- MMA and the two champions flying Sri Lanka’s flag
Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is as simple as its name suggests. It’s the combination of different forms of martial arts by one artist; this could be as simple as mixing boxing as wrestling, or something a bit more complicated like mixing karate, judo, and a form of groundwork like sambo. In essence, MMA makes you a more formidable fighter, and like all forms of martial arts, there is a lot more that goes into practising MMA than just kicking and screaming.
2022 marks a key year for MMA in Sri Lanka, with two seasoned MMA fighters from a local club by the name Fight Soul House of Champions, Malinda Amarasinghe and Ajmal Yakoob, being selected to represent Sri Lanka at the Thailand Fighting Championship (TFC), a premier MMA Fight League promoting Pro MMA in the Kingdom of Thailand and Southeast Asia. TFC showcases fights with the region’s premier up-and-coming fighters that are looking to make a name for themselves and advance their careers to go fight for One Championship, Rizin, and the UFC.
Not only does this mark the first time that Sri Lankan MMA practitioners have been selected to represent Sri Lanka at the TFC, but Malinda is also a headline fighter at the TFC, and thus this is the first time that a Sri Lankan is headlining a professional event in the history of Sri Lankan MMA.
Brunch chatted with both Malinda and Ajmal, as well as their coach Srimal Rodrigo, and Fight Soul House of Champions CEO Rosharn Amarasinghe, to learn more about Sri Lankan MMA and what it means for Sri Lankan MMA.
MMA in Sri Lanka
Fight Soul House of Champions CEO Rosharn Amarasinghe explained that MMA as a competitive sport has been around for quite some time. The first global tournament was held in 1993 and from that point on, spread into every country. Sri Lanka has had dedicated MMA clubs for over 10 years, and at the moment, there are lots of new clubs emerging.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have a Sri Lankan headline a professional MMA event,” Rosharn said, speaking on Malinda being named a headline fighter at the TFC. “The league in Thailand gives access to many individual fighters to upgrade and scale up their careers internationally as time goes by.”
Rosharn also added that Sri Lankan MMA is still in its infancy in Sri Lanka, and it is his hope that Malinda and Ajmal fighting in the TFC will shine a bigger spotlight on MMA locally, allow for greater availability and access of resources, qualified coaches, and more attention from major MMA leagues to Sri Lanka to develop the sport locally, as well as show aspiring MMA fighters that they can build careers for themselves both internationally and locally.
“Fight Soul House of Champions is the first combat agency in Sri Lanka to expand internationally,” Rosharn shared, and noted that they have formed a partnership with Will Chope, a renowned American MMA fighter, in a bid to help develop MMA regionally, adding: “Malinda at the TFC as a headliner is a major achievement, and the start of many good things to come for Sri Lankan MMA.”
Fight Soul House of Champions Head Coach and Director Srimal Rodrigo also shared that he was extremely proud of Malinda and Ajmal’s achievements, as this is the first time after five years that Sri Lankans training locally will be fighting in an international pro league. “I was the last to fight in Malaysia in One Silat and after that, we have not seen local talent fight abroad in the field of MMA,” Srimal explained. “Malinda and Ajmal have been consistent, dedicated, and committed towards their training and they have done this on their own. That is their greatest achievement for themselves and for Sri Lanka.”
Reflecting on the evolution of MMA since the early 1990s, Srimal also noted that the sport has become more refined over the years, becoming more of an elite combat sport with several athletic commissions overlooking and regulating how it is played competitively, which makes proper training all the more important for fighters to be able to truly shine and build careers for themselves. “The dedication needed to train MMA is far higher as you must learn and follow several martial arts, sharpen skills both in stand up and ground and also increase your overall game.”
Srimal himself will be going on to represent Sri Lanka at the first International World Boxing Council (WBC) Muay Thai Belt championship in 2022, as one of two contenders from Sri Lanka competing for the belt. This will be the first time that an internationally recognised belt will be on offer to crown a Sri Lankan champion.
