THE voice is younger. And discernibly different. It’s certainly not the familiar Aussie drawl of ONE Championship’s (ONE) regular commentator, the effervescent Michael Schiavello, or his equally buoyant co-commentator, Mitch Chilson.
With its clipped American twang — and occasional quivers — perhaps due to nerves, or even excitement, the voice belongs to a newcomer to the ringside hot seat, Malaysia’s top flyweight, Gianni Subba.
His usual “fight” attire — of shorts and grappling gloves — abandoned, Subba, one of the most versatile athletes on the roster of the biggest martial arts promotion in the world, ONE, looks more GQ than warrior on this heady night of martial arts extravaganza at the Ryogoku Kokugikan indoor arena in Tokyo, Japan for ONE’s milestone event, ONE: Century.
“He’s not bad; not bad at all…” I murmur appreciatively to my friend seated next to me, as Subba’s good-looking face lights up the giant screens around the dimly-lit arena and he engages in a rapid exchange with the victor in the ring in the prelims round.
The banter is brief but as the athlete, who is of Malaysian/Nepalese parentage makes his way out of the ring to re-join the rest of ONE’s commentary team, his strides purposeful — and microphone still clutched tightly in his hand — I find myself marvelling at the versatility of this affable 27-year-old. Around me, the air is beginning to sizzle again as the crowd begins to bay for more action.
SUBBA STEPS UP
“Well, to date I’ve done quite a fair number of events already…”
That familiar drawl suddenly seems so close. Instead of the heady buzz of a highly charged arena, it’s the steady buzzing from the aircon that whips me back to the present — in the slightly chilly waiting area of the New Straits Times studio.
The Bali-based Subba, looking relaxed in a casual black and white print shirt, is back in town for ONE’s Kuala Lumpur showcase, ONE: Mark of Greatness at the Axiata Arena, KL; this time, not as part of the commentary team but in his capacity as one of the corner-men for fellow Bali-based Malaysian fighter, “Jungle Cat” Muhammad Aiman, who will face China’s Chen “The Ghost” Rui in the night’s bantamweight bout.
Just days earlier, Subba was in Singapore to commentate for Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior series, which held its ninth “live” event.
“It featured 30 talented, up-and-coming athletes from around the world competing across 14 mixed martial arts bouts as they aimed to impress ONE Championship executives,” he elaborates, adding: “The standout performers get to be in the running to compete on ONE’s main roster.”
Meanwhile, the athlete, the elder of the two Subba siblings under the ONE stable (the younger is former MIMMA featherweight champion, Keanu Subba) hasn’t been seen in action in the ring for the last year due to a medical suspension, which continues to be under review.
“I’d been asking for these commentating gigs from literally the first week that I received my medical suspension,” shares Subba, voice low. “I knew I wanted to stay busy and that I wanted something to build on after I’m done with competing. I guess that side of things got accelerated when I got that setback.” His opportunity came during ONE: For Honour in Jakarta back in May where he was the co-commentator alongside Chilson.
What made him think that he’d be cut out for this kind of thing, I couldn’t help blurting. And Subba’s brows furrow as he contemplates the question.
“I’ve been there. I’ve competed many times and I know what it’s like. That’s definitely an advantage compared to some guy coming into this from out of nowhere. In fact, there are athletes who’ve managed to open up new avenues for themselves outside of competing by doing this kind of thing ,” replies the athlete, who was born in Hawaii and spent his early years in his mother’s hometown of Kuala Lumpur before moving to the US for his high school education.
BAPTISM OF FIRE
Recalling his baptism of fire at ONE: For Honour at the Istora Senayan indoor arena more than six months ago, Subba admits that he really was thrown into the deep end. It so happen that ONE’s regular commentator, Schiavello, was under the weather and was unable to proceed with the night’s gig.
Chuckling at the memory, Subba shares: “I had no idea that I was being lined up for it. I found out about my commentating turn about an hour before the event. Bo, someone who runs the media side of things for ONE Championship, told me that there was an opportunity for me to be on the prelims as a commentator. I jumped at the chance. After all, I’ve been trying to get into this kind of thing ever since my medical suspension!”
Looking thoughtful, Subba adds: “It was one of those moments where you just had to step up to the opportunity. For much of my journey as a fighter, I’ve been thrown into situations like these; you know… where you just have to step up and go for it. You give your best — that’s all you can do.”
A small smile playing on his lips, the ONE athlete admits that he was nervous going in. “I just didn’t want to come off as unintelligent or unqualified and ruin anything. ONE Championship is a big event and my name is going to be there. Obviously I wanted to do the best job possible.”
Fortunately for him, his side-kick Chilson proved to be a great mentor and helped ease the young Malaysian’s entry into this alien arena.
“Mitch was a great help,” exclaims Subba, adding: “He did everything possible to ensure that I was comfortable. Both he and Bo advised that I should just imagine that we’re all sitting down at a bar watching a couple of fights and just commentating. They told me, ‘Just have fun and relax!’ And that’s what I essentially tried to do all night!”
