In the earlier days of his training, going home with cuts and bruises were nothing. Because when one is training in a sport that employs everything from punches and kicks to chokes and throws to achieve dominance in combat, injuries are inevitable.
For the uninitiated, the bloodied faces and broken bones that accompany Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights paint the sport as violent or even brutal, but for 26-year-old Niko Soe, it is also one that drastically changed his life path.
The professional MMA fighter was exposed to the world of martial arts when his mother sent him to Silat classes at 8-years-old. However, it was not until he discovered MMA at 15 when martial arts became more than a pastime.
“My friend showed me some videos of different martial arts versus different martial arts. Then, when I looked at them, I thought ‘Woah, interesting!’”
He was particularly fascinated with how powerful MMA is but back then, martial arts weren’t as widely taken up in Singapore, and it took him a year before he decided to hit search on Google for ‘MMA gyms in Singapore’.
That search led him to his first martial arts gym, where he would meet one of the coaches that played an integral role in guiding him in his pursuit of a career in martial arts.
Parents Disapproved, But He Stood Firm
Although his parents always worried for his safety, his dad gave him money for the classes in the end because “they just wanted me to do something, as I had stopped Silat for a year at that point.”
However, the initial support soon turned into aversion when it became a new norm for Niko to return home with cuts, bruises, sprains, and stitches.
“They started telling me to stop, but I’m not willing to stop. I want to continue training.” And the more he learnt, the deeper he ‘fell into the rabbithole’.
“It’s fun lah,” he told me later on when I asked him ‘why MMA’, “it’s the reason why I’m still doing this after 10 years.”
He understood his parents’ concern for him, but explained that the worst part of getting injured isn’t so much the pain or the impact it has on his body, but in having to put a pause on something he has so much passion for.
“When I get these injuries, I’m sad not because I got a cut or anything. I’m sad that I cannot train because of that cut.”
These injuries are just some of the sacrifices that Niko has learnt to deal with. We’re talking martial arts after all—a sport that relies heavily on one’s physical ability to fight, as well as the mental capacity to overcome its corresponding tribulations.
Refusing to give up on his passion and not wanting to rely on his parents to fund his MMA pursuit, Niko took up a part-time job after he completed national service.
You Want To Be A Full-Time Fighter, You Gotta Fight For It
On top of juggling work and MMA trainings, he also enrolled in a part-time diploma course in hospitality management. Because back then, Niko never fathomed being a full-time fighter. In fact, he had planned to work in the hospitality industry.
It all changed when Niko had his first Sanda fight which his head coach then, Bruce, a Singapore mixed martial arts pioneer, had signed him up for.
“Honestly, that match was terrible because there was no game plan. My objective was just to beat him up, But it was a turning point because the adrenaline I felt there reminded me of why I started doing MMA in the first place.”
Something clicked within Niko. Subsequently, MMA wasn’t just a casual pursuit to him anymore. Neither were the matches: “I started to know how to think properly, know how to control my mind properly, how to prepare for a fight.”
It was a pivotal moment.
However, survival in this industry goes beyond knowing how to fight in the cage.
“Money-wise, the beginning definitely wasn’t easy.”
His weeks were packed to the brim: Every day, he’d train in the morning and afternoon, then head to school or to work at night. This went on for a year.
“So when people say they got no time [for their dreams], that’s crap,” he quipped.
Eventually, he switched over from his part-time job in a hotel to teaching martial arts—a step towards making a sustainable career out of his passion. Subsequently, he was also signed by Impact MMA and is one of the youngest trainer there today.
Despite his age, this Singaporean millennial is also one of the most experienced MMA practitioners around and is signed with ONE Championship. When he made his debut at the ONE Championship stage in 2016, he scored an impressive submission victory. He was also highly lauded for his second victory in the 2019 ONE: Roots of Honor.
Looking back on more than 10 years of his journey, he talked about how he had, in pursuing what he loves, popped his knee and elbows, lost his ability to walk or even sit properly for almost 3 months due to a very bad back injury, sacrificed time with friends and even the relationship with his family.
“So, I mean, it’s how bad you want it lah,”
It’s A Life-Changing Sport
Many would see MMA as a violent sport. Some would even argue that it’s just ‘glorified fighting’. To which Niko acknowledged, “Yes and no. It is fighting, but it is also life changing.”
Speaking about the many students he had seen starting out uncoordinated, slow, and shy, he highlighted that the important thing is that these students didn’t give up: “Now, you see them move flawlessly and they have so much more confidence in themselves.”
“A lot of people, when it’s too hard in training or if it gets too tiring, they just give up. They don’t want to do it again. Or if they get injured, they stop and they say they cannot do it.”
For Niko, perseverance is what got him to where he is today. And despite his admirable accomplishments, he remains rooted to his goals not of achieving fame, but to be the best in the sport.
“That’s what I’ve been working on since I was younger, and that’s what I [still] train hard for [today].”
For Niko, his end goal is simply, to be the best MMA fighter.
Though, when I asked about his thoughts on being able to be recognised on such an established stage like ONE, Niko shared something that I didn’t expect to hear from a pro-MMA fighter who loves what he does.
“Fighting is a chore,” he said, “because after you finish, suddenly it’ll feel a bit lighter.”
He explained that behind every fight is a considerable amount of preparation for these matches. Not only is it a sacrifice on his own time and money, it is the time and, often literally, also the blood and sweat of the team of coaches and partners that train him.
“Everybody’s really doing this as a team. It’s for the team.”
To Aspiring Fighters: Persevere, But Don’t Do It For Fame Or Glory
There are two types of fighters in Singapore: The one that wants others to know that they are a fighter, and the one that just wants to win.
For those who want to be a fighter, it’s not about all the fame and glory, but it’s all the hardship and whether you can take it. Niko emphasised, “it’s a lot of sacrifice.”
“Don’t give up. No matter how slow you are, don’t give up. Persevere. Of course, you have to be consistent as well, but persevere.”
Also read: Look At My Ability, Not Disability: This S’porean Plays Tennis Despite Being Blind.