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How Evolve Became One Of The World’s Top Martial Arts Gyms

Jun 7, 2020

Before it was christened by sports media as the leading mixed martial arts gym in Asia – where superstars like Renzo Gracie and Rafael Dos Anjos have held training camps – Evolve MMA was just a discrete tenant in PoMo, one of Singapore’s oldest malls.

But upon opening in 2009, Evolve already stood out from its contemporaries. With mixed martial arts in Southeast Asia still in its infancy, the modern, state-of-the-art facility was the first of its kind in “The Lion City.” 

Uniting Cultures

Muay Thai legend Yodkunsup Por Pongsawang trains BJJ World Champion Alex Silva at Evolve MMA

Evolve had a vision of becoming a combat sports powerhouse, and it quickly began laying the foundation to make that dream a reality.

Underpinned by a philosophy of bringing authentic martial arts to Singapore, the gym’s leadership quickly amassed the largest group of World Champion instructors across various disciplines.

Recruited from all over the world, these instructors were the top experts in their respective fields, which included Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, wrestling, and Muay Thai.

With those elite teachers in the fold, Evolve was able to offer the unparalleled experience of training under World Champions with diverse skill sets – an enticing concept for any aspiring martial arts star.

“The level of instruction at Evolve set it apart from other academies. The instructors descend from legends like Kru Sityodtong and Renzo Gracie,” Wesley De Souza, Vice President of Evolve, says.

“This opened doors. Now you didn’t have to travel to Thailand just to get that authentic Muay Thai experience. You could learn grappling from the BJJ World Champions and wrestling from United States champions.”

With this strategy, Evolve quickly became the world’s greatest hotbed of mixed martial arts talent and helped legitimize the sport in the region, but it was no easy task to unify the different combat styles from the cultures across Asia.

“Some martial arts, like wushu, are deeply entrenched in the Philippines, and when you look at Thailand, they have their long and proud tradition of Muay Thai fighters,” De Souza explains.

“Every country has a distinct martial art, like Malaysian silat or Myanmar’s lethwei. I believe Evolve was the first to attempt to bring them all together under one roof.”

Delivering On The Global Stage

Former ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya Aoki sits on the ramp following his win over Honorio Banario

With such a wide range of cultures represented in the training center, the Evolve Fight Team was assembled with high-profile athletes who would compete in martial arts organizations around the globe – including ONE Championship.

Some of the many Evolve Fight Team members include Singapore’s own Amir Khan, Japanese legend Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki, Copa De Mundo BJJ World Champion Alex “Little Rock” Silva, multiple-time Muay Thai World Champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, and prodigious siblings “Unstoppable” Angela Lee and Christian “The Warrior” Lee.

When it came time to compete, all of those athletes delivered big on the global stage.

Dejdamrong and Silva both claimed the ONE Strawweight World Title, and Aoki had two reigns as the ONE Lightweight World Champion.

Khan quickly established himself as a homegrown martial arts sensation and racked up the most knockouts in ONE Championship history, a record he now shares with “The Warrior.”

Angela Lee and Christian Lee with their ONE Championship belts at ONE: CENTURY

The Lees have both been sensational. Angela’s Cinderella run of five consecutive victories culminated in her capturing the inaugural ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship in May 2016, which she has held ever since. Christian claimed the ONE Lightweight World Title and the ONE Lightweight World Grand Prix Championship in 2019.

Alongside the skyrocketing popularity of ONE Championship, Evolve’s unprecedented success lifted the gym to global prominence.

“When you have a recognizable face like Angela dominating in ONE Championship, word gets around fast with all the media attention,” De Souza says.

“We started getting more international visitors at Evolve. We even had a guy from Norway come to take a class in Singapore.”



‘All About The Human Spirit’

Nong-O Gaiyanghadao prays with the belt

Through the years, Evolve – which now has four locations across “The Lion City” – continued to add experienced instructors and exciting, young talent while projecting a healthy image of martial arts that appealed to all demographics.

At the same time, the explosion of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a fitness craze began to take root in many Southeast Asian countries.

