Beyond the mat: Fuelled by passion alone, can Malaysia’s sole wrestling promotion stay afloat?

R. Loheswar
Don’t let the hard exterior fool you. Gautham will give you the shirt of his back if you asked him for help. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 — In 2014, Ayez Shaukat Fonseca Farid took a leap of faith and opened Malaysia’s first-ever wrestling school/promotion — Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MYPW) with just four students under his wing.

Back then, he didn’t even have any proper experience when it came to professional wrestling. He was an avid fan of the sport growing up, and did stunt choreography for several local movies like KL Gangster 2, where he choreographed the final fight and was also the action director for Juvana 2 and 3.

While working and studying, Shaukat was always looking for wrestling promotions to go to and watch, but to his dismay could not find any events locally.

“I tried googling wrestling promotions in Malaysia but there was nothing. Then a chance meeting with Booker-T gave me my first idea of what to do,” Shaukat told Malay Mail in a recent interview.

The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is arguably one of the biggest international wrestling promotions and Booker-T, also known as Robert Booker Tio Huffman is one of its Hall of Famers, and a multi-time world champion.

Shaukat said he took part in a competition organised by TV3 and won the chance to have lunch with Booker-T. When he asked the legendary wrestler on how to go about having a career in sports entertainment, the latter told him — either fly out to America or start one (a wrestling promotion) here on his own.

And so Shaukat did. He scraped together RM13,000 and underwent a distance training programme with retired wrestler Dr Thomas Prichard, who trained stars like The Rock and The Hardy Boyz.

“From there I learnt the art of wrestling for a year and after some time decided to open my school in Bandar Tun Hussein Onn in March 2014.

“At the time I asked myself will this work and will anyone respond to it? But I decided to post an ad on Facebook. Soon after I got four guys aged from 13-25.”

Debts and ridicule

Shaukat said soon after word got around that there was a “wrestling school” in Malaysia, with it came the harsh words, ridicule and mocking by naysayers.

There is a social stigma attached with pursuing a career in professional wrestling, as many scoff at the sport given how its storylines are often scripted.

While this is somewhat true, the training and conditioning an athlete undergoes in order to become a professional wrestler is no easy feat, and takes years of perfecting. One poorly-executed move in the ring could bring about a permanent injury.

And for Shaukat, it wasn’t just the haters that he had to deal with at the time. The costs of running a wrestling school (of even just four students) took a huge toll on his finances, leaving him in debt.

Shaukat recalled how he had to work multiple jobs during the day just to sustain the school, as well as provide for his family.

“I did anything I could get my hands on. Editing, script writing, videos, stunts I did it all to try to sustain the school and my family,” said the 31-year-old father of two.

“Many times I wanted to quit as the pressure was too much and debts were mounting.

“At one point I was doing seven jobs. But I couldn’t give up for I’d be disappointing my students. I couldn’t live with that so I kept going,” he said.

MYPW had their first show in 2015 at a community hall in Seputeh, where a 100-odd people, consisting of mainly friends and family turned up.

“The rest were people waiting to laugh at us or curious to see what all the fuss was about,” recalled Shaukat.

It was after this first historic show that people’s attitude towards MYPW started to change.

Those who attended were thrilled to see a rag-tag group of young Malaysians flying across the ring, high-fiving the crowd and putting on a spectacle of a show for them.

“It felt good to prove people wrong because a lot were condemning us online. They followed us on Facebook just to make fun of us.

“But after the first show we started seeing positive comments and people were sharing our videos. That’s when more people joined us and we went from four students to 12 and grew very slowly from then.

“Nowadays people come and go so the number of students could be higher.”

Buoyed by their first trial-show, Shaukat invested more money for a proper show where there would be better lighting, better public announcement equipment and a proper ring.

“The trial show, we fought on a boxing ring so the mat was hard,” Shaukat said.

“For the proper show we built the ring. I had the blueprints and sent it to a company. The turnout for that show was 300 plus people and we had Dick Togo from Japan and two professional wrestlers from the Philippines attend.

“I felt their presence legitimised us,”

Future of Malaysian wrestling Eeman The Kid is honing his skills in Australia in preparation for world domination. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

But have things changed since then?

Sadly, the financial viability of running regular live wrestling shows here continues to be an issue.

“In fact, right now, with 30 students and a few shows were barely breaking even,” Shaukat said.

There are on average six wrestling shows a year in Malaysia, excluding events overseas. Shaukat said all their shows are now held at Kuash Theatre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail with a capacity of 380 people and are sold out everytime with ringside tickets at RM60, and cheapest tickets at RM15.

Shaukat says he would like to promote more events in Malaysia but he simply cannot afford to do so.

The marketing and organising costs are high and the wrestlers who are in the local scene are only (still) doing it because they love the sport.

According to him, the only way to get more shows is to get booked overseas.

“It allows you to gauge your popularity and improve your skills. If you are popular you will have followers which is crucial in wrestling.

Right now, I’m voted by fans as the most popular wrestler in South-east Asia but Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana is surpassing me,” added Shaukat, referring to the hijabi who is slowly becoming a household name in the local wrestling scene.

What makes a good wrestling show?

A good story, good showmanship and good wrestling, Shaukat says.

For MYPW, its main antagonist or “heel” is Gautham Kanakaraj, a 28-year-old FoodPanda vendor operations staff who goes by the stage name “Gotham.”

Gautham has been wrestling for three years and is a singer, songwriter and rapper who has recorded and produced two singles Rap Star and Ali Baba in 2011 and 2012.

He was never a sportsman but felt something was missing in his life as performance opportunities dried up. He came across Shaukat’s advertisement for wrestling and gave it a shot.

Three years later, he credits wrestling for keeping his life on the straight and narrow.

“Personally, wrestling saved my life,” Gautham told Malay Mail.

“In 2017 after my dad passed, I couldn’t cope with the grief and was going down a wrong path.

“I started drinking a lot and was depressed. But when I started wrestling good things happened. I was being noticed and soon got booked abroad for promotions.

“It was difficult in the beginning with all the push ups and sit ups but now I cannot imagine my life without wrestling. It’s given me a purpose,” he explained.

MYPW’s longest-serving student however is 18-year-old Eeman Noorazman; better known as “Eeman The Kid.”

He said he knows of the challenges associated with choosing wrestling as a career but he hopes that Nor Diana’s rising popularity would result in more fans coming to their future shows.

“The public need more exposure on what we’re trying to do and if we can get that I believe our popularity will grow,” said Eeman, who also took part in a wrestling event in Australia over the weekend.

MYPW’s next event will be in August. For more details visit their Facebook page at @MyProWrestling.

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