South African Irshaad Sayed has never competed in an MMA fight in his homeland, but the inaugural RUFF (Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation) bantamweight champion is fast forging a reputation in China and making his fortune in the process.
The 24-year-old took home a tidy 1 million RMB (around 160,000 USD) in prize money, as well as the 135-pound belt after beating Yuan Chun Bo at the Hohhot People’s Stadium in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, last November. RUFF’s status as the only MMA organization sanctioned by the General Administration of Sport in China means that he also won the right to call himself a national champion.
There were no prizes for second place, so the stakes were high and Sayed, who is a two-time Muay Thai world champion, admits that the nerves jangled ahead of his title match at RUFF 8.
“There was definitely added pressure, but I tried to concentrate on the fight and not think about the money. It’s a real honor to be MMA champion of China, just think of the amount of people in China and I have proven myself to be the best at my weight,” he said.
Sayed put on a dominant performance to stop the overmatched Yuan with a second-round TKO and improve his record to 6-2. With that win came both the belt and the cash, but the sole disappointment for the South African is that he was denied the chance to settle a score with the only man to have ever beaten him in MMA competition.
He was originally set to face Jumabieke Tuerxun, whose 14-0 record includes a pair of wins over Sayed. The previous bouts between these two men had both went the distance with the first resulting in a unanimous decision win and the second being settled by split decision, each in favor of the Chinese fighter.
No one has ever come as close to beating Jumabieke as Sayed did in that rematch and the RUFF matchmakers had no hesitation in setting up a third fight – which would have the bantamweight belt and the 1 million RMB on the line – only for the trilogy to fall apart at the last minute when Jumabieke chose to sign with the UFC instead.
The challenge of avenging the only losses on his record was one Sayed relished and he was frustrated to see the opportunity snatched away.
“It was really disappointing not getting to fight him for the title. I hope our paths cross again in the future, but I have a great respect for Bieke as a fighter and as a person and I wish him all the best in UFC,” he said.
Having been beaten twice by Jumabieke, he knew he had to do something different in order to prevail in the third fight. So Sayed decided to switch his training camp from Hong Kong to Singapore and spent two months preparing at Evolve MMA.
Sayed has subsequently joined the Evolve MMA fight team on a full-time basis and thinks the move will help him continue making the transition from being purely a stand-up fighter to becoming a full-fledged mixed martial artist.
“I went to Evolve MMA because it is the top camp in the region and one of the best in the world and the skills that I learned working with all the BJJ black belts and wrestling coach Heath Sims are crucial for my style,” he revealed. “There are so many Muay Thai and boxing world champions to spar with and learning from teammates like Shinya Aoki and Rafael Dos Anjos will help me to take my career to the next level.”
Sayed’s base style is Muay Thai. At the age of 17, he left his family and friends in Cape Town behind in order to travel to Thailand to train and compete. The decision paid dividends as he claimed world titles with both the WMC and WPMF sanctioning bodies and returned to South Africa long enough to become national kickboxing champion there, as well.
In 2010, the opportunity to compete in MMA for the first time came about and Sayed, who was living in Hong Kong at the time, scored a first-round stoppage of highly regarded Thai prospect Ngoo Ditty in Macau. The victory inspired him to slowly transition away from Muay Thai and kickboxing in order to try and realize his obvious potential as a mixed martial artist.
That career move culminated in the RUFF title win last November and an unprecedented payday, but for Sayed, it has never been about the money. He has retained the enthusiasm for fighting, which inspired him to travel to Thailand as a teenager, and knows exactly what he wants to achieve in 2013.
“Getting paid for doing something that I enjoy is a real blessing. I remember getting 50 USD for my first pro fight and I was super excited because I thought, ‘Wow, they are actually paying me to do this!’ This year I want to to improve my record to 9-2 and continue working hard on my overall game with all the world champion trainers at Evolve MMA.”