Stories of chance encounters that change a person’s life are often reserved for feel-good Hollywood movies or romance novels. In the real world, it is not often when true love blossoms, while simultaneously altering the course of a young martial artist’s life altogether.
For 28-year-old Rika Ishige, she has one of these tales to tell, as she prepares for her second professional bout on Friday, 26 May, at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES. This particular story features the man who would become her first mixed martial arts coach, and subsequently, her boyfriend.
Growing up, “Tinydoll” was no stranger to martial arts. Coming from a mixed Thai and Japanese heritage, and a father who was a judo practitioner, she was understandably intrigued.
“I started martial arts when I was 13 or 14,” she reveals. “It was to challenge myself. I did karate and aikido together.”
As is often the case, life got in the way of training, and Rika had to put martial arts on hold while she was studying. Though she was not able to give her time to training, she did maintain her interest, as the growing sport of mixed martial arts began to be televised and available on the internet.
Fascinated by the showmanship and the sport’s competitive nature, she found the time to resume her martial arts training. Unfortunately, karate and aikido were not enough to satisfy her growing hunger to learn. Simply put, she wanted something more.
While working at an aikido event as emcee, Ishige caught the eye of Thai martial arts pioneer and ONE Championship lightweight star Shannon Wiratchai. Though his efforts were at first rebuffed, she eventually found out about his coaching, and requested to train with him.
Friends became training partners, and training partners became sweethearts, as their shared interest and time spent together brought their relationship ever closer. After years of training in separate disciplines, Ishige now got her wish to learn different styles at the same time, and even blend them together into one of her own.
Though martial arts were not alien to her family, she admits there was some skepticism when she revealed to them that she wished to compete professionally.
“The first time I told them, they were concerned. They were concerned about my face,” Ishige says with a chuckle, admitting there were many assumptions people made about combat sports in Thailand, and that people believed they were not suitable for a petite middle-class woman such as herself.
“Most people do not understand mixed martial arts. They think there are no rules and barbaric. I want to show them it is not like that. It is a real sport, and me, I am a small girl, but I can compete in a world-class organization. It is not brutal – it is about technique.”
Like her partner, Ishige is helping to pave the way for other martial arts in Thailand – apart from the country’s vaunted Muay Thai – as its first professional female athlete in the sport. By competing in world-class events in the biggest arenas around the region, she is showing her fellow countrymen that it is not underground, and by winning and showcasing her skills in the cage, she is reiterating that it is not just a brawl.
When Ishige and Wiratchai competed together on the same ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM card in Bangkok in March, both scored first-round stoppage victories in front of their hometown fans. Their dual success helped to show Thais that the nation had other great combat sports athletes to get behind, and that mixed martial arts can grow alongside Muay Thai to cater to all sports fans.
Together, they are opening eyes and introducing legions of already passionate enthusiasts to the burgeoning world of Asian martial arts. Without that chance encounter, Wiratchai’s persistence, and Ishige’s love for the sport, things might not have progressed in Thailand in the same way, or as quickly.
If “Tinydoll” can keep pushing forward and winning, as she plans to do against Nita Dea on 26 May at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, then that progress is set to continue.
“I want to keep competing and showcasing martial arts in Thailand,” Ishige says. “Long term, I can be a champion!”