It involves cups of a very different sort and isn’t as deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness, but Mixed Martial Arts has the edge needed to supplant soccer as the de facto sport for catalyzing Singaporean-Malaysian rivalry.
Ever since Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tearfully announced the island nation's split from neighboring Malaysia in 1965, an incontrovertible current of rivalry has coursed through the countries' oftentimes petulant relations. This has manifested itself none more clearly than in the fabled Malaysia Cup soccer tournament of old, boasting matches in the 1970’s and 80’s characterized by stadiums filled with tens of thousands of spectators, snaking queues at ticket booths, choked roads and all-night post-game celebrations.
Today, interest in the Malaysia Cup has noticeably waned in Singapore. Perhaps the fast pace of life has reduced our appetite for 90-minute wars of attrition which have an even chance of resulting in a goalless stalemate. Perhaps there is a hunger for something more visceral, more immediate, more relatable — something with a little more ‘punch’, if you’ll excuse the bad pun.
Enter Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
MMA distils the strategic wile of a chess match into intense, easily-digestible bouts which seldom go the full 15 minutes. With a plethora of techniques on tap, ranging from devastating Muay Thai elbows to highly-technical Jiu-Jitsu submissions, each fight is a different story waiting to be told.
Add the primal excitement of seeing two fighters of opposing nationalities facing off mano-a-mano in an arena, and you have a surefire recipe for stirring patriotic fervor.
ONE FC 3: War of Lions, held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in March, offered us a glimpse into the sanguine passions that patriotic pride can incite in Singaporean fans. Those in attendance would be able to recall the deafening roar that erupted when Singapore’s own Nicole Chua deftly sunk in a rear naked choke to coax a tapout from Indian kickboxing champion Jeet Toshi. And the triumphant fist pumps among members of the audience when local Quek Kim ‘The Hulk’ Hock did likewise to American Major Overall.
ONE FC 3 crowd reacts to The Hulk's victory (via Ivan Yap)
Ardent MMA fans would have drawn immediate parallels with the fevered chants of "USA" by the partisan crowd when a fresh-faced Georges St-Pierre attempted to snatch the welterweight belt from a grizzled Matt Hughes at UFC 65. Or more recently, the riotous scenes in Rio de Janeiro when featherweight champion Jose Aldo defended his belt against Chad Mendes on his home turf at UFC 142.
The upcoming ONE FC event slated for June in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Destiny of Warriors — presents the earliest opportunity to bring a Singapore-Malaysia matchup to fruition. The fight wallahs at ONE FC are no doubt embroiled in the pre-show machinations at this point, and full details of the fight card haven’t been unveiled, but there have been murmurs that Peter Davis, one of Malaysia's top MMA prospects, will feature prominently on the card.
The tinder for sparking a renewed rivalry is in place. Now all ONE FC has to do is to pit Davis against a Singaporean standout to ignite it.
Having emerged largely unscathed from his victory over Major Overall and having captured the nation’s imagination in the process, Quek Kim Hock — to my mind — would make for an ideal opponent. Davis’ reach advantage and submission savvy could pose a stern test for ‘The Hulk’, who, despite possessing undeniable power and agility, failed to showcase a diverse striking game in his professional debut and is still relatively untested on the ground.
Regardless of the eventual matchup, one thing is clear: a bout built on a perennial rivalry is poised to be a knockout success. Let’s hope that the ONE FC matchmakers are reading this, and agree.