Riding the crest of this wave is South African Irshaad “White Tiger” Sayed, now a resident of Hong Kong.
A fighter couldn’t ask for a more ideal set of circumstances in his life to pave the way for success. He found his passion for kickboxing early, and had highly encouraging parents who even supported his decision to train full-time in Thailand when he was only seventeen. At nineteen, he fought in Hong Kong and was subsequently offered a teaching position. By twenty, he’d won five championships in Muay Thai. Now, at the ripe age of twenty-two he has fought all over the world, is married, and abides by a religion that keeps him healthy and motivated. In striking ability, Irshaad is being recognized as a rare bantamweight with true knockout ability. This puts him in the hot seat of already being sought after by MMA promotions as he tests the waters in the sport.
The Cape Town-born and -raised young man is the oldest of four children: two boys and two girls. “I had a nice childhood,” he reflects, “Mostly good memories.” Irshaad loved sports, participating in soccer, rugby and cricket at school. He got into kickboxing when he was fifteen. “At first I started just for the fitness aspect,” he states. “Then I stopped playing all my other sports.” This dedication and focus set him on a fast track forward.
After settling in Hong Kong, Irshaad continued his Muay Thai career by becoming the 2010 ‘Planet Battle’ WMC Lightweight Champion. His current Muay Thai record is 20-8 with a hefty margin of eleven wins by knockout. When asked out of all those fights which was his most memorable, he replies, “My most exciting Muay Thai fight, I would say, was against Australia’s Phillip “Flip” Street. We went three rounds in a real crowd pleaser for the WMC Planet Battle Lightweight title.”
Irshaad received his first MMA fight offer on a card hosted by a local Hong Kong one-off promotion “Fury” in Macau. He accepted before he’d actually intended to switch disciplines. “But I would have ended up fighting MMA sooner or later,” he informs. Ironically, his opponent was Thai, Ngoo Ditty, and he decided to take Irshaad right up against the cage immediately. The ring fighter surprised Ditty with his effectiveness. “I was training for the cage,” he shares. “I was learning to use the cage to my advantage and use it to wall walk. It’s a great feeling to fight in a cage and I much prefer fighting in it now than compared to the ring.” Neither fighters’ ground skills were really tested, and Irshaad made his first notch a win by TKO.
Irshaad’s sophomore outing landed him even deeper into China, at the Bokesan-sponsored World Combat Sports ‘Top of the Forbidden City” promotion in Beijing. It sounds much quicker in monosyllabic Mandarin, and more easily recognized as TFC. His opponent was the highly-touted sanda fighter, undefeated “Bieke” Tuerxun. Three rounds of action saw a showcase of incredibly crisp striking combinations from Irshaad against Bieke’s wildly looping but powerful overhand haymakers. Bieke determined that his way to win was through takedowns, and the longer the fight went on, Irshaad spend much of his time scrambling out or being stood up by the ref at confusing intervals. He lost the fight only at the judges’ decision, and learned an incredible amount from the test.
“It’s always hard to fight away from home,” the seasoned Irshaad shares, “But in China it’s even more difficult because they only support the locals. It was a good fight, but at that time I was still a kickboxer fighting MMA. Now I’m a more rounded fighter.”
And he will have to be. After signing with China’s first government-recognized promotion RUFF and winning a split decision in their second event, then joining the market-aggressive Singapore-based One FC and handing former URCC champion Jesse Raffols a major upset KO via body punch, Irshaad now heads back to China for RUFF 3 for a rematch with Bieke. “I’m working harder on my sprawl, using the cage to stand up, working off my back and also keeping my distance,” informs Irshaad.
Bieke hasn’t been sitting around waiting for the rematch either. He’s added six more wins to his undefeated record and won the Legend FC Bantamweight Championship in the process. “I have watched his last two fights,” he states, which were at RUFF 2 and Legend FC 7, “And I have been working on my ground game.”
Given that the majority of his MMA experience has been in China thus far, he’s definitely witnessed the evolution of its fighters as he himself has progressed. “The level of MMA in China is growing extremely fast,” he informs. “RUFF is a great organization. They are very professional and seem to equally promote all the fighters, whether we are Chinese or not.”
Along with his fight in RUFF, Irshaad has also signed on to the Bangkok promotion DARE to compete in their Bantamweight tournament. It’s a chance for a few more guaranteed fights, plus a shot at a big purse, and wider international recognition: the promotion has a PPV stream for each event. So does this frenzied MMA activity mean he’s given up on his roots? “For 2012, I’m looking to focus on MMA,” he clarifies, “But if there is a spot in the year where I don’t have an MMA fight and a Muay Thai fight comes along, I will fight.” He knows that since his imminent future is in the cage fighting MMA, his game needs to evolve: “I will always be a striker, that’s my bread and butter, but I am working on strengthening other aspects of my game.”
OUTSIDE THE RING
Being a personal trainer means Irshaad practically lives in the gym, and he knows exactly what strength and conditioning exercises he needs to do for the fight game. Three days a week he does those exercises in the morning, and MMA sparring in the afternoon. The other three days is spent on roadwork, then stand up sparring and grappling. His stand up partners are his fellow South African friend Vusi Colossa, and locally recognized kickboxing standout Alvin Cooney. Irshaad has taken up an intense regimen of groundwork training with Atos BJJ black belt Rodrigo Caporal, with whom he also fights MMA alongside at the RUFF events.
Although he didn’t use much of it when he KOed his last opponent, his progress with take downs, takedown defense, and ground skills have improved dramatically in the last few months which he’s completely dedicated to improving his MMA skill set. Irshaad has this to advise others about developing striking ability on par with his level: “Hitting the focus mits develops accuracy.”
Once labeled by a Chinese promoter as “the fighter with the prayer rug”, Irshaad feels that being Muslim is a benefit to his martial arts endeavors. “I would say my religion helps with the discipline aspect of my life and that boils over to my training,” he states. He is one of a rare group of fighters who is as equally calm and aware outside the ring as well as in; he’s been known to stop and answer questions on the way into the ring, and afterwards – even during the rare loss – has a smile and is quick to interact with fans. Irshaad explains that given his lifestyle, it is easy: “To be mentally sound, I need to be physically fit; when I’m fit I am confident.” To give him that extra edge, “Also I watch old fight that I won,” he shares.
There is one aspect of his beliefs that has proven difficult in his past, and may influence his future schedule. It involves training during the month of Ramadan, during which he has fought the past two years. “Both fights I lost because it’s just too hard on the body, so after two years I’ve learnt my lesson and I won’t fight during Ramadan anymore.”
Irishaad has set further goals beyond this active year of MMA fights. “I want to make a career of MMA,” he shares, “Eventually stop working as a personal trainer and focus full time on training and fighting.” And where does he see himself in five years? He makes no bones about it. “In five years I would like to be fighting in the UFC.”
Irshaad has thanks to give. “I would like to thank my wife and family for all their support. Thanks to my coaches Vusi and Rodrigo and all my sparring and training partners. And thanks to Jaded, my awesome new sponsor.”