Features

How Aung La N Sang Became A Global Icon For Myanmar

October 16, 2017

ONE Middleweight World Champion Aung La N Sang is literally preparing for his biggest challenge yet.

Four months after winning his prestigious title, “The Burmese Python” will make an explosive return to the cage on Friday, 3 November, to square off against Muay Thai and kickboxing heavyweight world champion Alain “The Panther” Ngalani at ONE: HERO’S DREAM.

The main event, which is the organization’s first-ever Open Weight Super Bout, will broadcast live from the Thuwunna Indoor Stadium, in Aung La N Sang’s old stomping grounds of Yangon, Myanmar.

The bout is a huge undertaking, considering Aung La N Sang is competing with a hulking behemoth who regularly challenges two weight classes above him. But overcoming adversity is nothing new for the Myanmar hero.

Born And Raised In Myanmar

Though he was born in Myitkyina, the capital city of Myanmar’s Kachin State, Aung La N Sang’s family relocated to the nation’s capital so he and his siblings could attend the Yangon International School. His father supported the household as a merchant working in the country’s popular jade production and trade industry.

Aung La N Sang scored impressively high grades, and was quite the active athlete in team sports. He played on several of the school’s varsity squads, and competed against other international schools from neighboring countries.

However, as he despondently recalls, they would rarely win.

“When we played soccer, when we played volleyball, and when we played basketball, we would lose. We would lose in most sports, and that kind of made me mad. It was just sad,” he explained. “I guess the coaching was not that good. We did not know anything about strength or conditioning.”

When his senior year came to a close, he planned to study abroad in the United States, and one day hoped to return home in an effort to make life better for a new generation in Myanmar.

“There is a big level of difference [when it comes to coaching] in Myanmar versus elsewhere,” he continued. “And hopefully, in my lifetime, I can close that gap.”

A New Beginning

In 2003, Aung La N Sang left Myanmar to study Agriculture Science at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He continued to be an exemplary student in the classroom, but a year later, while working out in the college’s gymnasium, his attention drifted towards a student practicing basic striking techniques.

Aung La N Sang saw a massive Samoan classmate hitting a nearby heavy bag, and was enthralled. That afternoon, the two quickly formed a friendship, and went on a road trip days later.

“He took me to the [Carlson] Gracie affiliate in South Bend, Indiana, which was about 45 minutes south [of my university]. Ever since then, I started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, fell in love with BJJ, and fell in love with martial arts.”

“The Burmese Python” was dedicated to learning the craft, as he regularly made trips to the Indiana-based dojo a few times a week, all while keeping up with his studies.

In May 2005, he made his professional debut in the light heavyweight division against Emerson Rushing, a much bigger opposition armed with a wrestling background and more overall expertise. The bout was stopped at 2:24 of the first round, when a ringside doctor would not let Aung La N Sang continue due to a swollen cheekbone.

Although many individuals would give up following a loss, it only motivated the Myanmar hero.

“It made me like martial arts,” he stated. “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 they had another bout, I said, ‘Yeah, I am down for it.’”

A Martial Arts Dream

Aung La N Sang started competing at middleweight, his more natural weight class, and won his next five matches in the first round. While he was spending more time with martial arts, he kept up with his collegiate studies, and supported himself by working at a dairy farm near campus.

In 2007, after graduating with his Bachelor’s degree, he relocated to Columbia, Maryland, to live at his sister’s house and to find a stable job. But what he found instead was Crazy 88 MMA, a Baltimore-based dojo 30 minutes away. He trained there and thoroughly enjoyed the gym culture, but left for a migratory beekeeper position in Florida two months later.

Over the next year and a half, however, Aung La N Sang realized he was not happy with the direction of his life. Quite frankly, he was at a crossroads. He earned a steady income from his busy day job, but that meant putting less hours into his martial arts training, and as a result, he experienced mixed results in his competitive career.

The Myanmar athlete had to make a difficult choice, and he ultimately decided to step away from his full-time job to pursue his dreams of becoming a martial arts world champion. Although he no longer had the comfort of a guaranteed paycheck, this new career path was a risk he was willing to take.

Aung La N Sang moved back to Maryland, trained at Crazy 88 MMA, and applied a lesson from his days as a dairy farmer into his training.

“You reap what you sow,” he said. “If you do not put in the work, you are not going to get the benefits.”

Making World Championship History

After gaining more experience, Aung La N Sang joined ONE Championship in 2014, and tore through his first four opponents. When he returned to Yangon for a pair of bouts against Mohamed Ali and Michal Pasternak in March 216 and October 2016, respectively, he received a hero’s welcome.

He was constantly mobbed by fans at the airport, approached by media everywhere he went, and has even met with several of Myanmar’s top government officials, who offered him words of encouragement.

“It is pretty overwhelming,” he admits. “I am pretty secluded and I do not do this for the fame. I do this because I love it.”

All of the attention has not affected him, nor altered his character. As a matter of fact, he has used his newfound celebrity for the greater good of his countrymen.

This past March, he raised US$6,000 through a charity auction, which included his 2014 NAGA gold medal, a pair of ONE Championship signed gloves, and other pieces of gear. The money went to the Shingni N-Bat Charity, which assists with Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, in the Kachin State.

Then, after visiting a few of the IDP camps, he returned home to Myitkyina for the first time in 14 years to see his family, his neighbors, and his old classmates.

He returned to Yangon later that June to challenge then-undefeated ONE Middleweight World Champion Vitaly Bigdash of Russia for the belt at ONE: LIGHT OF A NATION. It was a rematch from their initial encounter five months earlier, where “The Burmese Python” filled-in for Marcin Prachnio on two weeks’ short notice and lost a grueling five-round decision.

On that fateful June night, the Myanmar hero would not be denied. Aung La N Sang stunned Bigdash with an explosive head kick, and nearly finished him off in the first round with a melee of strikes. The Russian recovered, however, and utilized his grappling to bring the crowd favorite to the mat.

It became a back-and-forth battle, with each athlete trying to impose their respective strategy, but Aung La N Sang’s dynamic striking, blistering style, and keen ability to nullify his rival’s attacks earned him a unanimous decision victory.

Right then and there, in front of all his countrymen, “The Burmese Python” was awarded the ONE Middleweight World Championship.

“It felt unreal,” he explained of that iconic moment, when celebratory confetti sprinkled down from the rafters. “This is something I have been working for my whole life, and it came true right in front of my hometown fans. I was amazed and happy, and I felt very blessed.”

This title win, however, is more than just a celebration. It is confirmation to Aung La N Sang that he made the right decision to leave his job ten years ago to pursue his passion, and it is also a reversal of his teenage fortunes, as he became the first Myanmar-born World Champion in any sport. 

“I come from a very humble beginning. Coming from a small town in Myanmar, it is unbelievable and an honor for me to win a world championship,” Aung La N Sang says.

“Also, by winning this world title, I can motivate people in my hometown and home country, to let them know they can succeed at the highest level if they choose to and work hard, and put their mind and soul into it.”

Yangon | 3 November | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast | PPV: Official Livestream at oneppv.com | Tickets: http://bit.ly/ONEHerosDream