ONE Championship lead commentator and Fox Sports presenter, Steve Dawson, cannot believe how far Agilan Thani has come.
Agilan Thani was an overweight kid who was bullied at school, and brought up alone by his father. He took up martial arts to get in shape, and worked his way through Malaysian Invasion tournaments to become champion. He got up at 4:30am every morning to help his sweetheart cut vegetables in a grocery store. He is 7-0, with seven stoppages, and is now the challenger for Ben Askren’s ONE Welterweight World Championship.
It all seems too good to be true. But Malaysia has a real-life Cinderella story to be proud of in the 21-year-old, and Thani’s most significant chapter is about to be written when he takes on Ben Askren on 26 May, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in the co-main event of ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES.
I visited Thani at the Monarchy MMA gymnasium in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month. Dripping with sweat, he came over to say hello, careful to fist-bump rather than shake hands, obviously aware of the excessive moisture dripping from his remarkably toned body.
It is a body that in the words of Mitch Chilson, “has dropped a strawweight” in the time he’s devoted to mixed martial arts.
“It’s not only me who sees the holes in his game. Many people are starting to see what he’s lacking,” Thani says of Askren, without the slightest hint of bravado, fakery, or hype.
The 21-year old has spent much of his fight camp working on takedown defense, scrambling from the ground, and getting back to his feet.
That’s no surprise, as his opponent Ben Askren of Phoenix, Arizona, is an Olympic wrestler with a 15-0, 1 No Contest professional mixed martial arts record.
“His calibre is high, I should respect that and work towards it,” said Thani.
Askren has been vocal of the need for challengers that are at his level. It is easier said than done, but he’d be wrong to dismiss Thani as a fighter who doesn’t pose a threat.
“He was insanely strong,” said American welterweight Brad Robinson, when I asked about his loss to Thani back in May last year. “I couldn’t believe I was being held down. That hardly ever happens.”
Thani remembers that fight as his best to date. He felt invincible that day, and having come through Trestle Tan and Jeff Huang subsequently in one and two rounds respectively, he’s done nothing since then to take the shine off that performance.
If the Malaysian wins in Singapore, it will be the biggest upset in ONE Championship history, but there is a genuine puncher’s chance here.
Askren has shown vulnerability to a certain plan of attack, though it hasn’t yet been his downfall.
If everybody’s time comes, Askren will do well to make sure that Friday, 26 May isn’t Thani’s.
Steve Dawson is ONE Championship’s lead commentator, a Fox Sports presenter and an author of sporting biographies. He can be found on Twitter & Instagram as @Gulasahi and on Facebook as Steve Dawson.