Aiman Abu Bakar: From Malaysia with Gloves
MANILA, Philippines – As Aiman Abu Bakar raised his hands victoriously this past Sunday in Makati City, Philippines, he was both a long way from home but also right at home.
Makati Cinema Square may not pack the same pomp or capacity of Madison Square Garden, but considering that the sport barely exists in his home country of Malaysia, the venue will do just fine. Besides, who has time to gripe about metal folding chairs and an absence of air conditioning moments after scoring their first ever knockout?
“The feeling’s amazing, hard to describe it in words,” he gathers, before finding something close to what it was like to drop Gebby Manago with a right hand to the chin in round two to improve his record to to 4-0 (1 knockout).
“It’s somehow brutal but at the same time beautiful, because you’ve worked hard leading up to the fight, and to be able to do that during the fight just gives you a sense of relief.”
— Ryan Songalia (@ryansongalia) March 21, 2017
Aiman Abu Bakar is one of the best boxers from Malaysia today.
That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration; there are only 11 pro boxers from Malaysia currently active in the sport, according to BoxRec.com. The Southeast Asian country has a proclivity for motorsports and soccer, and their “Manny Pacquiao” is three-time Olympic badminton silver medalist Lee Chong Wei.
Boxing, to the degree that it exists, does so primarily among the military ranks of the country. But the absence of a boxing culture wasn’t going to deter Abu Bakar. His mom had been a Muhammad Ali fan and had tried to convince him to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee since the age of 7.
“It was very hard to find boxing gyms in [Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur],” said Abu Bakar, who turns 25 years old on Saturday. “We had to start from brothers and friends, we just had boxing gloves and mitts. [We’d copy] whatever we see on TV.”
The sport reached its apex in Malaysia in 1975, when Ali passed through to fight Joe Bugner for a second time. News reports state that 20,000 people greeted the heavyweight champion at Kuala Lumpur International Airport before his second decision win over Bugner. Ali, the sport’s greatest diplomat, charmed locals by announcing “If you have little children, don’t keep them away. I love little children. I will hug and kiss them.”
Ali’s time in Kuala Lumpur is overshadowed by his next trip to Asia three months later, when he traveled to Manila for a third bout against Joe Frazier, a fight remembered forever as a “Thrilla.”
Boxing had been popular in Malaysia during the 1930s and 40s, when weekly events in Malaysia and neighboring Singapore featured the likes of Tiger Aman, Kid Carpentier and Battling Khoo. But since the Ali-Bugner fight, only seven pro events have taken place in the country.
The country has sent just three boxers to the Summer Olympics, one of whom, Sapok Biki, is the de facto boxing hero in the country, having qualified for the 1996 Games and won light flyweight gold at the 1998 Commonwealth Games held in Kuala Lumpur.
Abu Bakar’s heroes growing up were Roberto Duran and Arturo Gatti, but to stay active he played professional soccer for Negeri Sembilan’s under-21 team in the Malaysia Super League. He was a striker on the field, but between practice sessions he’d be in the team gym practicing a different kind of striking on the punching bag.
When a Malaysia Golden Gloves amateur tournament he’d been training for was canceled at the last minute, Abu Bakar decided it was time to take the four-hour flight to the Philippines, the region’s boxing hub, to pursue his dream.
“I was telling myself, ‘I can’t grow in Malaysia if I want to be a professional boxer. Plus the sparring isn’t good enough. Why don’t I go to the Philippines?,'” says Abu Bakar, who says his amateur record was 20-3.
In 2014 Abu Bakar bought a one-way ticket to the Philippines intending just to get a feel of the boxing culture. One day he walked into Empire Boxing Gym in Makati City, which typically caters to working professionals looking to break a sweat. There he met Jonel Alibio, a well-traveled journeyman who was working at the gym.
“He did a couple of mitts for me and he tells me ‘Hey you’re not a student. You’re a fighter. Come, let’s go in the ring and spar,’” remembers Abu Bakar, a former public relations student at IACT College in Malaysia.
“In the second round I hurt him with a body shot and then after that he stopped the sparring and told me ‘you shouldn’t come here and train. Come, I’ll take you where the real boxers train.’”
Abu Bakar turned pro at the end of 2015, and now trains out of JMC Boxing Gym (what Makati Cinema Square is known as when it isn’t hosting club shows) with trainer Xerxes Lanuza, or “Ace” as he’s known.
Abu Bakar plans to stay in the Philippines, with a vision for five fights in 2017. His opposition to date (a combined record of 1-19) reveals his relative inexperience. But he’s got dreams bigger than fighting in a rundown mall with no air conditioning.
“Number one is to create a legacy for my family. Second is to put Malaysia on the world boxing map, and of course to become a world champion one day,” says Abu Bakar.
And why stop there?
“If everything goes well, hopefully by the beginning of 2018 I can get a fight in Las Vegas.”
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.