He may have had his dreams dashed but like a true fighter, Agilan Thani isn’t planning on staying down, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
A-M-Y. The three letters tattooed on the young man’s muscular forearm is the first thing to catch my attention. “Oooh, what does that tattoo say?” I ask him, edging closer from my comfortable “port” on the gym floor to get a better look.
“Amy. That’s my girlfriend’s name,” the young man replies, proudly.
“You’re a romantic chap huh? What’s your star sign?”, I persist, lobbing him with another question.
“Hey, you believe in all that astrology stuff? I do too! I’m a Leo, my friend!” he declares, and with that, Agilan ‘The Alligator’ Thani’s hitherto earnest face breaks into a convivial grin.
The mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter is still recovering — physically and mentally — from his recent defeat at the hands of former US Olympian Ben Askren at the ONE: Dynasty of Heroes spectacle at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Having entered the fight with seven clean victories under his belt, the 21-year-old’s hopes of becoming the first Malaysian to win a ONE Championship title were dashed on the night via a fight-ending submission just past the two-minute mark in the first round.
Former amateur wrestler Askren was able to catch the 175cm-tall athlete in a mounted crucifix (a ground grappling position that involves being perpendicularly behind the opponent, chest against back, and controlling the opponent’s arms), dispense with some incessant pounding before successfully taking the already-bleeding Agilan, one of the top welterweights in ONE Championship, to the ground for the ultimate submission — an arm triangle choke.
ONE Championship is Asia’s largest sports media property whose aim is to showcase the beauty of martial arts by creating Asian superheroes through the world’s most exciting mixed martial arts events.
This defeat is Agilan’s first-ever career loss. Suffice to say, he’s pretty choked up about it but this Sentul-born lad, a product of Monarchy MMA and protege of well-respected Belgian BJJ coach Samir Mrabet, isn’t about to let that derail him from his ultimate mission — to be world champion one day.
“Hey, you don’t mind how I sit?,” he asks. His question breaks my train of thought and I smile at him, shaking my head.
Ever courteous, he’s concerned that his relaxed pose on the floor — one leg up and the other crossed under — may not be suitable for the camera.
Tell me about that night, I ask him. His eyes under his square, dark-rimmed glasses suddenly turn serious.
“The fight ended really fast and I suffered some damage within that short period of time. That’s because I wasn’t prepared mentally for what was coming and to be honest, I also felt a lot of pressure going in,” recalls Agilan.
Pressure? He nods: “I’d fought seven times before this but have never experienced the kind of support I did that night. I was going in for my first title fight and I had the whole of Malaysia behind me. Plus the Indian community whom I knew really wanted this victory for me — badly,” says Agilan, who made his professional debut in December 2013.
He admits that although he was happy to “perform” for everyone, the pressure did get to him.
“There’s no one to blame, of course,” he concedes, swiftly adding: “I should’ve learnt how to control my emotions better. This is something I’m going to work on.”
Looking thoughtful, Agilan shares that he wasn’t able to “play his game” that night either.
“I’m what you call an ‘offensive’ fighter. I attack a lot. Normally I’d take my time before rushing my opponent into my game. But this time, I didn’t do that. I just rushed into the game and it gave Askren an advantage to pick up the pace and rush me into his game.”
The fact that much of “camp time” in preparation for this fight was spent on “defence” also didn’t help, believes Agilan.
Again, he reiterates that his strength lies in going on the offensive. “I’m not a very good striker or a good grappler. But I’m a very good grinder. I take people down, keep them down and make them tired. I don’t have the strength to throw people around. But what I can do is to keep the same pace throughout a fight. And that’s how I fight usually. This time I didn’t manage to do that. We didn’t really work on my game going into this fight. We worked on my opponent’s — defensive.”
FINDING THE MOTIVATION
Now that the dust has settled and he’s had time to ponder, Agilan’s raring to put things right again. But that said, he admits that he’s not the most driven of person.
