Stefer Rahardian picks his way through the narrow alleys that wind through his central Jakarta neighborhood, where he has lived since the age of five.
As local kids shout out his nickname, “Eppen” – a sort of abstract play on his first name – neighbors chat on the verandahs of their neat middle class homes, as the evening call to prayer wafts overhead.
“This used to be a tough neighborhood when I was growing up,” the 31-year-old remembers. “Guys would be drunk on your front door. There were drugs and gangs. There are nice houses here now, and it is safer.”
It is just as well. Trouble has had a habit of dogging Rahardian. First, it was with his family. His mother and father split up 20 years ago, in a country where divorce is still taboo. The devastating death of his older brother followed shortly after that.
As if those incidents were not traumatic enough, every day he was bullied at school for all 90 cents of his lunch money. Small in stature and a devout Muslim in a Christian school, Rahardian was an easy mark – until he decided to stand up for himself.
“Day by day, month my month, I came to realize that if I do not fight back, then it would be really difficult for me to go to school here,” he explains. “In my school, there were so many different guys from the islands of Ambon and Papua. They were big. So I said, ‘Tomorrow, I will fight.’”
Rahardian challenged the biggest of the bullies. What followed was a short-lived and messy pushing and punching match that was broken up by a teacher. But the bullying spell was broken, and the thugs never bothered him again.
Ironically, it was not that schoolyard tussle that inspired the Indonesian to pick up martial arts. It wasn’t until a good friend invited him to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class in 2008 that he was bitten by the martial arts bug.
Working a full day as an office boy downtown, the young grappler would brave rush hour Jakarta traffic just to train for two hours every day, pouring much of his salary into paying his coach. Progress was slow.
“My first tournament, I lost. My second one, I lost. But I did not want to give up. I thought I only had to win once. I wanted to know I had not wasted my time,” he recalls. “In the fourth tournament, I came in second. That was when I got addicted to winning medals.”
Soon, however, disaster struck. During a training session in 2011, Rahardian’s sparring partner fell awkwardly on his leg, tearing the ACL in his right knee. Training and competition were out of the question. Crucially, so was work. Surgery would cost more than US$3700. His dreams hung in the balance.
“I needed to fix it, but I did not have the money,” he recalls, grimly.
Fortunately, Rahardian’s gym lent him the money, to be repaid from his earnings when he went back to work. He initially got the operation done in Surabaya, far from his home in Jakarta, at a reduced cost.
Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the surgery was botched. A year into his recovery, a screw used in the procedure popped out, and was floating in his knee. More borrowed money and another doctor fixed it, but many lost faith in him.
“Nobody wanted to train with me,” he admits, sadly. “They all thought I was all done.”
Then luck smiled in the guise of Andrew Leone. In 2013, the future ONE Flyweight World Title contender was beefing up his Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu skills at Jakarta Muay Thai & MMA, and Rahardian seemed to be a good fit to work with him. The two have been training together ever since.
“I do not want to disappoint Andrew (Leone), so I give 100 percent,” the Indonesian says. “I think he trusts me.”
Evidently, the trust is strong between the duo. Rahardian, who splits his time between that facility and Leone’s other gym, Bali MMA, has since followed his friend’s footsteps into the cage and has experienced success, too.
The Jakarta native made his professional debut in 2015, earned some quick victories, and then made the jump to ONE Championship. In August 2016, immediately upon arrival, he submitted a pair of opponents via rear-naked choke in under two minutes to capture the ONE Flyweight Indonesian Tournament Championship.
He continued to grind out some hard-earned victories in the year to follow, but picked up a marquee win this past September in the co-main event of ONE: TOTAL VICTORY.
At the Jakarta Convention Center, the grappler masterfully brought Cambodia’s Sim Bunsrun to the canvas, and softened him up with punches from the full mount position. When the Cambodian tried to move away from these punches and turned to his side, Rahardian secured a cobra-like rear-naked choke. He got the tap in 67 seconds.
Undefeated and now in possession of a flawless 7-0 professional record, Rahardian has the potential to become the biggest Indonesian martial arts hero ever produced. Even so, he is keeping everything in check by focusing on the little battles.
“I just want to keep improving and keep moving forward,” he says. That he is doing, both figuratively and literally.
In this moment, as he walks through the narrow alleys of his central Jakarta neighborhood, the budding superstar is constantly reminded of everything he has overcome in his life. He is empowered. Now, he can look around the corner and see a bright future ahead.