Irshaad Sayed was born and bred in South Africa, but embarked on a journey at the age of 17 which took him from Cape Town to Korat in Thailand and then to Hong Kong, culminating in the young mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter winning the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF) bantamweight belt in Hohhot, China, in February.
It was not the first title Sayed has claimed in his career — he is also a two-time Muay Thai world champion — but it was by far the most significant. Not only did he win the right to call himself a national champion of China, he also received 1 million yuan (US$160,000) in prize money.
It was a handsome reward, particularly given that the title fight against Yuan Chunbo at RUFF 8 lasted less than 10 minutes, but the work that went into becoming an MMA belt holder began a decade earlier.
“I started Muay Thai when I was about 15 years old and after I finished school in South Africa I moved to Thailand to train Muay Thai. After that I moved to Hong Kong to continue fighting and training and spent four years in HK and progressed a lot in my career before making a move to Singapore,” he said.
Sayed is now 24 and living in Singapore, where he is a member of the world-renowned fight team at Evolve MMA. Winning the RUFF belt led to an invitation to move full-time to this camp, widely regarded as the best in Asia.
For the South African, the prestige of being a champion means much more than the money.
“It’s a great feeling to accomplish something like this so early in my MMA career. Being the champion of a country like China is an amazing feeling, simply because China is the birthplace of many martial arts. It also gives me a great sense of accomplishment knowing that out of over 1 billion people in China I have been crowned the champion,” he said.
Sayed made his MMA debut in Macau in 2010 and has spent his entire career competing in the Greater China region with the exception of one fight in Jakarta in February last year. Of his eight appearances in the cage, six have been against local fighters in China and he says he has grown accustomed to being the outsider.
“From a promotional point of view all fighters are treated equally, foreigner or local. When it comes to the support of the crowd there is an obvious cheer for the locals, but I have become accustomed to this and focus on the support I have at cage side, even if it’s just a handful of supporters,” he said.
Sayed expects to make the first defense of his RUFF title next month and is training hard because, with the standard in Chinese MMA improving all the time, he knows he has his work cut out if he wants to remain a champion.
“I am working every day with top-notch coaches who have decades of experience and I hope to fight three more times for RUFF this year. Evolve MMA is the top training facility in Asia and one of the best in the world and I’m grateful to get to work with someone like Heath Sims who was coach of Dan Henderson [former UFC, Strikeforce and Pride champion] for the last 15 years,” he said.
South Africa has produced more than its fair share of boxers over the years, but not so many mixed martial artists. Despite never having fought in his homeland, Sayed has a big reputation back home, but he says he is just happy to be making a name for himself in Asia.
“Many people in South Africa have been following my career and I get frequent messages from people back home asking me when I’m coming back to compete again, but it’s a real honor to be MMA champion of China,” he said.