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The Malaysian Avengers.

“Happy retirement to Datuk Lee Chong Wei. Now let’s pass the torch to Malaysian MMA (mixed martial arts)!” exclaims Malaysian martial arts star and one of the world’s best lightweights, Ev “E.T” Ting. Despite the light-heartedness of his tone, one senses that the Malaysian-born, New Zealand-based ONE Championship (Asia’s largest global sports media property and the world’s largest martial arts organisation) athlete isn’t really kidding.

His normally imperturbable eyes blaze with conviction when he adds: “You know, Chong Wei has been a great hero and we all looked up to him. But his glory days are over and we need to bring new glory to the country. It’s time for us to have new sporting heroes and a new sport to unite us!”

Solemn nods accompany the 30-year-old’s rousing words as fellow martial artists, Gianni Subba, Saiful “The Vampire” Merican, Agilan “Alligator” Thani, “Jungle Cat” Muhammad Aiman, Mohammed “Jordan Boy” Mahmoud, Jihin “Shadowcat” Radzuan, and the country’s former MMA queen, Ann “Athena” Osman, all seated around him in the “lounge” area of the NST’s photo studio, allow the enormity of the challenge to sink in.

ONE Championship's Chairman and CEO, Chatri Sityodtong is bringing mixed martial arts to the greatest sporting stage - the Olympics.

A special photo shoot has been arranged with the athletes – Malaysia’s band of elite martial artists – in conjunction with the much anticipated ONE Championship event, ONE: Masters of Destiny to be held at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur on July 12. This will be the promotion’s 15th outing on our shores and it’s set to be an explosive one, with four of our home heroes due to showcase their prowess in the ring.

While the earnest Ting will hope to overcome Japanese mixed martial artist, Daiche Abe in the men’s lightweight contest, Johor-born lass and wushu world champion Jihin has the Philippines’ Jomary Torres standing in her way in the women’s atomweight bout.

Jihin “Shadowcat” Radzuan.

Meanwhile, the all-Malaysian Muay Thai bantamweight clash between Terengganu-born, Muay Thai star, Saiful and rising Muay Thai sensation, Mohammed, who is of Jordanian/Malaysian parentage, is expected to bring the “house” down with Malaysian support being inevitably split down the middle.

Suffice to say, it’s going to be a night to remember and hopefully, the perfect stage for the birth of some new Malaysian sporting heroes.

HUNGRY FOR SUCCESS

Ev “ET” Ting.

From the margins of society, mixed martial arts or MMA (a full-contact combat sport that allows striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from various combat sports and martial arts) has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

Ticket sales and global appeal are at an all-time high. And with this band of Malaysian athletes signed to the biggest martial arts promotion, ONE Championship, we’re essentially talking about athlete exposure to over two billion potential viewers around the world.

Ting, who has blazed a trail across Asia, New Zealand and Australia before making waves on the global stage of ONE Championship, currently resides in Auckland, having moved to New Zealand with his family at a young age. He desperately wants his home country to be known for more than just badminton or football (or corrupted politics), which to be fair, has passed its heyday.

Says Ting in his languid Kiwi drawl: “I’m a bit of a “broken” native Malaysian but it’s given me another perspective. Not a lot of Malaysians know that we’ve been having a lot of success and development in mixed martial arts, especially with the help of brands like TUNE Talk, MIMMA and of course, ONE Championship coming through building athletes from ground up. We’re making waves, we’re making runs at world titles and we’re winning some big fights. We’re doing great things and it’ll be a matter of time before we get that recognition.”

A recent triumph came courtesy of the Sentul-born, Agilan at ONE: Legendary Quest in Shanghai when he overcame Japanese-Korean mixed martial arts icon, Yoshihiro “Sexy Yama” Akiyama to bring home victory for Malaysia. This win marked his 10th career victory.

Gianni Subba.

His bright red cap bobbing on his head as he nods his agreement, Subba, who has been with ONE Championship from the very beginning of his mixed martial arts career, adds: “We have reasons to feel hopeful. We have a bunch of young guys who are very talented and all hungry for success.”

Continuing, the 27-year-old athlete, who currently trains out of Bali MMA gym in the rustic surfer’s paradise of Canggu, elaborates: “Like Ev said, we have a huge platform with ONE Championship, which has been growing in the last few years. Now is the time for us to show up. We need to put up performances like Agilan did recently. As we continue to do that, this will give our Malaysian youth hope to want to do what we do. This is how we can grow the sport here.”

“The Vampire” aka Muay Thai maestro Saiful, who’d hitherto been listening intently to his “brothers”, Ting and Subba share their views, suddenly pipes up: “I have my own gym in KL and our goal is definitely to train the youth up to the professional level. As for now, Muay Thai is competed in SUKMA (Malaysian Games) and SEA Games. But ultimately, we have to do more; we need to promote the sport of martial arts in schools for example. I mean, we used to have karate in government schools before.”

The father of two adds that a lot of parents still have apprehensions about allowing their children to learn martial arts. “They think their kids will go on to use those skills to bully other people or something. But that’s not true. When you learn martial arts, you become a more humble person, respectful of people, and you don’t use your skills unless you have to – and only in self-defence. This is something I’d want to educate the parents on!”

