They called her ‘The Soul Crusher’.
But the story of Brunei-born mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Tiffany Teo is more about hope than destruction.
Hope that one day the Harvey Weinsteins of the world will realise that women are not toys. Or slaves.
“It’s good that we’re showing we can fight,” Tiffany tells The Scoop.
“Now you see more females doing it [MMA], and doing well in the sport. I feel like it encourages more females to take up the sport professionally.”
Tiffany, armed with a new nickname (“No Chill”), is scheduled to fight November 24 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium as part of ‘ONE: Immortal Pursuit’.
It’s sort of a homecoming party for ONE Championship — the biggest MMA promotion in Asia — and interestingly the co-headlining event on the night is a title fight between two women. But more on that later.
Tiffany, who will have turned 28 by her next fight, will be looking to improve on her 6-0 record when she faces India’s Pooja Tomar.
The dream is to one day become a championship belt holder at ONE — a victory in November edges her closer to this goal.
Not all MMA champions need a belt, though, and Tiffany admits she would still feel a great sense of pride if her journey served as inspiration for young girls.
THE BRUNEI CONNECTION
Tiffany spent her formative years in Singapore, her dad wanted her to get the benefits of the island-state’s celebrated schooling system.
However, her martial arts education would not have been complete without an unexpected return to the country of her birth over two decades later.
“I have no childhood recollection of Brunei — did my nursery and kindergarten all in Singapore,” Tiffany says. “But I managed to go back to Brunei about two years ago.”
Tiffany was deep into boxing at the time, an affair sparked by a tough Muay Thai loss.
“My coaches felt if I had used my hands more — because I was kicking a lot — I might have won. They told me I should work on boxing.”
Once she got a taste of the ‘sweet science’, she fell in love with it, and punched out a name for herself in the Singapore boxing scene.
Then, someone from the Brunei embassy showed up at her gym and said they were looking for a female boxing coach to train a member of the royal family.
“Back then I didn’t have a full-time job. So I was like, yeah, I can commit for one or two months,” Tiffany recalls. “I left for Brunei. It was kind of interesting how things worked out.”
The experience of being a personal trainer to a princess went smoothly — Tiffany describes her as “very nice” and “easy going” — but she soon discovered that the rest of Brunei did not share her passion for boxing.
“Before I left Singapore for Brunei, I was already doing a bit of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I hated it and I told one of my team-mates that I was done with it when I came back,” she says.
“And then I went to Brunei and there were no boxing gyms!
“But there was a really good BJJ gym there called Busiido.”
Busiido Martial Arts Academy launched in 2008 and the founder of the Kiarong-based gym, Alwee See, remembers Tiffany’s frequent workouts with his trainers.
“Tiffany is very talented and disciplined and was very committed to her training,” he recalls. “She is the quiet person who speaks less and trains more. She was well-liked by her training partners and coaches.”
Learning BJJ can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Imagine a Muay Thai fighter or a boxer practicing for hours every day — without being allowed to throw a punch!
BJJ, of course, is a system of grappling and ground-fighting techniques. Every MMA fighter needs some expertise in ground-based martial arts to succeed.
“I was kinda forced into doing BJJ. I still hated it but after a few months I started to appreciate the sport,” says Tiffany.
CHOIR GIRL-TURNED FIGHTER
Fast forward to May 2017 and a 27-year-old fighter by the name of Tiffany Teo has the Singapore Indoor Stadium on its feet.
The cheers turn to roars as she peppers American Rebecca Heintzman-Rozewski with a round of combinations and a ferocious left jab.
Tiffany wins by unanimous decision. The judges don’t glance at Heintzman-Rozewski’s bloodied and damaged nose to help them with their decision.
It was a dominant display against an opponent whose superior grappling skills were expected to pose more of a challenge.
“The plan was to out-strike her and make this more of a stand-up fight, because I know she is more comfortable on the ground with her wrestling,” Tiffany said immediately after the victory.
“But even when it went to the ground, I felt I out-grappled her.”
It was Tiffany’s sixth win on the bounce as a professional MMA fighter. Not bad for someone who was literally a choir girl back in secondary school.
“I was in choir for four years and after that and I went on to junior college and joined the music society,” she tells The Scoop.
Perfecting your pitch may seem a million miles away from learning to land a punch. But from a mental aspect, they’re actually closer than you think.
“You have to go for endless training just to get a little bit better. And that’s what fighting is like,” Tiffany explains.
“When I first started martial arts — I wouldn’t say I was extremely talented. I was just addicted to it and kept showing up and wanting to get better.”
GRAPPLING WITH SEXISM
Canadian fighter Angela ‘Unstoppable’ Lee is the reigning Atomweight champion at ONE.
In May, she successfully defended her belt for a second time in front of 12,000 fans at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, defeating Brazil’s Istela Nunes with an anaconda choke in the second round.
Angela’s next fight in November is against Mei Yamaguchi — a Japanese veteran she beat in 2016 when she was just 19, propelling her to become the youngest ever champion of a major MMA promotion.
ONE have been promoting the rematch as the headline act in their Immortal Pursuit event. The other headliners sharing the spotlight with the two women are the legendary MMA figures Ben Askren and Shinya Aoki.
It’s not a surprising move from a company whose mantra is: “To unleash superheroes across Asia to ignite inspiration, hope, strength, and dreams across all segments of society”.
ONE’s charismatic chief executive officer, Chatri Sityodtong is well aware of the impact highlighting women’s MMA can have on breaking stereotypes of women in Asia.
“You know it’s funny that you bring up that question, because I just had lunch with Angela Lee yesterday and I was telling her how amazing of an opportunity she has to be a role model and an inspiration to women all over Asia [and] across the world,” Chatri told The Scoop at a press conference back in September.
Chatri added that fighting sexism was “something very close to his heart”.
“The way I look at my role in the world, and the way I look at ONE Championship’s role in the world, is to hopefully alleviate some of the major issues that are around: [such as] gender inequality, income inequality, education inequality, and using this platform I have to help people.”
For fighters like Angela Lee and Tiffany Teo, their ability to compete and succeed in a male-dominated sport such as MMA is confronting for some.
But for others it’s inspiring.
“Certainly, it is very encouraging for female fighters like Tiffany to break the stereotype which will eventually attract more females to take up the sport,” says Busiido founder Alwee.
“My advice for young girls is to go for it,” Tiffany says. “If it is something you really want. It doesn’t have to be fighting. Any goal that you have — just go for it.
“It’s not going to be easy but trust the process. Don’t lose sight of the angle.”