At first glance, Peter Davis doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of a Malaysian sensation, whatever that may be. Sure, the look is partly there, a gift from his Malaysian Chinese mother. But then ONE FC lightweight contender opens his mouth and the poppy grace of a thick British accent spills out, and it's hard not wonder how this all came to pass.
Though like any good story, Davis' starts with getting fired.
A London native, Davis was just 26 years old when the hammer dropped. MMA was just a side gig back then. Davis primarily buttered his bread as a financial consultant for a subsidiary of the Lehman Brothers' vast banking empire, and his specialty laid in the company's equivalent of the Super Bowl -- big-ticket mortgages. It was a respectable enough job, if not a little boring. It also didn't hurt that the pay was nothing to sneeze at for a young and recently single bachelor.
Of course, all of this was before Lehman Brothers overindulged its own corporate self-interests to the tune of a stunning $639 billion global implosion. Even halfway around the world, the bankruptcy filing, which to this day remains the largest in U.S. history, hit the London market like a cruise missile, wiping out Davis' entire career trajectory overnight.
And so, left with no real ties to his surroundings -- no job, no girlfriend, and an apartment soon to be sequestered for renovations -- the Englishman did what any red-blooded 20-something does when a situation looks its bleakest. He went on holiday.
"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," Davis laughs nearly six years after his fateful decision. "It turned out alright."
In one of those odd strokes of luck that life just seems to love to hand out when it's needed most, as Lehman Brothers collapsed stateside, Davis' parents were already readying for a trip back to his mother's home in Malaysia. So, Davis figured, what's the harm in tagging along? Altogether the expedition lasted six months, and while the time away certainly gave Davis a more intimate understanding of Malaysia's night life, it didn't really do much in the way of laying out his next move.
That is, until one unlikely conversation changed everything.
With the trip nearing its end and a return flight back to London's predictability just a mere few weeks away, Davis met with an old friend. "He asked me, ‘Well, why don't you try doing some modeling here?'" Davis remembers, laughing at the idea's absurdity. "You know, I usually dressed in what I could. I wasn't into any sort of style. Not sharply dressed. I probably had bad hair, but I've always had bad hair. Really, I just didn't have any confidence in myself to do it."
Still, without any better options presenting themselves, Davis decided to give it the old college try. He applied at a nearby Malaysian talent agency, and much to his surprise, he discovered that in part because of his half-native, half-westernized look, and in part because of a physique molded by his martial arts fixation, there could be something to this whole modeling experiment.
Things picked up slowly. First a steady stream of minor gigs, the kind of small-time photo shoots and advertisements that can get your foot in the door. Eventually Davis managed to clean himself up enough so that the high fashionistas starting calling his number. Television work followed, commercials for global brands like Sony and Nissan. It wasn't the world's best income, but it was enough. The consistency of the workflow silenced the few lingering doubts that persisted in Davis' head; doubts which questioned whether the Englishman was crazy, or could Malaysian fashion model actually be a viable career path?
Ultimately, he figured, if things turned south, the London financial scene would always be there. Besides, what's the fun in life without a little adventure?
"If you've ever been to Malaysia, you realize that taxis go wherever they want to go!" Peter Davis grins as his voice swells with faux exasperation.
"If you flag down a taxi and say, ‘I'd like to go to the shopping mall,' they'll be like, ‘No, the traffic is pretty bad. So, sorry, I don't think I'm going to be going there.' Okay... so you stop at the next one. ‘Sorry, I'm going the other direction.' Right... wait, what do you mean you're going the other direction?! The next one, ‘Oh, I'm going home now.' Why did you stop in the first place?!?"
Davis can't help but chuckle by the end of his rant. It was early into his Malaysian experiment, when things were still figuring themselves out, that Davis landed a side job imparting his martial arts knowledge to students at a nearby dojo. Eventually he used some of the money to buy a scrap heap of a car from one of the nearby dealers, and in an effort to end his taxi troubles, Davis was dead-set on making the pile of junk roadworthy.
It was there, outside Davis' apartment block, that Yeo Joon Han first noticed the young man fixing up the beat up old banger off to the side of the road.
