Making her professional debut in early 2016, Singapore fighter Tiffany Teo is one of the shining stars of the local MMA scene. Starting out with Muay Thai, she later progressed to boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and eventually MMA; she now holds a record of nine wins and one loss.
While the 31-year-old suffered her first professional loss in the sport to Chinese fighter Xiong Jing Nan in 2018, the local athlete later made a remarkable comeback with a victory over eight-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Michelle Nicolini in 2018 as well as Japan’s Ayaka Miura in February this year. She will next face Xiong Jing Nan again on Oct 30 to contend for the One Championship World Title in the women’s strawweight division.
The Singapore Women’s Weekly swung by her gym for a quick chat, and she sheds light on how she’s preparing for her upcoming title fight, how she dealt with the lowest point of her career and her future plans after retiring from the sport.
Tiffany Teo (TT): I wanted to keep fit and also learn a new skill. I started with Taekwondo when I was around 17 or 18. Then I got to know about Muay Thai through TV series Contender Asia, which had a Singaporean fighter called Zig Zach. He taught at one of the local gyms, and I decided to give it a go. A while later, a new Thai coach at the gym asked if I wanted to compete in a professional Muay Thai fight. But I was juggling school and a part-time job at the same time, and I felt so new, so I declined. But that planted a seed in my mind, that this was something I could do and commit myself to in future.
I went back to Buffalo, New York to complete my studies, and after I came back, I decided to check it off my bucket list, and competed in a Muay Thai fight, and subsequently, a national boxing match. As it was hard for me to find opponents in the boxing field, and since I was also into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this eventually led me to MMA.
TT: In 2012, I was a research assistant with at the National University of Singapore and A*Star, where I did a lot of research related to neuroscience and developmental psychology. When I decided to pursue fighting in 2013, I was a behavioral therapist on a freelance basis as it was easier to schedule my time. But it was still too draining as being a behavioral therapist is a mentally taxing job that requires a lot of attention and focus. The same goes for preparing for fights; it requires a lot of physicality. I realised I could only choose one; I couldn’t have the best of both worlds.
I decided to go with fighting, as it’s a very time-specific sport. I’m probably in my prime right now. And as my career as a behaviorial therapist, I can still do it when I’m older.
TT: During the Circuit Breaker, I had a lot of time to think through this, as it was a very uncertain time, especially for combat sports. I weighed my options, and also thought of pursuing my masters as I thought I wouldn’t be able to compete at least until a year later. I was kind of glad when One Championship told me they got the green light from the government to go ahead with the fight.
So for now, my priority is on fight sports, and I’d probably go back to doing my masters after I retire. Then I’ll consider doing either sports psychology or counselling psychology.
TT: I did a lot of drills and resistance training on my own, and borrowed some kettlebells from the gym — I mainly just tried to keep fit.
My teammate Kai Xiong and I exchanged videos on various techniques and he helped analyse my videos as well as gave feedback on what I could improve on. With the Covid-19 restrictions in place, it’s hard to work on my grappling techniques, which is an important aspect of MMA, so the training isn’t the most ideal. But we make do with what we can. On the bright side, everyone in Singapore is going through the same circumstances, so the playing field is somewhat levelled.
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TT: The nerves are always going to be there no matter how many times you’ve fought. It’s part of the game, and you’re putting yourself in a highly stressful situation in the cage — it’s all the fight camps, weight cuts and training leading up to this day.
TT: I have been pretty lucky in the sense that most, if not all, of my training partners are guys, and they have been really supportive. They take really good care of me and are very understanding when we train, knowing that guys and girls are just biologically different.
I guess the stereotypes come from people who don’t really understand martial arts. They’d ask questions like ‘Why do you want to get punched in the face’ or say ‘It’s not feminine or girly’. But I can get punched in the face and still be girly. They are two different aspects of me, when I’m inside the ring and out of it. And I think that applies to many aspects of life as well. People are just different versions of themselves in different settings.
TT: One was definitely my loss against Xiong Jing Nan, which was the first strawweight title I fought for. It was also the very first loss in my MMA career. After the fight, I did think about quitting. There were many injuries I had to take care of, including surgery for my cauliflower ear — it wasn’t serious but it got infected repeatedly, and I had to stay in the hospital for a week. There was a tear in my retina, which could have been a cumulative result of past trainings and fights.
I was forced to take a break, but this was a blessing in disguise as it gave me time to think about what I really wanted, and whether to pursue this. There were obviously big holes in my game that I had to address. I took a break from martial arts for a while, and delved more into fitness, like yoga. Yoga and meditation didn’t just help with my recovery, but also helped to improve my mental state.
I asked different people and training partners for feedback on my performance, and what I should work on and look out for. I also worked with my main MMA coach, Major Overall, to learn how to put everything together.
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TT: When you are chasing after your dreams at the start, there will be a lot of people doubting you. Especially in Singapore, where there’s a very pragmatic approach towards making decisions. That happened to me when I first started out. My junior college friends questioned if I could sustain myself with this career choice.
Honestly, I didn’t know either as there weren’t many female fighters in Singapore at that point in time I could use as a benchmark. But I knew that I wanted to try to work for it, and even if I failed, I would know that I gave it my best. I didn’t want to have to look back and think about the what ifs, or live my life with regret.
You have to want it bad enough to stick with it when the going gets tough, especially when you don’t get much support and when there are naysayers.
ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX is scheduled for Oct 30, and will be open to a live audience (up to 250 fans) for the first time since the pandemic.