Since then, Subba has enjoyed plenty of support from ONE’s veteran commentating team. “All of them have given me good advice,” he shares, before citing the gregarious Aussie, Schiavello, as example.
“He told me that I just needed to go out there, be confident and show what I can do. I’m still new and I guess the nerves can creep up sometimes. But I’m definitely getting better and I’m trying to now find my own style.”
Projecting confidence isn’t something that comes easy to him, concedes Subba. By nature, he’s pretty placid. “That’s the one side of my personality that I need to work on,” he confides softly, adding: “When I first started out in MMA, I was more reserved and shy, just like my brother, Keanu. But I knew that if I wanted to get anywhere, I needed to put myself out there more.”
And how does he control the nerves? A pause ensues before Subba replies: “It’s a matter of summoning the confidence from within and believing in what you’re saying and not getting too caught up in the mistakes. Especially when you go live.”
A lot of things can happen when you go live, shares Subba with a shudder. Not so much in terms of the technical side of things, he adds, but it’s important to not mess up names!
“For example, Mitch told me this story about this one commentator who used to commentate for Bellator MMA (an American mixed martial arts promotion company) He was really good. But then he disappeared. I asked what happened to him.”
Smiling, Subba continues: “Apparently he was in Jakarta and it was the first time they managed to get the Sports Minister to come to the event. When it came to his announcement, he said something like, ‘And finally, this is the Sports Minister of India!’ And that was the last show he did. Obviously mistakes like that I don’t ever want to make!”
PREPARING FOR THE ROLE
Suffice to say, Subba takes his new role very seriously. Every time he receives the nod for a gig, he’ll ensure that he puts in the time to prepare.
“I’ll record myself as I commentate over some fights that I’m watching,” he shares, before adding with a chuckle: “When you’re competing, it’s different. You just jump into the ring and then forget about everything as you look for that win. And if you win… no one really cares what you say, or how you say it! Less stress!”
He acknowledges that sometimes when he gets excited, the speed of his speech will suddenly get very rapid. “When the action is so exciting, I tend to be like, ‘whoosh’ because everything is just rushing around in my head. I need to start to think slowly!”
Does he seek feedback on how he’s done from his family, I ask, curious. And again that gentle smile. Says Subba: “Whenever I ask, they tend to say all the nice stuff. In the end, I decided that I will be my own biggest critic and just watch the shows back to see how I did. It’s like just stepping back and reviewing, and seeing how you can fill the holes that come up.”
It’s not easy, admits Subba. But he believes that nothing will happen if you don’t take that first step. “You’ll always be where you are,” he says, voice low, before adding: “The more you do something, the more comfortable it will become. For me, I tell myself that I just have to speak to people as if they’re going to like me already. If you go in there all hesitant and unsure, then it’ll be a lot harder.”
Subba admits that as he gets older, he’s gotten better at “self-preservation”. He “mutes” people! “I find that I’ve started not to care so much about whether people like me or not. If you do, that’s cool. If you don’t, I did try — but I won’t be trying again!”
As we speak, Subba is awaiting the results of his latest MRI on his medical condition. And he’s hoping that all will go well so that he can return to the ring again.
“It’s hard to contemplate that I will not fight again,” he muses, forlornly. “I feel that I’m just reaching my athletic peak. The peak age for MMA is 30-33. A lot of people become champions by then. You’ve already put in all the work and at that point it’s more about who fights better on the day.”
Athletically, he’s feeling better than ever, shares Subba. “I feel stronger and faster. Sometimes when I watch some of these guys compete, I get frustrated. I KNOW I can do it. I kind of have a little chip on my shoulder now. When I train with these guys, say when we’re doing grappling work, I compete a lot harder. It’s like I feel like I need to show these guys that although I’m not competing, I can still whip your arse!”
When he first discovered that he was going to be issued with a medical suspension, his world crashed, recalls Subba, sighing softly.
“I was supposed to headline a flyweight tournament and then a day before my fight, I got pulled out. It was really hard. I didn’t really talk to anybody.”
A subtle choke in his voice, the athlete continues: “You have to understand… my whole life has been in the pursuit of this one goal. Ever since I was 19, I dreamt only of competing and becoming champion one day. And when you say I might not be able to pursue it because of these rules and regulations…”
At the same time, says Subba, it was his career and only source of income. “I really didn’t know what to do for a long time. I wasn’t in a good place then. But now, luckily I have my brother and we train. At the end of the day, you just need to keep moving forward. That’s what’s got me through the tough period.”
As with everything, Subba believes that there’ll always be a silver lining. Brows furrowing, he muses: “Because of this, I’ve been able to watch a lot more fights and study them — that’s helped my game as well. Then of course, there are those opportunities that have come up as a result of the setback. Hopefully I get my clearance. If not, we’ll see. I’ve always been able to land on my own two feet — no matter what life throws at me!”