Not KO-ed by family protests

Not KO-ed by family protests
Tay Jia Wei (right), practising with his biggest supporter – his twin brother Jia Jun – took up boxing in a bid to stand up to bullies who teased him over his weight of 80kg when he was 14.

When Tay Jia Wei steps into the boxing ring at next month's SEA Games, he will have a nation behind him.

Yet, all the welterweight longs for is his family in his corner.

Unlike most national athletes, the 20-year-old's sporting career has drawn only protests from his loved ones.

"My family has never approved of me being a boxer, and it's a daily struggle against them on this issue," said Jia Wei, who has been living with his aunts and grandparents since he was a boy.

"They have never tried to, and will never understand how much this sport has done for me and its importance to me."

His mother Jean, however, tells a slightly different story - one of a parent who cannot bear to watch her son take punch after punch, and sport black eyes and fat lips from tough nights in the ring.

"Which mother would want to watch their son bleed? When he competes, all I hope for is a clean, fair fight and that no one gets hurt," said the 48-year-old.

His aunt Sharon, 55, also frowns on his boxing ambitions.

"All I can say is that we love Jia Wei too much," she said. "We all worry for him as boxing is a tough sport with a high risk of injury. Still, he has come so far to reach the SEA Games so we wish him the best."

Jia Wei picked up boxing at 14 to fend for himself after bullies teased him for weighing in at 80kg.

"I first picked up boxing in secondary school because people bullied me for being overweight," he said. "I took up boxing to empower myself, to become somebody who deserved respect."

But his family soon tried to stop him from pursuing his sport.

"To them, boxing is useless because it is a violent sport and can't guarantee me a future," Jia Wei said. "They had this ideal of what I should be doing, and that was to study hard and get a proper job.

"So they threatened to call the boxing association and ask them to ban me from boxing forever."

Reluctantly, he stopped boxing.

But that lasted all of two years.

"At 16, I decided one should pursue whatever one wants if one has the passion for it," he said. He was back in the ring, and has persevered ever since.

Boxing is a lonely business, with long hours spent honing skills alone in the gym. In Jia Wei's case, it was compounded by the fact that he could not celebrate his successes with his family.

He said quietly: "I used to keep medals I won at local events in my bag for a few weeks. Then, I would slowly hang them up one by one over time, so my family would not realise there were more medals in the cabinet. I could not show my achievements openly to them because they did not care for it."

He got better at his sport as he went along. "I fight for myself, to become the best boxer I can be," he said.

But not everyone in the family views boxing with disdain. Jia Wei's twin, Jia Jun, took up boxing with him initially but stopped to pursue arm-wrestling.

Jia Wei calls him "my loudest and biggest supporter".

The brothers are close, though they live in different homes - Jia Jun with their parents, and Jia Wei with their aunts and grandparents.

Jia Jun said: "He's my twin brother. I've got to support him. Even if my family doesn't understand and support him, I do.

"He has a great ability to stay motivated. I don't see my aunts and grandparents often, and already I get a lot of criticism from them on my arm-wrestling.

"Jia Wei, however, deals with them daily and keeps going, it's really admirable."

Jia Wei's dedication as a boxer has impressed national coach Syed Abdul Kadir.

The sport has seen lean times in the past but after the success of Muhammad Ridhwan at the past two SEA Games, the fraternity hopes a new generation of boxers can bag at least two more medals this time on home soil.

Said Kadir: "Jia Wei will be one to watch as he is young and has a big heart. He's not afraid to get hit hard, and always keeps fighting at a tremendous intensity."

A fresh scar, from a clash of heads with an opponent in April, traverses the left temple of Jia Wei's head. It is a symbol of dedication to his craft, and a sign of the physical and mental challenges he has overcome on his journey to fight for Singapore at the Games.

And although it is left to be seen if his family will come round and be ringside when he represents the nation, Jia Wei insists he will not be alone.

"Win or lose, the crowd will keep cheering you to keep moving, keep hitting, keep going, and that means a lot to me," he said.

jslow@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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