Keith Alden made his pro debut in 2012 when, by his own admission, he wasn’t ready. ONE Championship had been formed a few months earlier, the sport was suddenly exploding into the mainstream and fighters were throwing themselves into professional competition with scant regard for the relative risks and rewards.
At the time Alden had been training part time at Evolve MMA for around three years, but decided to go it alone and compete at Malaysian Fighting Championship 4 in Kuala Lumpur without telling his trainers. The fight finished in a draw and it wasn’t a performance that the Irish featherweight could be proud.
“I wasn’t ready at all and I wasn’t happy with the draw but the fight taught me a lot of hard lessons. I jumped into it without telling my instructors, without getting the right advice on weight cutting, without a game-plan or proper camp, and it showed.”
Interestingly his opponent that night, Muhammad Hanif bin Zainal, would go on to fight for a few promotions in the region like Dare and the now defunct Legend FC, but for Alden it was an experience that would inspire him to take a more serious approach to his training,
“I didn’t give as good an account of myself as I should have and the cage is a crucible, it’s unforgiving. Once you’re in there, the line between what you think you can do and what you really can becomes very apparent. After the event, I took a long hard look at myself and decided that if I really wanted to do this again, I was going to prepare properly.”
Evolve MMA’s fight team has an elite reputation and is home to stellar names like Ben Askren, Shinya Aoki and Rafael Dos Anjos. It’s difficult for anyone with a day job like Alden to break into these illustrious ranks, but despite a chastening experience on his debut the Irishman still had an appetite for competitive action.
“When I fought Hanid there wasn’t an Evolve competition team in place, but when it started in 2013, I was selected and I can’t emphasize how much the Evolve competition team has improved me both as a fighter and as a person.”
A year after his first tentative foray into competitive MMA action Alden returned to the cage, this time with the help and support of his trainers. He took on Malaysian Malik Kreishan at Ultimate Beatdown 13 and won by second-round TKO. The featherweight would go on to fight two more times for the promotion in 2014 with back-to-back decision wins taking his overall record to 3-0-1.
It represents a remarkable upturn in fortunes since that disappointing debut draw in 2012 and Alden credits his coaching team with giving him the impetus to turn his career around.
“My coaches are some of the top athletes in the world with a wealth of experience in combat sports that I think is unparalleled. If you’re open to learning and you’re exposed to that kind of talent you can’t help but get better. Everyone in the gym has been hugely supportive of me, but in particular guys like Heath Sims, Eddie Ng, Mitch Chilson, Brian Choi, Irshaad Sayed, and Bruno Pucci have become both mentors and friends to me. All the elements of my game have improved under them and every day I learn a little more.”
Alden was one of the first students to ever sign up for Evolve MMA and has been training at the camp virtually since its inception. Even though his professional career is very much in its infancy, he already has years of training experience under his belt and enjoys advising the younger fighters and watching their career’s progress.
“I’m now one of the more experienced guys on the competition team. I’m happy and honored to be able to give even a little advice and some recommendations (usually on how not to make the same mistakes I made) to the talent that I see coming from our gym. Benedict Ang is one of these people and he has taken Singapore by storm. I’m proud to train with him. Another fighter from Evolve that you need to pay close attention to is Anita Yeo. I see great things for her in the future too.”
Alden’s reward for winning three straight fights for Malaysia’s top MMA promotion is a shot at the Ultimate Beatdown 145-pound belt. This August, he will have the opportunity to become a champion when he challenges Chaitanya Gavali for one of the organization’s inaugural titles and the Irishman is excited by the upcoming opportunity.
“It would be huge for me, but maybe not for the reasons you’d first think of. I know my journey in martial arts won’t end whatever happens on Aug. 15 because it will always be a part of my life. My real motivation is to show my gym, my friends at Evolve, and my coaches that I’ve been able to put to use what they’ve taught me – that I’ve taken on a challenge and that we as a team have overcome it. I want to make them proud and when I win, it will be for them.”
Gavali’s record currently stands at 3-1 and he’s fought for SFL as well as a couple of promotions in Malaysia, but Alden is adamant that he has what it takes to defeat the Indian.
“Chaitanya looks to be a tough guy. He’s scrappy and he fights hard. It takes guts to get in the cage and any man or woman that does it deserves respect in my opinion. I think it’ll be a hard night, but I’m looking forward to getting in there with him, showing off my new skills and putting on a show.”
Evolve MMA has produced numerous champions, but while the likes of Dejdamrong, Askren, Aoki and Irshaad Sayed are full-time fighters, Alden has a day job and combines training commitments with work as a scientist. It would make his ascendancy from average debutant to undefeated titleholder all the more remarkable and, at Ultimate Beatdown 16, he will be hoping to take the final step on that journey.
(Follow @JamesGoyder on Twitter | Photo by David Ash)