Former Singapore Olympian May Ooi gave up medicine for mixed martial arts

Passionate about cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in prominent local, regional as well as international automotive titles. More of her at and on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (cheryltay11). She also happens to be a recent gym and fitness convert.

Former Singapore national swimmer and Olympian May Ooi found herself "at a crossroads" when she returned home in 2009, after studying medicine in Europe for six years.

"It was a very drastic decision I had to make between becoming a doctor and following my passion to pursue a career in sports," the 37-year-old recalled.

Eventually, she decided to help her coach and fiance Silvio Romero Da Silva, 35, set up the Brazilian Cultural and Sports Centre, and Brazilian Fight Club MMA (formerly Stable MMA), with branches in both Singapore and Bali.

On top of running the four centres, Ooi also started competing in MMA, winning her first fight at local promotion Rebel Fighting Championship in December last year against Australia's Amy Adam.

“I like medicine and it was a necessity for me to do it -- as an athlete all my life, I needed to know how my body functions to the minute detail,” said Ooi. “However, if I became a doctor, I wouldn’t have the time to do the things I wanted to do."

"Like surf big waves or train to beat the crap out of someone," she added, jokingly.

Rite of passage

Ooi picked up the Brazilian martial art of capoeira while in medical school in the Czech Republic.
She met Silvio at a capoeira workshop  in 2007, on one her of return trips to Singapore. The duo started dating shortly after.

Together with Silvio, Ooi delved into the multiple disciplines of mixed martial arts, but the thought of fighting competitively never crossed her mind -- until an encounter with Brazilian jiu-jitsu icon Royler Gracie.

The 48-year-old came to Singapore last August to give a workshop and suggested to Ooi that she “should fight”.

“I have a lot of respect for him, and I trust his judgment. He looked at me and said I should fight at least once," said Ooi. "So I thought, why not? I wouldn’t have given it so much weight if it was from anyone else."

Opportunity arrived when Rebel FC held its trials in October, and after being selected, Ooi took to the cage on fight night for an amateur contest against Adam, who already had four bouts under her belt.

The fearless Singaporean had only one goal that night: to win by submission, which she did, laying a rear naked choke on Adam with under a minute to go in the last round.

A few days after the fight, Adam asked for a rematch and Ooi agreed right away, but there are no firm plans yet.


Ooi's experience at the highest level of competitive swimming – she represented Singapore at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona – has definitely come in handy in her MMA training.

“The conditioning, mental attitude and the discipline to train and eat right from my swimming days help a lot," said Ooi, who trains every day and teaches up to five classes daily. "I have gone through those things before and getting back into competitive sports now is second nature.”

Her age of 37 doesn't bother her one bit either. When asked for how long more she intends to fight competitively, she replied, “I guess it will boil down to whether I want to keep fighting and not so much of whether my body can take it.”

Ooi's big dream, like so many others, is to sign for the world's largest MMA organisation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, someday.

Closer to home, there are plans to settle down, get married and have kids, although right now, her focus is lasered on training -- her next fight for Rebel FC, in the middle of the year, will be on a professional card.

Fight couple

Ooi shared that having a fiance as a coach has its advantages -- such as 24-hour attention -- but it also means being scolded harshly or having dinner interrupted to try out a move.

“She did take a long time to get used to my usage of expletives, which is typical of Brazilians," said Silvio. "I don’t want to see her hurt, but I also don’t want to put her in the cage to lose."

The two are equally passionate about developing and helping young talents in MMA, but of late, have been bothered by “the lack of certification and licensing” for instructors.

Noting the rising trend in fitness and MMA in Singapore, they pointed to gyms opened by individuals who have trained for just a year or two.

Ooi and Silvio find it “irresponsible” and said there “should be a central governing body for MMA as well as fitness instructors”.

“You can’t just do a certification for a few months from somewhere and then start training people. That’s a crime,” said Ooi.

Blazing trails

Looking back on her decision to choose MMA over medicine, Ooi reflected that despite everyone’s opposition, she stuck with her guns and now hopes to relay the message that people “do not have to conform to societal norms or pressures”.

“If you want it bad enough, focus on it and it will happen for you. The money will come,” she said.

MMA is Ooi’s platform to inspire and motivate both women and youths to follow their passion, and she said, “I want to see more women coming out to fight. I want to break this taboo that women can’t be strong and muscular.”

“I’m doing this at an extreme level, using MMA and at the age of 37, but it is doable,” she added. “Don’t let people talk you out of your dreams; don’t cave in to societal or parental expectations.

“I got a lot of flak for dropping medicine to become an athlete again. But at the end of the day, I would have lived my life the way I wanted it and if I die tomorrow, I have no regrets.”

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