When it comes to choosing the most complete martial arts gym in Kuala Lumpur, the first name that comes to mind is usually Monarchy MMA.
The gym was founded by former ONE Championship featherweight competitor Samir “Flexible” Mrabet, who pushed through a number of difficult situations to establish a true home for Malaysia’s finest warriors, including Agilan “Alligator” Thani, Peter Davis, Keanu Subba, and Mehdi Bagheri.
Beyond unearthing mixed martial arts superstars, Mrabet has also helped many of his students establish a healthy lifestyle through martial arts by providing them with a team of world-class coaches and a space to pick up valuable life skills.
Now, the Belgian entrepreneur shares how Monarchy MMA came to be, the biggest challenges he faced along the way, and how the gym developed the brand it’s known for today.
‘There Was No Energy’
Mrabet, a lifelong martial artist from Belgium, first arrived in Malaysia in January 2010. He was keen to train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), but he found it more difficult than expected.
“There were no gyms around the city center and I had to train at a place which was located a bit far from me,” he says.
He also recalls the training sessions being very different from what he was used to.
“When I attended my first class, I remember it was probably my first Friday in Malaysia. The pace was very, very slow,” the Belgian says.
“They had a very different way of operating a jiu-jitsu gym, focusing on a very relaxed sort of environment.
“To me, training jiu-jitsu is pushing yourself to the limits, sweating, and rolling – you just feel much better when all these come together. It’s a very peaceful moment. But over here, there was no warm-up or rolling, and I remember falling asleep in class. There was no energy.”
Based on his personal experience, Mrabet knew there was an opportunity to launch a gym that would fill the void in Kuala Lumpur by providing the level of BJJ training he envisioned.
However, to accomplish that goal, he would need money and resources – and he lacked both.
Catching Some Breaks
Before things fell into place, everything was going wrong in Mrabet’s life – his girlfriend was blacklisted from entering Malaysia and the modeling agency he was working for went bankrupt.
Just a few days later, he was kicked out of his apartment. However, he refused to quit and wound up catching a lucky break.
“I was walking the streets of Bukit Bintang at that time, looking for a room to stay in. I told myself sometimes a bad thing can lead to a really good situation,” the Belgian says.
“I bumped into this woman and her daughter who had a place to rent, and I was too shy to tell them I couldn’t afford it. I just accepted the offer, and they took me to this condo.
“Upon entering, I realized that there were five rooms. If I could manage to rent out the other four, I could stay for free.”
In four days, the Belgian managed to find housemates, and he finally had a place to call home. It was the first of a few lucky breaks that set him on his course to establishing Monarchy MMA.
After moving into his new home, Mrabet taught BJJ at a Muay Thai gym in Ampang. Although things did not go as planned there, he built a small following during his stint and decided it was time to create a place where he could provide the best of BJJ to Malaysians.
That meant it was time to find a location.
The condominium he was living at had a kindergarten that had recently closed, and one of his friends suggested he think about renting the space. Mrabet made an offer, and management accepted. With that, “Flexible” began to pay a monthly rental of 1,000 Malaysian ringgit (RM).
To afford that fee, he needed more money. And, just like his move to the new apartment, Mrabet caught a lucky break.
“I had a modeling offer that paid me good money,” he says.
“After the campaign, they wanted me to sign a memorandum of exclusivity worth RM4,000, but I managed to negotiate it to RM10,000. This helped me get a couple of new things for my gym such as rollout mats and fixing the looks of the place. I was the first to use rollout mats in Malaysia.”
Of course, even the best-laid plans can go awry. But despite facing more obstacles, Mrabet continued to find ways forward.
“I signed the lease to rent the space in November 2011, but I only managed to open in February 2012 because the mats arrived late, and the original contractor ran away with almost RM9,000,” he explains.
“Thankfully, I had a local guy called Lim who was very passionate about doing private classes. He started paying per week before signing up for 100 classes worth RM16,000. This helped me a lot to pay the rent, and buy a couple of bags and other equipment for the gym.”
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The Growth Of Monarchy MMA
Mrabet’s vision for Monarchy MMA was coming together, and he had an almost-perfect space to share martial arts’ greatest values.
There were students from his previous stint as a coach who had been more than happy to move to Monarchy MMA due to its location, but he needed some stars.
Then came the Subba brothers – Keanu and Gianni – along with Davis and Thani. With those talented athletes in-house, the potential for success was much higher. That potential caught the eye of a student named Michael Rodgers, who believed Monarchy MMA could expand from a cozy gym into a martial arts powerhouse.
Mrabet was still new to the entrepreneurial world, and at first, he did not take the suggestion seriously. But with Mrabet, Thani, and the Subbas already competing in events nationwide, Rodgers believed it was time to make the move.
“I was just managing myself and the few students I had,” the Belgian recalls.
“But when I sat down one day to imagine what it would be like as a bigger organization, I saw there were a lot of concerns in areas such as management, staff hiring, and proper marketing. I didn’t have a proper budget, so that didn’t help.”
The uncertainty did not last too long, and Mrabet soon decided to take the leap by accepting Rodgers’ investment of US$50,000 to transform the gym. After nearly a year in the kindergarten space, Monarchy MMA moved into Wisma MPL in January 2013 – the same year Mrabet made his ONE Championship debut.
While the move went well and the gym became more well-known, there was now much more work to do. Mrabet knew he had to hire help or risk being overworked and starting from square one.
