Saiful “The Vampire” Merican is not just a feared striker in the ONE Championship cage – now, he is also a movie star.
Earlier this March, the 28-year-old Malaysian made his cinematic debut alongside fellow ONE Championship athlete Peter Davis in J Revolusi, a spy-action movie made and screened in Malaysia.
As the bantamweight sat on the edge of the ring at his Merican Muay Thai Gym in Kuala Lumpur, a big grin creeps across his face and he gets goosebumps.
“One of my dreams was I wanted to act,” he says, while adding he spent seven hours on set shooting his scenes. “I was the bad guy (in J Revolusi) and I was fighting the police. For me, it was my first movie, and the director gave me a fight scene. Peter Davis got a few different scenes because he used to act in movies, but acting is a tough job.”
While he is relishing in his potentially-thriving theatrical career, he is also succeeding in his other lifelong dream of being a professional athlete competing in ONE Championship. But unlike the character he portrays on the silver screen, he is a good guy with a soft heart in the real world.
A Hope, A Dream, And A Hunger For More
Growing up as the eldest boy of nine siblings in Kuala Terengganu in Malaysia, Merican came from a humble background. Although his father wanted him to be a footballer, he did not have any patience for the sport. He was, however, attracted to Muay Thai.
Merican enthusiastically watched fights on television, and his friend even bought him a videotape of Samart Payakaroon, a multi-weight Lumpinee Champion and former WBC Super Bantamweight Champion. He studied the tape like a textbook, and it motivated him to train. Despite not having any formal training, he took his first professional fight at 11, and fought to a draw.
Following that bout, his friend suggested they receive legitimate training, and invited him to stay at an extended family member’s house in southern Thailand. Over six months, the two went back-and-forth between taking their school exams in Malaysia, and learning Muay Thai in its homeland.
“We trained with this guy every day, from 6 in the morning until 10am. When we ran, he just sat at home, waiting. He sent his dog after us to make sure we did not stop running. I almost wanted to cry because I was so tired,” Merican remembers.
Merican persevered. “The Vampire” returned home six months later to finish school, and he kept practicing with his buddy alongside various Thai training partners who visited Malaysia. Merican also competed locally, typically earning 700 to 800 Malaysian ringgit per contest.
Heartbreak And Triumph
In 2008, however, he put a halt to his career. His personal hero — the man he called dad — passed away. Before he died, the elder Merican gave some advice to his son.
“He said, ‘Focus on a serious job, and help with the family,’ because he did not think martial arts would be where it is today. So I said, ‘Ok. I will work.’ I just sat around for a while, did not train, and focused on work.”
Merican became a jack of all trades — he built houses, washed palettes, and worked in a furniture factory. Martial arts was truly in the rear-view mirror.
His passion for martial arts reignited in 2009, however, when he was offered a fight in China by the World Muay Thai Association. He won the bout, became ranked as the organization’s top featherweight combatant, and nearly broke down in tears.
“I was so emotional, because I could not show my dad this achievement before he passed away,” he says. “I hoped that fight would change my life, and it did. After that, I saw a future.”
The future was bright for the rising star. Following the career-changing victory, “The Vampire” received huge amounts of publicity in Malaysia, competed internationally for big promotions, and along with the woman who would become his wife, opened the Merican Muay Thai Gym in Kuala Lumpur in 2010.
While he made a name for himself in kickboxing, he also saw the potential of mixed martial arts, as the sport had been growing massively in North America and Europe. In late 2012, ONE Championship’s Victor Cui offered him a chance to transition into the budding sport.
Although Merican was hesitant at first, he decided to give it a try with his wife’s blessing, and concentrated strictly on his training. He made his official debut in February 2013 against fellow countryman Gianni Subba at ONE: RETURN OF WARRIORS, but was submitted in the second round.
“My mistake was I spent too much time on my Muay Thai. After that, I really learned it is mixed martial arts — you cannot expect to be good in just one. I understood that, and slowly learned others. I started Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, practiced every day, and I understood more.”
The results of Merican’s improvements were instant, as he handily won his next three fights. One win in particular stood out, as it showed what an incredible human being Merican is.
Despite not being a wealthy man, Merican donated the purse from his victory at ONE: WAR OF NATIONS in March 2014 to his opponent, Khim Dima.
Dima’s house in Cambodia had burned down, and Merican wanted to help. The Malaysian did not tell anyone of his plans, not even his wife, and handed Dima an envelope of money backstage later that night. People only found out when Dima’s trainer publicly thanked him on social media.
“Yeah, we fought each other, but we all are humans,” he says. “I believe in Karma. I believe if you do something good, then one day people will do the same to you. That is what I always tell my family, especially my wife, because as fighters, we have a soft heart.”
Merican is indeed soft-hearted, but that heart broke to pieces again months later. His six-year-old brother was struck by a car and died upon impact. Suffering the pain of losing a second close family member in the span of six years, he took nearly a year off from competition.
“I was so frustrated, and did not want to do anything. I let go of my life, just like that. I did not fight, I did not care about martial arts or anything for a year. I was friends with so many bad people in 2014.”
Though he was mourning the loss of his family members, it was also family that pulled him out of his depression. “My uncle was one of the reasons I started competing again. He said, ‘Why don’t you do this (competing) so you can stay young?’ So I said, ‘Ok, I will try it. I do not know if I’ve still got it or not.”
A year later, the Malaysian made his return, and in front of his countrymen in Kuala Lumpur, he proved that he had not lost his edge. “The Vampire” was back, and defeated Melvin Yeoh via TKO at ONE: TIGERS OF ASIA in 2015. He has been going strong in the bantamweight division ever since.
Living humbly in Malaysia during the 90s, Merican may not have been afforded the martial arts opportunities athletes in other countries had. But through his immaculate passion for Muay Thai and his will to succeed, he caught a few lucky breaks, and capitalized on them.
Today, Merican is driven to inspire a new generation, including his two young sons. He hopes films like J. Revolusi can do for them what Rocky and Merican’s Samart Payakaroon videotape did for him.
“Movies can motivate young people to do more sports, and get the message to live their dreams,” he says. “That is how you reach people. You want to give young people good energy.”
Mexican’s next act will be on Saturday, 5 August, when he clashes with “Rock Man” Chen Lei at ONE: KINGS & CONQUERORS in Macao. Needless to say, he’ll be looking to add another finish to his growing highlight reel.