each other—there is always going to be someone who has better technique or an overall better game than you, regardless of how good you are.
Alex: The toughest part of my martial arts journey is being away from my family. They live in Brazil, while I am training and chasing my dreams here in Singapore.
Hiroki: The hardest time for me was when I was between 10 and 13 years old. I had a hard time winning, and I had a lot of setbacks in training. I got knocked out in so many matches when I was younger, but I never gave up. I persevered and fought through it in my early days to get to where I am now.
What’s one myth about combat sports you’d like to break?
Alex: People often see combat sports as being taken up by uncultured people who fight each other inside a cage, but people forget that in order to reach the level of competition professional combat sports athletes are at, you require so much discipline to work towards that goal for a very long time to be able to achieve eventual success. It’s a showcase of the true beauty of martial arts that is deeply rooted with Asian values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage and compassion.
Hiroki: People often think it’s a sport that promotes violence but it’s quite the contrary. When you do get into it and you start training, you realise that it focuses more on self-control and de-escalation. It’s about discipline and ultimately a celebration of the true authentic beauty of martial arts.
Darren: People often think that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is only for younger, fitter people and that they’re not built for it. Truth is, no one is built for it. I genuinely feel it’s a sport for everyone, regardless of age. People have to change their mindset that they’re too old or unfit. I’ve seen it with my own eyes that the age range at Evolve MMA is huge. It’s a progressive sport where you’re allowed to go at your own pace because there’s nothing that’s fixed in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu lesson, and age is truly just a number.
Outside the ring, how has being a combat sports athlete helped you in your personal life?
Alex: Competing under One Championship and working as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor at Evolve MMA has truly changed my life. It has allowed me to provide food on the table for my family, and the resources to make plans for my future.
Darren: Before I started training, I was quite a rebellious kid in primary school. I would hang out till late after school. I’d always be out doing nothing with friends, with no drive and almost nothing to look forward to. I’d get into fights and create unnecessary problems, but all that changed after I started training at Evolve MMA. The pivotal event would be after my first competition at 13, and it was the amateur BJJ pre-teens Evolve Fight Night in 2016. A lot of that change came from the influence and support from the community we have here at Evolve MMA, be it the world champion instructors or the regular members and students. It gave me a whole new vibe and experience from what I had in local school. I was exposed to different cultures, which broadened my perspective that there is so much more to life, and it made me realise that I just didn’t know better at the time.
I started doing well in school just so I would be able to go home after school and not get detention, so I can make it for my training sessions. I did grow up with martial arts and I started at a pretty formative age, so I was always lucky to have discovered this early in my life.
Hiroki: I have been practicing martial arts for 22 years and counting. I never give up, no matter how difficult the situation may be. I always believe that I can overcome it and that it will pass. I’m able to look at things from different angles and it has really helped to broaden my perspective, be it in martial arts or in my personal life. I have also gained more confidence in building interpersonal relationships with my family and friends.
From your point of view as athletes, how do you think men can lead healthier and happier lives?
Darren: Put in time to find an activity outside of work that will help you to reduce your stress load. It could be anything that takes you away from everyday responsibilities. Be adventurous, try something new, and find something you’re interested in. Put time and effort into it. You have to get yourself moving to get active.
And the most important thing is that with every new thing that you try, give it a month or two. Progression tends to come after some time. Go through the first phase of inertia. Put time into something that you’re not used to, even if you don’t feel like it. Once you go through that initial phase, it’ll come to you quite naturally after. The starting phase is temporary.
Alex: It’s good for all men to find a healthy hobby because when you are doing something that brings you joy, it generates happy chemicals in your brain that help you to be calm, focused, emotionally stable and happier. Always try to exercise at least three times a week, even if it’s a light exercise, to maintain a healthy heart, mind and body.
Hiroki: It is important to exercise in moderation, maintain and keep a healthy diet, and to always continue to better yourself for a purpose larger than yourself.
This story was first published in the November 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.
Creative Director & ProducerVanessa Caitlin
Fashion EditorGordon Ng
Associate Creative ProducerHazirah Rahim
GroomingYing Cui, using Laura Mercier
On-set stylingOdelia Foong
Creative production assistanceDavid Bay