Despite his youth, Johan “Jojo” Ghazali has been one of the biggest breakout stars in combat sports this year.
Fans are already high on Ghazali – even comparing him to ONE Flyweight Muay Thai World Champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon – and he’ll get his chance to impress more fans when he competes on a historic all-Muay Thai card in Bangkok, Thailand.
Before he squares off with Tabares at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, get to know the Malaysian-American sensation, who many believe is a future World Champion.
‘Honestly, I Hated Sports’
Ghazali was born in Putrajaya, Malaysia. His father was a police officer, and his mother kept the home for their four children – three sons and one daughter.
“Jojo” has a mixed heritage, with his father being half-Indonesian and half-Japanese-Malaysian, while his mother is an American from the state of New Mexico. His parents met in Oregon while his dad was there studying, and with a shared passion for Muay Thai, they struck up a relationship in the gym and later moved back to Malaysia.
“In all honesty, my life has been great. My dad moved around a lot, but we mostly stayed in Kajang before moving to Sarawak.”
Although he’s already making an impact on the world stage as a fighter, the burgeoning striker admits that he wasn’t always destined to become an athlete.
In fact, the young Ghazali didn’t have much of a passion for anything – especially athletics – and hadn’t yet found his spark:
“Honestly, I hated sports. I didn’t even like running or playing outside. I was just this nerd kid. It was mostly about school. But it wasn’t really school, either. It was just really lazy kid stuff, just not doing anything and relaxing.”
Finding His Purpose
Although both of Ghazali’s parents loved Muay Thai and had been competitors in the sport, they didn’t force it on their children.
There was always some exposure to it around the house, but “Jojo” didn’t catch the bug until he was older.
“Growing up, Muay Thai has always been part of my life. Maybe even as far back as when I started walking, I can remember my dad and mom were active in Muay Thai.
“My dad was a fighter. My mom was a fighter. So they’ve always taught me Muay Thai moves and stuff like that. But I only started to be serious at age 10. Before that, I would just spend time with them trying it out for fun at the gym.”
While raising their children in the early years, Ghazali’s parents were more focused on work and family priorities than Muay Thai. But when they moved to Sarawak, “the art of eight limbs” came back into focus.
While passing a local gym, Ghazali’s mother asked if he would like to check it out. With nothing else to occupy his time and some self-esteem issues, the youngster accepted – and never looked back.
“Before moving to Sarawak, it wasn’t everyday training sorta thing. Because [my parents] were busy with life too. When we came to Sarawak, it all happened. We drove past a Muay Thai gym, and my mom asked me whether I’d like to give it a try. And I was like, ‘Yes, why not?’ It wasn’t like I was into anything else.
“I had a lack of confidence when I was small. But Muay Thai gave me that confidence. It gave me a purpose. I loved it even from the first session. Training Muay Thai gave me this sense of power, and I loved the training.”
Overcoming Hurdles In The Ring
While training with his parents and head coach Kru Addy – a veteran of 250 fights on the biggest stages of Muay Thai – things quickly snowballed for Ghazali. Suddenly, he’d gone from being a “lazy kid” to a talented fighter.
It wasn’t what he expected, but as his love for the sport grew, competing seemed like a natural progression:
“At first, it was just for fitness and fun. And then months later, there was a fight, and my coach asked me if I wanted to do it. Before I could even answer, my mom answered and said, ‘I don’t care if you want to fight or not. You are going to fight.’
“She put my name in. To be honest, I didn’t want to fight at all. But then I fought, and I didn’t want to stop. This was when I was 10.”
“Jojo’s” career in Muay Thai has been nonstop ever since, but it wasn’t all an upward trajectory.
To be competing in ONE on a six-figure contract at 17, it seems like he should have been a prodigy from the start, but he had to take his share of bumps along the way.
But no matter what he faced, the rising star stayed the course and never quit – even when others might have.
“I never lost in Malaysia, but in my first fights in Thailand, I lost all of them. I got my ass kicked every month. People see the success now, but they didn’t see me crying back then after every fight. So, my first fight until my fifth fight in Thailand, I lost all of them.
“Quitting never crossed my mind. That would have been the easy way out. It was annoying, though, losing for such a long period of time. But it just motivated me and made me study professional fighters like Superbon. He lost his first seven fights or something. So, I felt fighting was still possible.
“My coach, Addy, told me, ‘Don’t worry, once you get enough experience, it will all come together.’ I finally won my sixth in Thailand.”
‘A Dream Come True’
After that breakthrough performance in the spiritual homeland of Muay Thai, Ghazali continued his ascent with more confidence.
He built a reputation regionally, winning prestigious tournaments and posting an 11-1 record in 2022. This led him to a Road to ONE event in Malaysia, where he performed well enough to get a shot in ONE at just 16 years old.
The Rentap Muaythai Gym representative said of his step up:
“ONE Championship has always been my goal from the start. The plan was to win the big tournaments, gain experience in Thailand, and then go to ONE Championship.
“There was just this sense of accomplishment [when I got there], and I really didn’t feel much nerves heading into my first fight against Padetsuk. I knew what I had to do, and I knew that I had to leave an impression.
“The 16-second knockout [in my ONE debut] shocked me, but I felt it wasn’t over yet. It was the start of something new.”
As the youngest-ever ONE athlete at the time of his first appearance, Ghazali was a revelation on the action-packed weekly shows in Asia primetime.
He won four straight matchups against tough opposition, finishing three of them inside the distance, making his six-figure contract a mere formality.
Still, he knows there’s a tough new journey ahead among the best of the best, and he’s planning to prove that he belongs at that level.
“I felt like everything paid off. It was a dream come true [to win the contract]. I was super proud.
“I think I got the spot not only because I could fight, but because I was entertaining too. Fighting is more than just competing. It’s being entertaining and having the skills to back it up, too. That’s what got me here.”