“People realized martial arts was not just about fighting or self-defense, but also a great way to lose weight and a fun way to keep fit,” De Souza says.

“Older folks, professionals, even parents with children have all come through the door at Evolve, each with their own reasons – be it to keep fit or overcome bullying.”

With De Souza helping to lead the way, Evolve rolled out a PR campaign that sought to redefine mixed martial arts in a more positive light.

“I believe we were the only gym in Asia to put ourselves out there and show the world that true martial arts is all about the human spirit. It’s about building confidence in people,” he says.

A happy Muay Thai class at Evolve MMA

That image was widely seen as a refreshing countermovement to the violent, blood-sport nature of mixed martial arts that was often marketed in the West.

“We cleansed the idea of martial arts in the public eye,” De Souza adds of the training center’s vision. “And I think Evolve’s mission of ‘Unleashing your greatness through the power of martial arts’ really began to resonate.”

This mission has also been instilled in the Fight Team’s coaches and instructors, with the aim of leading the gym’s athletes to even greater heights. 

“You should never rest on your laurels. If you are doing good, it only means you’re here to keep doing good,” De Souza says.

“We always seek to constantly improve, and we hold the Fight Team to a similar standard as well. So, our instructors and head coaches have to be the best to carry out this mission.”

The Sky Is The Limit

Evolve MMA's Troy Worthen steps into the Singapore Indoor Stadium for his bout with Mark Fairtex Abelardo

Whether it’s been Eduardo Pamplona or Heath Sims at the helm, the direction at Evolve has always come from the roots of an elite coaching tree.

Both men hailed from highly decorated backgrounds – Pamplona from the renowned Black House gym and Sims from Team Quest and the U.S Olympic wrestling team.

Evolve then found its next head coach with the hiring of former Shooto Middleweight World Champion Siyar “The Great” Bahadurzada this past JanuaryUnder Bahadurzada’s tutelage, Evolve will look to continue its winning ways when ONE Championship’s 2020 calendar of events resumes.

There was certainly a lot of success last year, when numerous rookies from the 2018 Evolve Global Tryouts – including Aleksi “The Giant” Toivonen, Troy “Pretty Boy” Worthen, Roshan Mainam, Hiroki Akimoto, and Ryuto “Dragon Boy” Sawada – posted victories in The Home Of Martial Arts.

Additionally, Evolve superstar Nong-O Gaiyanghadao maintained his firm grasp on the ONE Bantamweight Muay Thai World Title, while his teammate and Thai compatriot Sam-A Gaiyanghadao added the ONE Strawweight Kickboxing World Title to his long list of accolades.

Ritu Phogat makes her mixed martial arts debut against Nam Hee Kim at ONE AGE OF DRAGONS

This year then started in impressive fashion for the Singapore talent factory.

Indian wrestling sensation Ritu “The Indian Tigress Phogat continued to shine, Worthen and Eko Roni Saputra added wins to their respective slates, and Sam-A earned a record-breaking third ONE World Title in the strawweight Muay Thai division. 

Evolve’s triumphs in all areas of martial arts speak volumes about the cohesiveness and culture that De Souza and his team have built.

“I feel blessed to be a part of this group of people. Whenever we see one of our own compete and win, it’s not just a personal victory, but a win for the entire Evolve family,” he says.

“The fighters rely on the students at Evolve that come in, support the business, and allow them to train and do what they love. Then you have the sales and membership staff that bring in enrollments as well, and the PR team that continues to build our presence here in Asia.

“So whenever our fighters go out to compete, it’s a representation of the work of every individual.”

With ONE Championship also continuing its rocket-ship ascent, De Souza believes the sky is the limit for his training center.

“I think we are now a brand name in combat sports, to a point where I can say that Evolve has become synonymous with mixed martial arts in Asia,” he says.

“That’s a great source of pride because it’s a testament to our philosophy and the authentic values of martial arts. And because of our team and ONE Championship, we now have this platform to showcase this to the world.”

Read more: ‘Evolve At Home’ Brings Free Online Instruction To The ONE Super App