Sheepishly, he confides: “I’m not a positive person by nature — in fact, I’m 90 per cent negative! It’s probably got a lot to do with my childhood where I was bullied quite a lot. I’m a perfectionist. If I don’t achieve what I set out to do, I can get very negative. I can go home and really cry some days. Am I self-critical? Yes. And I tend to want everything too soon. That said, I can put myself back into a positive frame of mind in a split second when I speak to my loved ones.”
His journey to get to where he is today — from an overweight teenager into an elite combat sports athlete — has certainly not been easy.
“I didn’t have this kind of support before. Prior to this, I had the backing of one or two sponsors who helped me to get here and I kept a day job. I worked as a cleaner and as an instructor in this gym.”
Noticeably mature for his age, Agilan, whose moniker “The Alligator” was literally ‘forced’ upon him during one kickboxing fight (as he had no moniker of his own against that of his opponent who had “Raging Bull” tagged onto his name), was brought up singlehandedly by his father.
His mother, he shares, without the slightest trace of sadness or bitterness, left them when he was only nine months old.
A small smile playing on his lips, Agilan, an only child, confides: “My mum ran away but whenever anyone asked where she was, I’d reply that she went for the Olympics and never came back. Was she an athlete? Err... no!”
He recalls his father putting him up with his uncle’s family in Kedah when he was 7. “Dad wanted me to be surrounded by family, somewhere where I’d have “brothers” and “sisters” to play with. After Kedah, I returned to KL and my dad and uncle took care of me. My dad was a restaurant manager and my uncle, a money changer, back then.”
It was during this time that he learnt to be independent. “My dad used to go to work at 3pm and return home only by 4am,” recalls Agilan. “So, I’d wake up by myself, go to school, buy food, and wash my own clothes. From the age of 9. I didn’t really get to spend much time with dad as most of the time when I came back from school, he’d have left for work.”
His dad, adds Agilan, did his best to bring him up the right way.
“I learnt a lot from him.The most important lesson? That no matter how anyone treats you, you must always treat them with respect. And speak no evil. I didn’t really miss not having a mother around because I think my dad brought me up in a way where I didn’t feel like I needed a female figure in my life.”
The fact that he struggled with his weight during his childhood is something he attributes to his penchant for snacking on junk food whilst watching TV.
Chuckling, he says: “Yeah, I was obese. At age 17, I weighed 140kg. I ate and I didn’t exercise.”
Funnily enough, he’s keen to emphasise that despite his weight issues, he was always a happy child.
“To be honest, I didn’t really care about my weight. In fact, I’m not the sort of person that cares much for things that people say. Until today, I don’t dress up. I still wear my cheap shorts, my Monarchy t-shirt, and generally just live my life the way I want. I took the initiative to lose weight because I wanted to be a professional athlete.”
But all that bullying? He shakes his head before replying: “That was more to do with the fact that I was a nerd at school. Although I wasn’t very academic, I was very disciplined, a well-behaved child. And I guess that got to some people.”
As we near the end of our chat, I ask Agilan about his ultimate dream.
His eyes narrow, reminding me of a fighter on fire, and he replies: “I always dream big. I’ve kept this dream to myself all this while, preferring just to work quietly towards it. But now I’m going to shout it out: My goal is to be a world champion. And for sure, you WILL see me as a world champion one day!”
IF YOU COULD BE AN ANIMAL, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
Alligator. Because then I can live both on land and water.
WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST INDULGENCE?
Fried chicken! Now that I have a week off from training, my mission is to find the best fried chicken in the country.
WHICH SUPERHERO WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO BE?
Captain America. He’s not the strongest or most athletic out of all those superheroes but he has leadership qualities and he’s disciplined. That’s better. I’m nowhere near and there’s still much I need to work on.
WHAT’S YOUR ‘GO-TO’ MUSIC WHEN CHILLING?
Oh, I like the slow stuff, like those by Ed Sheeran. His kind of music makes me think straight!
WHICH OTHER SPORT DO YOU WISH YOU COULD PLAY?
DO YOU HAVE A “LUCKY” PRE-FIGHT RITUAL/PRACTICE?
I’m pretty superstitious. I always like to wear white shorts and I pray for luck before going into the cage.
WHO’S YOUR HERO/ES?
My dad and my girlfriend. They inspire me with their work ethics. They work 16 hours a day!