Unfazed under the dome

Since making her professional mixed martial arts (MMA) debut in 2014, former swimmer May Ooi has been unbeaten in her two fights so far.

But the 39-year-old, nicknamed "Mighty May", will face the biggest fight of her career on Sunday. She will meet Anna Bezhenar of Ukraine as part of the World Series of Fighting - Global Championship, at one of the world's most prestigious fight venues, the Tokyo Dome City Hall in Japan.

"I was starstruck by the location... The Tokyo Dome is where all the big names have gone to," said Ooi, who has been to Japan only once, in 1994. "It is the home of Asian martial arts, dating back to the time of the samurai and it is where the biggest MMA stars and events like Pride were held.

"I can't even imagine being in the same place and fighting in the same area with so much history and I just feel very privileged to be invited to an event like this."

While thrilled at the prospect, Ooi is under no illusion about the size of the task facing her.

Her opponent is a highly decorated five-time European Pankration champion, an International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (Fila) World Champion in Pankration, and a previous Fila Athlete of the Year.

Pankration is a form of martial arts that combines wrestling and boxing, thereby making her opponent highly skilled in submissions, takedowns, chokes and locks.

The Singaporean, who represented the nation at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, said: "She's the warhorse from Ukraine while I'm the lost mermaid in the cage.

"She (Bezhenar) already thinks I'm going to be a walk in the park, according to her manager."

Nonetheless, Ooi is not intimidated by the pre-fight talk and relishes her status as the underdog.

"Nothing really rattles me because I'm going to stay with my game plan and do what I need to do to get the job done," she said.

"I'm the underdog so the pressure is off me. I'm just going to go in there and give her as hard a time as possible and showcase my skills."

While she may have started fighting competitively only two years ago, Ooi has about 10 years of experience in MMA, beginning with a background in Capoeira, a Brazilian discipline which disguises its strikes through dance.

She even participated in fights on the streets of Brazil when she was just 28.

The two-time Asian Games representative (in 1990 and 1994) said: "Some of the sparring that I've done, especially in Capoeira on the streets of Brazil, are done without referees. You can tap all you want and they may not let you go. It's more real life and more sinister.

"The cage (in MMA) is relatively safe. There is a referee to stop the fight, so just because she has more formal experience that has been documented, it doesn't mean that I have less."

Her coach, Silvio Romero da Silva, added: "May has been fighting for a long time even though she just started competing. She does have a lot of experience and I believe she is ready to take on Anna and win."

While swimming is vastly different from martial arts, Ooi noted that the 15 years she spent in the pool before her retirement in 2002 has not been for nothing.

"The level of conditioning swimmers do is just crazy and the conditioning from that has never really left me. I therefore don't have to spend a lot of time conditioning, unlike other fighters. That leaves me with more time to focus on my skills training, which is what I'm lacking and doing catch-up on," she explained.

"I do everything from the stand-up bit, to the ground bit, to boxing, muay thai, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, before putting it all together in the cage and I am 100 per cent prepared and ready to take her out."

Ooi's bout will be streamed live at www.wsofgc.com at 1.30pm Singapore time on Sunday.


This article was first published on February 5, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.