Han was an up-and-coming director who was looking for a particular talent to play the lead in his full-length theatrical debut, a satirical comedy/musical he called Sell-Out! which poked fun at a greed-obsessed global culture. "I think he saw me because I was the only sort of like, white guy on the apartment block," Davis remembers. "And they were looking for someone to play a Eurasian character.
"He asked me, had I done any acting? Had I done any singing? Because it was a musical. I was like, ‘Really? A musical? Man, I can't sing for s--t, so we're going to have some problems there."
Vocal issues notwithstanding, Davis somehow convinced Han that he was right for the part. For the first time in his life, without any real experience, Davis committed his efforts into being a leading man. He acted, he sung, and to his surprise Sell-Out! went on to premier at the 65th Venice International Film Festival, where it garnered significant critical acclaim and even netted the Young Cinema Award for Alternative Vision, adding a new wrinkle to Davis' growing portfolio.
By the end of the whirlwind ride, Davis' name had been further sprinkled around the region, and more than a few doors had opened. Yet once the press tours and commotion died down, life hadn't changed like he'd hoped. So, restless as he was, Davis headed back to the familiar comforts of the gym and his students.
Though it wouldn't be long before the pendulum of luck swung his way once more.
At that point it'd been several years since Davis had last fought professionally back in London. However an unexpected new influence soon began to rise out of neighboring Singapore. Promotion officials from ONE FC, a burgeoning mixed martial arts organization with deep pockets, had made it known that their focus lay not in the west, like most others, but in conquering the vast untapped potential of the eastern Asian market. And truth be told, coaching had given Davis that itch back.
"ONE FC offered me a fight contract," Davis says. "I remember I had that in my hand, and I thought, right, well it's kind of dangerous, but fighting for them, it might be good for me. It might increase my brand to have some more fights. Plus I had lots of students who needed to know the truth about what worked in a real fight and what didn't, essentially.
"So I signed the contract and had the fight, and it turned out it was more popular than I expected," Davis says with a grin.
Two years, six bouts, and more than a few advertising campaigns later, Davis is poised to be a curious commodity in today's mixed martial arts landscape. The trifecta of popular actor/model/fighter isn't exactly a common one, and the amount of daily juggling it takes to keep everything straight can sometimes be an exhaustive endeavor. Still, Davis couldn't be happier with the way things ultimately played out.
"The martial arts has been a bigger thing for me than the actual movie releases. That's pretty crazy," the Englishman marvels. "Without the martial arts, I'd probably still be struggling trying to get my name out there. It's all come together to build it up, and from that, it's become really amazing the last couple of years.
"One thing has surprised me more than others, and that's MMA," he adds. "The growth of MMA (in Malaysia) has meant that I'm doing more fights than I'd ever expected to do. I mean, last year I had four fights, and that's while shooting [fashion], shooting commercials, so it's quite a busy year. I can't really see the wood through the trees, but doing them all together has made a potentially massive difference to my life."
Now the schedule never stops for Davis, who's transformed into somewhat of an unexpected ambassador for Malaysian MMA. Aside from random fashion shoots and hosting duties for various local MMA circuits, he also has a new feature film, Apokalips X, set to release this year -- and, most importantly in the short term, a fight against Pakistani grappler Waqar Umar this Saturday at ONE FC 14.
Though of course, it'd all just be the wistful pipe dreams of another white-collar financial advisor had life not thrown him the most unexpected of curveballs.
"I would have a job in England. I would probably have found a girlfriend by now. I mean, it's been 10 years. I'd probably just be settling down, have a house. I'd try my best to do a lot better than that, but I wouldn't have been enjoying myself as much as I am here," Davis says with a laugh.
"There have been some hard times, but you've got to take the good with the bad. You can't smooth sail for your whole life. If you're not pressing, you're not going to see things. Without taking a bit of a risk, you're not going to know what might be. I didn't mind my life at all in England. But if you're not enjoying your job, I'd say, take six months out and think of something else you enjoy. See if it's viable to take that career path. Because you never know, it just might be."