“It was a smooth transition, but because the gym had grown so much, I knew I had a lot of other things to worry about,” he says. “There was a lot of firing and hiring during this time, and it was probably one of the toughest times I had as an owner.”
The first coach Mrabet hired was BJJ black belt Bruno Barbosa in March 2013. Barbosa transformed Thani into one of the most complete grapplers in ONE’s welterweight division, but just months into his new job, he returned to Brazil due to his wife’s pregnancy.
That forced Mrabet to restructure his staff again, which did not go well.
“I hired several black belts throughout that time, and it all went disastrous. One hit his girlfriend during a house party while another one was taking drugs before he taught classes,” he shares.
“From 2013 up to early 2015 was a tough time. Most of my money was going into coaching and the maintenance of the gym. My vision was always to become something like Evolve or Tiger Muay Thai, and I was struggling to imagine how much hard work it must’ve taken them to reach where they were back then.”
However, in 2015, Barbosa returned to Monarchy MMA, and Mrabet was slowly winning his war to gather a team of talented individuals.
“’Bruninho’ set the standards high. He was a perfect example of a great coach – always willing to teach proper techniques, always on time, and always ready to help someone,” the Belgian says.
Three months into 2015, the “Alligator” made his ONE debut against Reant Febriza Rainir. And with a couple of other students who were taking part and winning medals in BJJ and Muay Thai competitions nationwide, Monarchy MMA had really begun to make its mark.
Expansion, Taking A Break, And Teaching ‘Heart’
In mid-2015, Monarchy MMA opened another branch in Bangsar. On the surface, everything looked pleasant, but Mrabet says it wasn’t so by the end of the year.
“I was burnt out. My gym wasn’t doing too good, everyone in the management was cheating me, and I was continuously asking Mike for more money to help pay the bills,” he explains.
“I had enough. I thought about closing both places and leaving the business for good. Thankfully, I had a friend who offered me a way out – it was one of my friends’ girlfriend, who decided to bring me on a three-month trip to take a break.
“A lot of my friends were urging me not to shut down, and I gave it a shot. I just told myself I will return stronger.
“I was depressed. I wasn’t sure mentally about anything and I lost a lot of weight during the process.”
Mrabet spent three months in Indonesia, Laos, and Thailand – finding a new purpose in life. In Thailand, he trained at Tiger Muay Thai and AKA Thailand while preparing for a battle against Sami Amin at ONE: CLASH OF HEROES in January 2016.
Given the circumstances, that victorious outing in Kuala Lumpur was a milestone for the Belgian.
“Training for the fight gave me a new purpose,” he says. “When I returned to KL and won the fight, it put a new level of confidence in myself.”
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IBJJF legal footlock counter to the worm guard. Is this the best counter to the worm guard? From the worst GI entanglement to the worst leg lace. Being limited by my relatively recent foot surgery, I had time to think about stuff. Thanks to @bruninhobbjj for advising me on the finishing lock. #monarchymma #weteachheart
Instilled with this newfound belief, Mrabet returned to Monarchy MMA after a three-month break and sacked everyone at the management level.
“I felt confident to start back from zero again,” he says.
“Winning in the cage made me feel at the top of the world, and the meditation I had during my break helped me realize what I needed to fulfill my dreams.
“The management team tried to play a couple of tricks with me. But my mind was bulletproof.”
In only six months, “Flexible” turned the gym into a very profitable organization. He set up a new vision, plan, and outlook for Monarchy MMA that was in sync with its tagline, “We Teach Heart.”
“Despite my martial arts career disappearing slowly, I was happy with how the changes slowly turned my fortune around,” Mrabet says.
“Money aside, I truly wanted it to be a place filled with positive energy and good values. I wanted everyone who stepped foot in here to leave as a better person.”
The Present And Future
As of June 2020, Monarchy MMA has branched out to three outlets with the latest gym situated in Mont Kiara.
After starting as a gym for teenagers, adults, and martial arts enthusiasts, it had taken on more of a family-type atmosphere. Parents now attend martial arts classes at night and classes for children are held on weekends at each location.
Over the last three years, Mrabet has better understood the importance of prioritizing those demographics and a better workflow for his staff regardless of their role.
Meanwhile, their hard work has not gone unnoticed. The Belgian has rewarded all of his important team players with pay raises – from the cleaners all the way up to the senior management.
Though the COVID-19 global pandemic has temporarily halted a lot of Mrabet’s plans to make 2020 his biggest year yet, he is ready to tackle the next obstacle as soon as this one ends.
“When I look back all the time, I still find it hard to believe that I changed from this small little gym with a rental of RM1,000 to owning three branches with a monthly rental of RM45,000. That’s some change, isn’t it?” he laughs.
“It’s been a tough time for all gym owners like me over the past three months or so, but thankfully, I’ve gotten into a good rhythm throughout this time. [I’ve been] finding ways on how I can increase my marketing skills, and at the same time figuring out ways on how to get more members to sign up for the gym.
“Truly, at the end of the day, it’s all about learning. Do you know that feeling of getting beaten every day on the mats in jiu-jitsu? It teaches you that you need to learn every day to get over one challenge after another.”
From a small humble gym to a place filled with world-class talent and members improving their daily lives, Monarchy MMA has truly carved out a unique place in the Malaysian martial arts industry.
With so many difficulties behind him, Mrabet wants to make the most of this opportunity while continuing to unearth the next generation of martial arts superstars.
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