Before the 21-year-old Malaysian was the number one contender to the most prestigious belt in Asian martial arts competition, he was a constant victim of childhood bullying. Not only did he suffer physical confrontations, he had to endure constant psychological torment, as well.
When Thani was eight-years-old, his father relocated the family to a one-bedroom apartment in Sentul, a crime-ridden area of Kuala Lumpur. Racism and classism was also rife in the neighborhood, and that affected the young Malaysian.
“People looked at you differently if you were from the higher or lower class, if you were a rich or a poor boy, if you have dark or light skin, and all of that stuff. Where I come from, it is a lower-class area, so I got bullied a lot,” he says.
“If you are a good boy, you get bullied a lot too, and I was a good boy. I was a lazy kid in school, but I never bothered anybody, so people started bothering me. I was a good kid in a rough neighborhood.”
The bullying started because the soft-spoken Thani was an easy target, but he never complained about it too much, because he acknowledges that some people had it worse than him.
“Some people think it is a bad day [when I got beaten up], but I think it is a good day,” he explains. “I got beaten up sometimes once every two or three weeks, unlike other kids who got beaten up every day.”
Over the years, his classmates started to make fun of his appearance. When he was a teenager, he packed on an enormous amount of weight, and bloated up to 139 kilograms. That led to shameful nicknames like “fat boy” and “Kung Fu Panda,” and episodes where common ruffians would embarrass him.
He remembers one such episode, saying: “Since I was fat, I had women’s breasts,” he says, chuckling in disbelief. “I did not have a man’s chest, so people made fun of that. They called me ‘2000-pound titties’ – 1000 pounds on the left, and 1000 on the right.
“They made fun of it. They said you can get strawberry milk on the left, and chocolate milk on the right. Those things are the main ways they verbally abused me in school, and if I said something back, they pinched my chest and ran away.”
Thani laughs about it now, but at the time, the verbal abuse and the aforementioned episodes tore the emotional teen apart. He could handle the physical beatdowns, but the psychological torment and the constant embarrassment was something he had immense difficulty dealing with.
“That type of bullying happened 90 per cent of the time,” he admits. “I used to cry sometimes. Like, ‘Why would people say these things to me?’ because this happened for a long time. People always just made fun of me.”
At one point, he confided in his father, and poured out his grievances. The young “Alligator” wanted some advice, but all he got was an earful.
“The first time I complained to my dad about verbal abuse, my dad said ‘The next time you come back with this problem, I will slap you in the face, because you do not know how to handle your problems. But if it gets out of hand, I will help,’” Thani recalls. “So I did not go back to him with that problem anymore.”
Eventually, the verbal abuse waned. Thani started training at Monarchy MMA when he was 16 and lost 10kg, with his newfound confidence borne through martial arts shining through. He started to stand up for himself, and as the bullies no longer saw an easy target, began to leave him alone.
A short year later, he was too focused on his martial arts journey, and blocked out whatever little noise was left. Following graduation, he was virtually unrecognizable to the ghosts of his pasts.
He transformed into a welterweight martial arts phenom who worked at the gym full-time, and was far from the chubby child who used to get made fun of. In fact, he was a strapping young man with elite martial arts skills, along with the courage and wisdom to use them wisely.
However, despite all the physical and psychological abuse Thani endured, it never once broke his spirit. This Malaysian hero still possesses the same cheerful demeanour he has always had.
Along the way, he amassed a perfect amateur mixed martial arts record, won the MIMMA Welterweight Championship, and embarked on an undefeated 7-0 professional career, with all of his wins coming by way of stoppage.
Today, the “Alligator” plies his trade in ONE Championship, and showcases his elite martial arts skills to the entire world.
“I tried not to cause problems for people,” he says. “I feel the lesser problems I cause for people, the happier people will be around me, and I just did my stuff and eventually it turned out to be okay. If I try to make everyone around me as happy as possible, things just fall into place.”
Now, it is as if karma has paid Thani a visit, because the next thing that has fallen into place for him is a title shot against the undefeated Askren for a chance to become the best welterweight on the planet.
Evidently, that good kid from a rough neighborhood is now doing very well for himself indeed.