Nodding in agreement, Ting interjects: “It’s all about the future generation. It’s about building confidence in the youth and about having programmes in schools and just building a community first from the ground up and branching out from there.”

RID THE STIGMA

Ann “Athena” Osman.

Her expression earnest, Ann, the country’s pioneer female mixed martial artist, believes that the main challenge continues to come from society’s perception of this sport. The 33-year-old, who’s in the ONE Championship’s athlete relations department and is part of its recruitment team, concedes that she does have her work cut out to scout for up-and-coming talents to bring into the ONE stable of warriors.

“We currently have Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series (OWS) that also goes out there to scout for Asia’s next big martial arts stars, giving promising grass-root fighters a platform to start,” elaborates the attractive Sabahan who’s currently pregnant with her first child.

Incidentally, Rich “Ace” Franklin is a three-time martial arts middleweight world champion who competed professionally for 13 years. He has helped elevate ONE Championship to new heights since joining the promotion as a Vice President in 2014.

ONE Championship Manila event.

Continuing, Ann says: “Sometimes when we approach potential talents, they’re very uncertain about what’s going to happen to their future should they decide to dive deep into the sport. A lot are sceptical. And it doesn’t help that their families too will discourage them. To be honest, it’s not easy and I always tell people that the crowd may get smaller on your journey to the top. There are sacrifices to be made and not everyone will come along for the ride.”

Turning to the athletes around her, Ann continues passionately: “Look at these amazing individuals here; they’re the best of the best that we have right now. They’re the ones who dare to go out there, despite the uncertainties, and continue to pursue their passion.”

Saiful “The Vampire” Merican.

Just like Ting, Saiful and the gang, Ann’s hoping that with Chong Wei having hung his racket, a new sport can come to the fore and for new sporting heroes to be born. “It needs to start from school. And there needs to be more education on the virtues of martial arts.”

Her voice laced with pride, Ann, who called it a day on the sport two years ago, shares that at ONE Championship, the deep rooted Asian values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion are trumpeted and practiced. “It’s not about two people going out there and trash talking or bashing each other senselessly. It’s about being there and testing your skills against someone else and challenging each other.”

Smiling broadly, she swivels to face Saiful and Mohammed, the two Muay Thai exponents due to face each other in the ring next week and who happen to be seated opposite each other on the sofa. I’d ascertained earlier that neither had wanted this all-Malaysian clash but as Mohammed had put it, “...you just have to do what you need to do. And bring on your best game.”

“You see, we have Saiful and Mohammed here,” begins Ann, beaming at the duo. “They’re going to be competing against each other soon and yet, they can be in the same space. And no one’s getting aggrieved. This is how real martial artists conduct themselves. We want kids to look up to these real life (sporting) heroes and be inspired to emulate them.”

AVENGERS RISE

Agilan “Alligator” Thani.

What’s the one thing that you want Malaysians to know about you all, I ask, turning to the band of athletes seated in front of me. It’s the jovial 23-year-old Agilan who’s the first to reply. “That we’re ordinary people trying to live our dreams. We’re not bad people and we won’t fight you on the streets. Come support us!”

Nodding, Saiful, who’s been perched on the arm-rest throughout the interview, offers: “What we’ve chosen as our life path… it’s definitely not the easiest way of trying to make a living. But ultimately, we’re all ordinary people trying to put food on the table for the family.”

Turning to Subba, Malaysia’s top flyweight prospect, I wait as he contemplates the question. “What we’re doing now, you can do it too,” Subba replies, adding: “If anyone wants to chase their dream, it’s possible. It’ll take a lot of hard work and it’s going to be tough, but at the end of the day, if you’re really passionate about something, you MUST go for it.”

Mohammed “Jordan Boy” Mahmoud.

The hitherto pensive-looking Mohammed perks up when I swivel to face him for his answer. His smile tentative, the athlete known by the moniker “Jordan Boy” confides: “The sport of Muay Thai changed my life. I used to be a kid who hated school and was listless. When I started joining martial arts, I knew I’d finally found a direction.”

His eyes shining with passion, the 23-year-old continues: “I used to hang out with the wrong people and got up to nonsense sometimes. But when I got into this, I started being more focused and disciplined. Time is precious and not to be wasted. People say combat sport will make you violent and unruly, but no, we train and learn. And we fight in the name of our dream.”

Muhammad “Jungle Cat” Aiman.

Negri Sembilan-born Aiman, the laidback 24-year-old with the wonderful mane of hair and goes by the rather apt moniker of “Jungle Cat” concurs. Voice low, he shares: “Growing up, I never really had a dream. I thought I’d just go through life doing what everybody else was doing. When martial arts came to me, suddenly my world had colours. I don’t have a Plan B. This is my life and I need to just go for it – do or die!”

And “do or die”, as his compatriots would solemnly attest, pretty much sums up their motto too. Concludes Ting, a playful sparkle in his eyes: “We’re comrades. And we’re going to war – together!”

All hail the NEW Malaysian Avengers!

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