Rumble in the urban jungle
In an age in which almost anybody can live Andy Warhol's prophecy about 15 minutes of fame via reality TV or an evening of karaoke, one wonders why Alex Lee Leung-wan chooses to do so via a world of pain. The self-defence and Muay Thai instructor from Tsuen Wan will step into the ring at the Asia World Expo on Thursday night to make his mixed martial arts (MMA) debut against Mark Eddiva of the Philippines at Legends IV.
Lee is the first candidate to come out of a development programme run by the Hong Kong-based Legends promotion to build a stable of local MMA fighters. Legends has recently sewn up television and sponsorship deals, including pay-per-view rights which will see this week's action screened across the United States alongside the big names of the sport, including the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
The featherweight prospect, however, dismisses the notion of fame as his motivation. Instead the composed 28-year-old admits that memories of going from one dead-end job to another still make him shudder. After dropping out of college, he spent his days packing shelves in a warehouse or sifting paperwork until the end of his shift and more training.
When private-investigator work came up it was only more of the same, but this time tracking wayward spouses or untrustworthy employees. 'It wasn't like the movies - just very boring, standing around for eight hours ... but I never stopped competing and learning skills to get better,' says Lee. 'People wanted me to get a steady job, but I knew deep down I always wanted to compete, to prove myself.'
Lee still lives with his family, though his parents have reservations about his chosen career, which is all the more ironic as it was Lee's policeman father who first taught his son martial arts (karate and taekwondo). 'He thinks MMA is dangerous and never wanted me to be a fighter, just to train and get better ... but my mother wanted me to go to the gym to get fit and good looking,' Lee quips.
His father wanted the St Francis Xavier College pupil to join the disciplined services, but accepts that Lee has found his own path. Even though the cauliflower ear, which has sprouted after months of intensive Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) and grappling training, now barely gets a mention over dinner, his family and girlfriend will not be at ringside cheering him. 'My parents don't come to events. I don't really want them there as they will be worried for me - and I will be worried about them worrying about me,' says Lee.
Since rising to No 1 in the Hong Kong Muay Thai rankings at 63.5kg in 2008-09, earning a Superfight Champion title in 2007 and bronze in the WPKA kickboxing world championships last year, Lee's focus has turned to sharpening his BJJ skills in readiness for the clash against Eddiva, a bronze medallist in wushu at the Asian Games in Guangzhou last November. Like Lee, the Filipino has also won championships in sanda, which combines grappling and striking.
Lee trains under BJJ instructor Thomas Fan Wai-kong at Triquest MMA and Fitness Academy in Tsim Sha Tsui, and with sparring partners such as Vaughn Anderson, a seasoned MMA fighter on the Asia-Pacific circuit. Fan sees Lee's 'stand-up game' - with almost a lifetime of striking and kicking - as his strong point. But for the past year, the Hong Kong MMA hope has been learning throws and how to finish a fight with chokes or locks.
'It's a test for myself, I always wanted to be good at this,' says Lee of the new set of skills he's been sharpening while preparing for bouts lasting three five-minute rounds instead of two minutes as in Muay Thai. 'It's about learning how to move differently and what to do on the ground. When people go to the ground in Muay Thai the fight is stopped.'
Fan and Anderson see an uphill struggle in getting wider acceptance for MMA, but hope that more local interest and an awareness of the skills involved will see it appreciated as much as the sweet science. 'Boxing has a long tradition and history of over 100 years,' says Fan. 'People grow up knowing about it, but mixed martial arts is still a young sport in this part of Asia.'
Anderson, who between professional bouts is a personal trainer, says the sport's complexity is one reason why it's both misunderstood and more fascinating than boxing. 'The differences in preparing are more complicated. There are so many more things you have to train [for] and consider.
'Not only do you have to have a core set of expertise in a bunch of martial arts, but also skills specific to the MMA game [from] ground and pound, through striking to the takedown, which don't exist in other martial arts. Sometimes you get them in sanda, but not always.'
As for his future after the fight, Lee says he is enjoying teaching Muay Thai. And in the long term - for his girlfriend's sake - he's been told there's surgery available to ease that cauliflower ear.
Legends IV will take place at the Asia-World Expo on Thursday, starting at 8pm.