The star champions
Chatting with Malinda Abeysinghe and Ajmal Yakoob, the two fighters representing Sri Lanka at the TFC, we learned that they’ve both been fighting professionally for years.
Malinda started his martial arts career back in 2007 as a wushu fighter. He thereafter made his way to the national level and won medals from the 90 kg division all the way down to the 70 kg+ division and has also represented Sri Lanka in 2008 at the second Junior World Championships in wushu. He thereafter entered the arena of boxing through MAS, becoming a medalist. The first National Muay Thai tournament was held in 2018, and he became the national gold medalist and won the Fighter of the Year award.
He holds an undefeated record in full contact karate at the national level, becoming the national champion 2017, 2018, and 2019 in the 70-75 kg weight class. He has also participated in a local MMA league CFC, winning both season one and season two and bagging the Best Fighter award.
Ajmal is the Fight Soul House of Champions Co-Founder and Natural Grappling Colombo Director. His dream has always been to be a star fighter with his 13 years of martial arts experience, and he is well on his way to achieving it. Ajmal began his MMA journey in 2009 with shaolin kung fu, before making friends in Dubai’s MMA fitness circle (Ajmal worked in Dubai for several years), before coming back to Sri Lanka.
Both Ajmal and Malinda are drawn to MMA fighting for different reasons. Ajmal loves the aggressive nature of the sport, the rush he gets from fighting, and being able to push bis own boundaries each day, and Malinda, in contrast, loves how MMA has fixed rules to follow in how you defeat an opponent and how a fighter needs to be able to have a range of attacks and strategies at his disposal in order to beat an opponent fairly.
Speaking on being a headliner at a global MMA event, Malinda said: “I am extremely proud as a Sri Lankan to take part in TFC as I will be headlining a pro international event as a One Championship veteran for the first time in Sri Lankan history. I feel that after this fight there will be more avenues and opportunities for Sri Lankan talent to fight abroad and I feel privileged to be a contributor to this change. TFC has had several One Championship fighters and a UFC fighter enter through their league and progress to represent UFC, and the fact that it is the largest MMA league in Thailand will definitely help bring more attention to the sport of MMA in Sri Lanka.”
Ajmal also shared his excitement, saying: “I’m really excited about going. For myself and for my country. Fighting internationally is not that new to me; I have fought in tournaments in Thailand and Dubai before, but it is very exciting to note the new traction that MMA is getting in Sri Lanka.”
Ajmal will be fighting in the TFC under the name “Yaka”, a name he received during his time in the tri-forces when he unexpectedly defeated one of the tri-forces’ best fighters. Ajmal also shared that he was excited to be taking this piece of Sri Lanka with him to Thailand as his stage name.
Getting into MMA
Sharing their tips for getting started as an MMA fighter, Malinda and Ajmal both stressed that passion is key to building a successful career as an MMA fighter or even as someone who dabbles in MMA casually.
“Always love what you do, regardless of the combat sport you choose or begin in, always respect the art and put in the work. There are no substitutes for hard work and dedication, and make that your mantra,” Malinda said, also stressing the importance of learning with the right people: “Train under qualified coaches. A coach with experience can make sure that you progress in the sport, fix your errors, and also create new opportunities so stay committed, dedicated, and most importantly, hungry!”
Ajmal also explained that training in MMA is something that requires a lot of training and commitment and the right trainers. “If the trainer or instructor is not good, you don’t feel the full benefits of practising MMA, and then everything goes wrong,” he said.
With the sport of MMA receiving new attention, the question is how to give this fledgling sport its best chance to thrive in Sri Lanka. Srimal, speaking as an experienced MMA coach, had this to say on developing MMA to a national level: “There needs to be more media attention towards combat sports, there are several local and international achievers within several combat sports and all these fighters are potential MMA combatants given the sport. In addition, government support to subsidise equipment, coaching programmes, and overall regional plans would further help the sport. I don’t think MMA requires a federation as internationally it’s primarily a private sport; it requires support from a variety of stakeholders to ensure sustainable growth.”