After winning his fight at ONE Championship’s “Light of a Nation” event on June 30, Aung La N Sang stood in the center of the ring with a Myanmar flag over one shoulder and his shiny new belt over the other.

“Myanmar, how does it sound to have a world champion?” he asked the crowd in a packed-to-the-rafters Thuwunna Indoor Stadium. “How does it sound?”

The screams of 8,000+ fans rose in unison, answering his query with a few more decibals of unbridled joy.

“Thank you all for your love and support,” he added, his voice breaking. “I will never quit, I will keep fighting, I will take on any challengers.”

The country’s first ever mixed martial arts champion will now have plenty of takers to choose from, as his unanimous decision victory over formerly undefeated Vitaly Bigdash earned him the ONE Championship middleweight title belt. The win makes Aung La N Sang the man to beat in the promotion’s weight class, as well as Myanmar’s biggest international sports star.

Humble beginnings

Not that Aung La N Sang ever dreamed of becoming an iconic fighter in his home country. Born in Myitkyina and educated at Yangon International School, he moved to the US to study agriculture science at Andrews University in 2003. While there he worked at a dairy farm, continuing a life trajectory that seemed destined for farming life. According to his older brother Nsang Gum San, family even thought he might become a Christian preacher someday – but everything changed when he discovered MMA.

Just a year after he started training, Aung La N Sang had his first professional fight. A new passion was born, and he would continue fighting throughout his college years before moving to Florida to work as a migrant beekeeper.

While he collected honey and endured stings, he realized that travelling the country pollinating fruits would not further his newfound goal of becoming a champion martial artist. By 2009 he had moved to Baltimore, Maryland to work and train at the Crazy88 gym he still represents today.

Most Myanmar people had no idea about their country’s rising MMA star until 2012, when video of Aung La N Sang knocking out an opponent in the first round went viral on Kachin social media networks. After the victory, the 27-year-old fighter held a Kachin flag aloft and dedicated some of his winnings to Kachin refugees; to the people in his home state, it was the beginning of a long love affair.

“Me and most of the Kachin people started watching MMA matches because of him,” said Hkawng Dau, a former teacher at the Mai Na IDP camp in Myitkyina that Aung La has visited and and donated to.

The rest of the country caught on after Aung La N Sang signed with ONE Championship, Asia’s largest MMA organization that broadcasts fights to 118 countries. After 13 years away from his home country, he returned in March 2016 to fight in Yangon, submitting his opponent with a guillotine chokehold in the first round.

That fight endeared him to the Myanmar people outside of his Kachinland home; he became a symbol of the entire country.

“When he performs in Yangon, the cheers blow the roof off the stadium,” said ONE’s public relations director Loren Mack. “In Myanmar, Aung La is a bonafide superhero.”

Champion of the people

Six months after his first victory in Yangon, Aung La returned again, defeating Poland’s Michal Pasternak by decision. That win set him up for a shot at Bigdash, the undefeated Russian champion, in Jakarta this past January.

But Aung La N Sang only got the invitation to fight Bigdash 10 days before the event, after the initial opponent dropped out at the last minute. Underprepared, the “Burmese Python” struggled through five punishing rounds, losing by unanimous decision and leaving the ring in a bloody mess.

“It showed me what he’s able to do,” Aung La N Sang said of that first loss to Bigdash. “Losing gives you an ability to improve yourself.”

In the rematch,Myanmar’s favorite son certainly looked improved. Just two minutes into the first round, Aung La N Sang knocked Bigdash down with a big left and pounced. The crowd frenzied as he pummeled the opponent, and though Bigdash would avoid a knockout and finish the full 25-minute fight, decisive damage had been done in those opening moments. All three judges scored the fight in Aung La’s favor.

“That knockdown scored a lot,” he said at his press conference, looking relaxed in front of the glittering ONE Championship title belt. “[Bigdash] is tough as nails, but my coach told me his chin is suspect.”

The entire country celebrated the win, with posts and videos of the fight flooding Facebook for the rest of the weekend; nearly 1 million people watched live streams in Myanmar, with even more tuning in to the TV broadcast.

Outside the stadium, vendors hawking Myanmar flags and stickers did big business in the hours leading up to the main event. A young couple with their toddler son, all wearing the national flag as temporary tattoos on their cheeks, said they were bringing their child to his first MMA fight.“He has to see Aung La N Sang,” they said. “He is Myanmar’s hero.”

And now, its champion. Even though he’s already left and returned to his wife and son in Maryland – where he earned US citizenship in 2015 – Aung La N Sang will be back in the ring again to defend his belt, perhaps before the year is out.

Having won all three fights he’s agreed to in Yangon, he said his countrymen are a source of inspiration. Whenever and wherever his next fight is, he’ll have a nation at his back.

“I’m not talented, I’m not good, I’m not fast,” he said, with tears and blood shining on his face, after the win. “But with you, I have courage, I have strength. I have what I need to win the world title.”

ONE Middleweight World Champion “The Burmese Python” Aung La N Sang of Myanmar will take on Muay Thai heavyweight world champion Alain “The Panther” Ngalani of Hong Kong in an open weight contest,set for the Thuwunna Indoor Stadium on 3 November.

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Story : RJ Vogt

Photo : Gerhard Joren

Note: The story was first published in MYANMORE Magazine July issue.


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