I’m in the swanky changing rooms at the slick Evolve fighting studio, and out of the corner of my eye I catch Zoro taking his top off. Zoro is fighting in the main event at next month’s ONE Fighting Championship, Asia’s biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) event – he’s Brazilian, square-jawed and enormous, and I’m about to step into a cage to fight him. This is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. I wanted to see how MMA fighters train, so what better way than to train with them and spar with one of them? Looking at him in the changing room, it seems less like a good idea.
Evolve is by some margin the top MMA gym in Asia, with 51 instructors and shining, world-class facilities. As I enter, there’s a muay Thai class happening, with students punching, kicking and sharply exhaling in near-perfect sync – it’s like a Karate Kid montage set in a Park Hyatt hotel gym. Evolve is fast becoming an MMA institution, reputed to have the best collection of muay Thai instructors in the world, with coaches who’ve been world champions in muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA, boxing and no-gi grappling. For October’s ONE event – its sixth iteration after being launched in July last year – Evolve will likely be sending five of its fighters.
Zoro – full name Zorobabel Moreira – is the biggest draw among them. The 29-year-old is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist – he started aged ten in Macaé, near Rio de Janeiro – but three years at Evolve have seen him master the other areas of MMA, especially muay Thai. Though his seven wins (he’s lost once) usually come from getting opponents to the ground and choking them, in June he used a soccer kick to defeat American MMA star Roger Huerta. His other victories include last year’s defeat of Andy Wang, a Taiwanese-American who hadn’t lost a fight since 2007. In other words, this guy’s good. Very good.
Thankfully, while he was silent and frankly terrifying in the changing rooms, when I meet him outside he breaks into a huge grin and gives me a high-five. I’m 2m tall and 90kg – I’d like to think that I’m in the mould of the tall, skinny guy that Brad Pitt was thinking of in Fight Club when he said his ideal fight would be against Abraham Lincoln (‘Tall guy, big reach. Skinny guys fight till they’re burger’). Really, I just feel skinny and frightened.
As we enter the cage, Zoro leads me in a warm-up that he’s very casual about – the 60 sit-ups are done with the nonchalance of a man cleaning his teeth. After push-ups, jumping jacks and some basic stretches, he shows me a few jiu-jitsu basics. This is just a warm-up, but it roughly involves him straddling me and me moving his enormous forearms before shifting my hips and putting him in a headlock with my thighs. It’s complicated, hard work, and involves us both spending a fair bit of time with our heads in each other’s groins.
Finally, he hesitantly asks if I’ve sparred before. Not really, I say, but I’m game. So all of a sudden we’re fighting, except that he’s not really trying. At first I charge at him like a 12-year-old in a schoolyard fight and try to get him on the ground (I’ve heard this is the way to win) – yet somehow he always deftly uses my energy against me. What’s frustrating is the total lack of effort on his part. At one point, he humours me, and allows me to lift his leg and spear-tackle him to the canvas. Yet just as I’m straddling him (again) and about to administer my Mortal Kombat-style death move, I feel two legs wrap around my neck like twisting tree trunks. As the pressure builds, I tap out furiously, convinced he might break my neck.
All in all, though, I think I’ve given him slightly more of a workout than he expected. So, cockily, I ask him to really try to beat me the next time – to see how quickly he can finish me off. The answer is about three seconds. He simply walks up to me, grabs my head and twists it into the kind of headlock that there’s no escape from. I feel like a fish on a line, flapping hopelessly as his giant forearm tightens around my neck. After a few more rounds, I’m drenched in sweat and ready to stop. Zoro gives me another big high-five and a huge grin. Only in the literal sense has he made me feel small – in every other respect, he’s been as gentlemanly as it’s possible to be while physically humiliating someone.
I feel better about it all when Zoro tells me in faltering English about his training regime. He trains at Evolve every morning for two hours, and every afternoon for two-and-a-half hours, which involves everything from running to skipping, jumping, grappling, sparring, and punching bags and pads. One thing he doesn’t use is weights – his vast muscle comes just from training specifically for what he’ll do in the ring. He doesn’t drink and avoids sugars, because ‘sugar makes me slow’. ‘The key is discipline,’ he says. ‘That, and you have to believe it. I feel stronger than ever at the moment – I’m training every day and I know I’m in good shape.’ I now know, too. Good luck to the man who faces Zoro at the ONE championship – I think he’ll need it.