The Head Hunter
From the jungles to the ring, this pint-sized Malaysian kickboxer could be Asia’s next Contender
WORDS LUKE CLARK
PHOTOGRAPHY EDWIN TAN/LUMINA
As Bernard Radin steps into the ring, the world goes quiet. He is in a forest of calm and instinct. “There’s nothing, just you and your opponent. You just forget about everything.” Months spent training 30 hours a week have primed him for this. For the next few minutes, he is in a place he describes as his happiest. ‘The Head Hunter’ is back in business.
Fusing the athleticism of karate with the raw power of boxing, muay thai, or Thai kickboxing, is one of the world’s most explosive and physically intense sports — never more so than when it’s practised by a knockout specialist, intent on felling his opponent well before the referee calls time. At five feet seven inches tall, Radin is not physically imposing on first impression. But the intensity of his stare is at first unsettling, fused with a smile that seldom leaves his face. Through body language alone, Radin gives you the impression that he is ready for anything.
We discuss the reality TV show The Contender Asia, a muay thai variation on the original American boxing show, in which Radin is a contestant in the second season. Filmed on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the series is the brainchild of co-producer Mark Burnett, the British guru behind competition-based reality shows like Survivor and The Apprentice. The Contender Asia pits 16 top muay thai fighters against each other, with contestants eliminated weekly, until there are just two standing for the finale. Producers say Radin is the most likely Asian winner in a talent pool that includes the world’s best.
At 37 years old, Radin is also the show’s oldest competitor. Two years ago, he watched the first season of the TV show from his couch. “I was a retired fighter by then. I told my wife, ‘I’ll be in season two’. She looked at me and laughed — but if you want something to happen, it will happen.”
Life did not start out easy for Radin, and he has beaten the odds before. His Iban mother married a German man, whom he has never met, returning to her remote Sarawak village after she became pregnant. At three days old, Bernard was left in the hands of his grandmother, raised in their traditional Borneo longhouse. His childhood was split between hunting, tending to rice paddies, and journeying to school by canoe. Growing up with mixed parentage at the time was not easy, he says, and he was often in fights for looking different from other kids.
By the age of 13, he moved to Ipoh in peninsular Malaysia, to live with his mother. They didn’t see eye to eye, and Radin often slept on the streets.
Then at 14 he tried out the Korean martial art of taekwando, and something in him clicked. He started winning bouts, then national titles and regional medals. Later, he tried Chinese kickboxing, then muay thai.
Through competition, he gained the respect of others, and greater self-confidence. He also met his wife, Surina Adman. The couple now run an academy gymnasium in Perak, two hours from Kuala Lumpur. Proving that a troubled kid from the jungle can compete in the big league is a major motivation for Radin in The Contender Asia. “I really want to show a lot of youngsters that I’m coming from nothing too. Look at what I did.”
Preparing for the show was a hard road. For most visitors, Thailand’s Koh Samui means relaxation. For Radin, it became his training base for six months of private hell. Working with Pedang, a former Thailand muay thai champion, mornings consisted of a 10km run, followed by five rounds of punching bags. In the afternoon came 40 minutes of weights, a five km run and two more hours of training. He repeated this training day six times every week. “For the first two months, it was torture. Every day, I asked ‘why am I doing this? I’m too old’.” Then as training became more bearable, his confidence lifted. “Six months ago, I was happy to be in the show. Three months later, I was shooting for the semi final. Then, as time passed, I realised, damn, I can do this.”
In muay thai, winning means constant problem-solving. If a fighter is short, you use your reach. Or if he’s six feet three inches tall, chop him down.
“When you see a big tree, you don’t look up. You cut down here”, he says, pointing to his legs. “When they fall down, they are a lot shorter than you.” Radin visualises each match, studying the mathematics of his opponent, estimating how many kicks or punches they’ll throw. “It’s like playing chess. You move one step, but you see three or four steps ahead.”
Then it’s time for the knockout kick. To date, Radin has won 32 of 45 fights by knockout. Making a “knock on wood” gesture, he says he’s never been knocked out. He has lost though, five times. Sometimes at night, he sees the faces of the victors. Never mind the cracked ribs, fractured legs, or his perennially busted nose, losing is the feeling he fears most.
Radin feels his Iban heritage most in the ring. He remembers at nine years old, sneaking out to watch the jungle training for kuntau, the Iban martial art and being inspired by the evening stories of his elders, the real head hunters. Now a family man, he says his kids, aged 17, 12 and five years old, consider him a friend. Despite his instinct to protect them, he still wants them to experience a match, at least once: “Part of my culture is, you must have heart. It’s one thing I want to build in my kids. You step in the ring for self-discovery. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just finish the five rounds.”
Excited about his one last test, Radin expects The Contender Asia atmosphere to be super-charged. “You put 16 tigers in a cage. All cocky, confident guys who think they can win it. How do you think it will feel?” Yet he says training with former muay thai world champions impressed on him how humble and friendly they were.
Ultimately though, each new challenge is personal for Radin. “When fighting in the ring, it’s not about the opponent. I fight my fear, and my ego.” And when the time is right, he knocks them out.
The Contender Asia screens from early December, at 9pm on AXN Asia. www.contenderasia2.com
Ready to rumble
Former champion Stephen Fox is presenter of The Contender Asia.
Is this season more global in focus?
Yes, contestants from five continents were selected through regional qualifiers, which is a new addition. The quality of the fighters is much higher, and the boys are very well matched. This time we’ll bring in two celebrity trainers, and showcase the host destination a lot more.
Has muay thai changed since you were fighting?
It was a totally different league, the sport was not as popular outside of Thailand. Now it’s a recognised world sport, and is in the SEA Games and the World Martial Arts Games. There’s much bigger competition.
What’s the best way to get involved in the sport competitively?
Our sport has fully recognised national federations, whose websites list the recommended gyms. In Singapore alone, there are over 40 recognised muay thai gyms.