Many world champions and title contenders launch their martial arts careers in a blaze of glory. But ONE Middleweight World Title challenger Aung La N Sang was not so fortunate. In fact, his first professional sanctioned bout was more like a baptism by fire.
In 2004, merely a year after he left Myanmar for America to study Agriculture Science at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, he noticed a huge Samoan schoolmate hitting a heavy bag in the school’s gymnasium.
Intrigued, he befriended his fellow student, and within days, the duo went to a Carlson Gracie affiliate dojo in South Bend, Indiana. He instantly fell in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the concept of mixed martial arts.
The “Burmese Python” made the 45-minute journey to the Indiana dojo three times a week to continue mastering the “gentle art”, as well as other martial arts disciplines. A year into his training, he decided it was time to make his professional debut. At the time, he felt ready.
On 21 May 2005, he competed in his first match. The date holds extra significance, because it was his birthday. “I was a 19-year-old kid turning 20 that day,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Aung La N Sang arrived at the Hammond Civic Center, a 4500-seat venue in the northwestern Indiana city of Hammond, which was hosting “Total Fight Challenge 3,” or “TFC 3” for short. The event was headlined by Miguel “Angel” Torres, an American bantamweight pioneer.
That night, the “Burmese Python” was to face Emerson Rushing. Rushing was a state wrestling qualifier out of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, who wrestled on the same high school squad as friend and teammate, current Evolve MMA Head Coach Brian Ebersole. Prior to this match, Rushing had a single bout five years earlier, and won via first-round submission.
Not only did Aung La N Sang lack veteran experience and wrestling expertise, but he was also at a size disadvantage. “I walked in at under 200 pounds (90.7 kilograms), and the guy cut down to light heavyweight, so he was significantly bigger,” he acknowledges.
When Aung La N Sang came out for his grand premiere, the nerves got to him. However, he was not nervous because of the crowd of spectators, nor was he intimidated by his opponent. The reality of the situation just happened to strike him in that very moment.
“In my head, I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It was in a ring too, not in a cage. And when the fight started, I just went blank,” he remembers. “I did not have any real, proper training, so there was no game plan at all – just go in there and fight.”
That is exactly what he did, or at least tried to do.
“We stood up for a second, and then he took me down, and he ground and pounded me,” he reminisces. “When the referee told us to get back up, he had the doctor look at me. My cheekbone swelled up, so the doctor stopped it.”
The match lasted a whole two minutes and 24 seconds. Aung La N Sang celebrated his birthday, and the start of his mixed martial arts career, with a defeat. However, he didn’t view it so much as a loss, but rather as a learning experience, because he learned an immense amount that night.
“It made me like mixed martial arts,” he states. “That excitement, that thrill, I was hooked on it. I kept wanting to train more and get better, and then as soon as they said I had another fight, I said, ‘Yeah, I am down for it.’”
Aung La N Sang’s debut could be considered a baptism by fire, as he went up against a bigger and much more skilled opponent. But from the ashes he rose, immediately winning his next five bouts, on his way to the 19-10 (1 No Contest) record he holds today.
The “Burmese Python” may have lost his first professional match, but he is a shining example of how a true martial artist can recover from defeat, control their destiny, and still make it to world championship contention.