The Dead End Kids of Johor Bahru

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2012 at 9:07 am

By Antonio Graceffo

Many of the best young fighters in our gym were bad kids who Jiao Lien (coach) collected off the streets, because they tried to rob him, or beat up their teachers, or got kicked out of school. Like Fagin, he collects bad boys, brings them to the Ultimate MMA Academy, and gives them a positive way to fight. At the same time, he teaches them respect, discipline, and manners. Many of these boys were headed to a jail cell, but have since gone on to good careers instead.

A couple of weeks ago, he brought a group of six boys who he said were the worst kids at the high school where he teaches. He gave them to me, and said they would be my students. I trained them that first day, and they really seemed to enjoy the training. We told them the first day was free, but next time, they would have to pay a discounted daily training fee. After the second training session, we asked for payment, but they made all sorts of excuses why they didn’t have money.

I said, “There’s only six of them. Let’s lock the door, and the two of us beat one of them, till the other five come up with the money.”

Jiao Lien said, “No, we have to pity them. Many of these kids in Johor come from broken homes or the parents are away in Singapore. So, there is no one teach them wrong or right. They simply don’t know that it is wrong to accept services in the gym or internet café or even a restaurant and walk out without paying.”

He gave the boys a stern talking to, explaining to them how important it was to be a good, honest man, and not to cheat people. He made them promise they would pay double when they came next time. As they were going down the stairs, I grabbed some heavy weights to drop on them, but Jiao Lien told me not to.

It’s amazing what good friends Jiao Lien and I have become, and yet, we have very different styles of dealing with people.

Sure enough, three days later, the boys returned to training, and they each, dutifully paid for two days training. Jiao Lien told me, “If you try and teach them something at school, they misbehave. But if they see something they admire, they will behave, and even listen.” Apparently, they admire the way we fight in the academy.

Two weeks later, the boys were still training with me. They never made any problems about paying their fees and they were simply fearless in the ring. They were very funny kids, always laughing and fighting. They reminded me of Malaysia’s Dead End Kids, getting into mischief the second I turned my back. Their main mischief in the academy is that they like to fight each other.

I decided to put their natural violence to good use and invited them to fight in our MMA tournament, that coming weekend. The plan was to let them fight under special Amateur Youth MMA rules that I made up on the spot. They had to wear boxing gloves, not MMA gloves, head guards and shin guards. They would fight only two three-minute rounds. There was a ten-second ground rule, and fights wouldnot be stopped for chokes or submissions. If a boy taped, the referee would simply restarts them, from standing. This way, all of the boys would gain the experience of fighting the full two rounds of three minutes. After the fight, the judges would render a decision, which would always be a draw. And both boys would get a trophy.

Teaching these kids has meant a lot to me now. I see them learning and developing, but at the same time, I know I have to teach them when they are ready. I can’t hold formal classes or make them do ANYTHING they don’t want to do. But I can get them to work hard, as long as they believe it was their idea.

The boys all seemed enthusiastic about the tournament, and wanted to spar, to prepare for the fight. They paired up, and began going crazy, hitting each other, when I noticed one kid was wearing boxing gloves, but his opponent was wearing MMA gloves. I was about to tell the one boy to change to boxing gloves, but they were wearing headgear, and they are pretty malnourished, so I thought, they couldn’t really hit hard enough to hurt each other. Also, these were the tough gang kids from the school. So, I assumed they could take it. Two seconds into the sparring, the boy with the MMA gloves upper-cutted his opponent in the face. The boy who was hit, fell down, crying and demanded ice for his eye.

I checked the eye and there was no injury, just a little boo-boo, one of those ouies that puts a rich Kuala Lumpur kid out of training for a month, but which kids in Brooklyn get during breakfast and forget before they finish their milk.

I asked Jiao Lien, “I thought these were the tough gang kids. What happened?”

He told me, “When they get in street fights, they call all of their friends to come help them. Then the two gangs stand there in the street and shout insults at each other.”

“You mean they don’t actually fight?” I asked.

“That IS how they fight.” He explained.

Wow! I have said it a million times since coming to Asia, but I’m obviously not in Brooklyn anymore. To a man, the kids said they didn’t want to fight in the tournament, and they all walked out.

During the days leading up to the tournament, they didn’t return. I felt really guilty. Had I pushed them too hard? Whether or not the fight in the tournament was not nearly as important as whether or not they came to training regularly and learned some discipline and developed their healthy bodies. Now, all of that learning would be lost, simply because I pushed them too soon into a fight.

On fight night, I was pretty busy. I was the announcer, the extra referee and I was also fighting. One of my other young students was fighting and I was also working his corner. I was so distracted, I didn’t see when all of the bad boys walked in. suddenly, they were standing around me, ready to fight, asking what they needed to do. I was so happy, I nearly cried. We helped them do their registration forms and get their equipment ready. They had even brought a friend with them, who I had never seen before, simply because he wanted to fight too.

The bad boys wound up being the stars of the night, when they fought better than about half the adult amateurs I have seen in KL. Jiao Lien was so excited. He came running up to me, saying, “Your students all fight exactly like you. They use clinch, judo hip toss, judo side control and ground and pound.” It was true. They used all of my basic moves. Also, one of the boys used the wrestler’s arm triangle submission which is something that I never taught them. Maybe they had seen me doing it in sparring.

At that moment, I understood why people stop fighting and become coaches. Because of these boys, I fought three fights that night, not one. And, win or lose, I was proud of their performance.

The boys apparently had a curfew and were meant to go home at ten. But when they heard my fight was last, they stayed to support me. My opponent was a tremendous 111kg first-timer, who outweighed me by nearly 30kgs. Needless to say, when the bell rang, I went a bit tentatively, throwing leg kicks and staying away from his reach. Eventually, we wound up in a clinch, and I drove him to the cage.

When my boys were fighting, I had to shout instructions to them in Chinese. Mostly, I was yelling things like, “hit his face” or “ use your knee,” and the like. When I had my opponent pressed against the cage, one of the boys imitated my accent in Chinese and yelled, “Use your knee.” The entire room burst into laughter. Then one boy very sternly said to him, “You shouldn’t tell Teacher what to do.”

I won my fight. But the main feature of my night was The Dead End Kids of Johor. They won trophies and got positive recognition for their skills, maybe for the first time in their lives. Only time will tell where they go from here, but for the moment anyway, they seem to have found something more rewarding than the streets.

Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website,

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living inAsia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk fromBrooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on




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