Feel the punch

Agi­lan Thani’s trans­for­ma­tion from an over­weight teenager to elite com­bat sports ath­lete is noth­ing short of re­mark­able.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By RASHVINJEET S. BEDI and D. KANYAKUMARI star2@thes­tar.com.my

FOR two and a half years, Agi­lan “Al­li­ga­tor” Thani washed toi­lets, swept and mopped floors, and did the laundry at the gym where he was learn­ing mixed-mar­tial arts (MMA).

While most kids that age would prob­a­bly de­pend on their par­ents, Agi­lan who turns 22 in Au­gust, just wanted to be in­de­pen­dent. He did not want to bur­den his dad who was a sin­gle par­ent.

“My dad worked hard, but it was not go­ing to be enough for us to sur­vive if I started train­ing. So I thought I bet­ter start tak­ing the ini­tia­tive to work.

“My goal at that time was to make sure I never asked for a sin­gle sen from my dad any­more. Since 18, I have not taken a sin­gle sen from him,” he says in an in­ter­view at the Monar­chy MMA gym in Kuala Lumpur.

In the ear­lier days of his work as a jan­i­tor, Agi­lan slept in the gym as taxis were too costly, while public trans­port did not op­er­ate by the time the gym closed at mid­night.

He even­tu­ally got a bi­cy­cle for him­self, where he could cy­cle back to his one-room flat in Sen­tul, but even that lasted three months as the bike was van­dalised.

At the time Agi­lan joined the gym, he weighed 145kg and even had to wear size 52 trousers, mak­ing him an ob­vi­ous tar­get for bul­lies in school and in his neigh­bour­hood.

He used to be called Kungfu Panda, among other taunts.

Those days seem a long way off now, and Agi­lan who is 175cm tall, now weighs about 83kg and wears size 32 trousers.

But the loss of al­most 60kg in one year didn’t come just like that – it took him a lot of will power and in­tense train­ing to achieve.

His big por­tions of rice went, and so did the snacks in be­tween meals. Din­ner was some­times just a bowl of yo­ghurt, ac­cord­ing to Agi­lan.

His train­ing and ded­i­ca­tion in the gym has reaped re­wards, with Agi­lan com­pet­ing in the ONE Cham­pi­onship, the largest sports me­dia prop­erty in Asia.

He gained more recog­ni­tion in MMA after be­ing given a shot at the Wel­ter­weight ti­tle against for­mer Olympian Ben Askren dur­ing the Dy­nasty of He­roes fight in Sin­ga­pore on May 26.

He is the sec­ond Malaysian to fight for a World Cham­pi­onship ti­tle, the first be­ing Ev Ting, who fought for the ONE Light­weight World Cham­pi­onship ti­tle.

The script, how­ever, did not go as planned, with Agi­lan los­ing to the Amer­i­can who is widely recog­nised as one of the best wel­ter­weights in MMA to­day, and one of the best fight­ers in the world pound-for-pound.

It was Agi­lan’s first loss in a fight. Re­gard­less, the young fighter shows ma­tu­rity be­yond his years and has time on his side.

His trans­for­ma­tion from an over­weight teenager to an elite com­bat sports ath­lete

has been noth­ing short of re­mark­able.

Liv­ing in what is con­sid­ered to be a “no­to­ri­ous” side of Kuala Lumpur, Agi­lan who failed his SPM ex­ams, could have been part of a gang, but he was never drawn to them.

In­stead, Agi­lan – who has never smoked or con­sumed al­co­hol – took up mar­tial arts when he was 16, start­ing with karate. He then turned to MMA after be­ing in­spired by Don­nie Yen’s 2005 Hong Kong ac­tion flick SPL: Sha Po Lang.

“I was al­ready do­ing karate be­fore that and the movie got me more in­ter­ested in the mar­tial arts he was do­ing. I Googled the movie and found out that it was Brazil­ian Jiu Jitsu,” re­calls Agi­lan.

Agi­lan says the in­ten­tion to learn mar­tial arts wasn’t to take re­venge on any­one; it was to be­come a bet­ter per­son.

“I took the ini­tia­tive to train hard and be­came good at it, even­tu­ally mak­ing it to the com­pe­ti­tions,” he ex­plains.

From Brazil­ian Jiu Jitsu, he even­tu­ally learnt Muay Thai and wrestling from fight­ers who vis­ited the gym.

And from be­ing a jan­i­tor, he even­tu­ally be­came an in­struc­tor and sub­se­quently started fight­ing pro­fes­sion­ally.

Agi­lan made his MMA de­but at the F3 Cham­pi­onship in De­cem­ber 2013, be­fore com­pet­ing in the Malaysian In­va­sion Mixed Mar­tial Arts (Mimma) cir­cuit the fol­low­ing year.

He won all five of his ama­teur fights in the Mimma cir­cuit, in­clud­ing the Wel­ter­weight Cham­pi­onship in Oc­to­ber 2014.

In Malaysia, the MMA scene is still con­sid­ered to be rel­a­tively small and doesn’t have much of a fol­low­ing. This prompted Agi­lan to seek proper train­ing for him­self in the United States where there are more MMA ath­letes.

His first stint in the United States that lasted three months was one where Agi­lan says he lived “like a beg­gar” and spent US$1,600 (RM6,700) al­to­gether, in­clud­ing flight tick­ets. The prize money he won from his fights was used to fund his train­ing.

Agi­lan slept on the couch or floor of the gym. He ate cheap food such as US$1 (RM4.29) piz­zas and drank wa­ter that was re­filled from foun­tains.

That stint was fol­lowed by two oth­ers where Agi­lan stayed in bet­ter places, ate bet­ter food and had bet­ter train­ing. He once again rein­vested his grow­ing prize money in­come into train­ing.

The ONE Cham­pi­onship came call­ing in 2015, with Agi­lan get­ting the nod to con­test a fight not long be­fore it was sched­uled.

De­spite be­ing rel­a­tively out of shape and over­weight at the time, Agi­lan – who spe­cialises in wrestling tech­niques – took that op­por­tu­nity and won his bout. (Fight­ers need about six weeks to be fully-pre­pared for a big fight.)

He won his next five bouts in the ONE Cham­pi­onship be­fore get­ting his ti­tle shot against Askren.

While most would be happy with just get­ting a ti­tle shot, Agi­lan will go back to the draw­ing board and take his time to find a way to come back stronger and win the world cham­pi­onships that he has been aim­ing for.

He only blames him­self for his first ever loss, and says that he has to work on his men­tal side.

“The mis­take is on my side ... my men­tal side. We’ve got to work on that ... slowly get back into it be­cause it’s not easy com­ing out of a loss. It’s the only thing I have done with my whole life and made money out of. I have to do it the right way,” he muses.

Me­hdi Bagheri, an Ira­nian wrestler who has been train­ing with Agi­lan for two years, says that he lost his fight men­tally on the day.

Bagheri, who was with the Ira­nian na­tional team, ob­serves that Agi­lan has come a long way in MMA and wrestling in par­tic­u­lar.

“He doesn’t have much prob­lem with his tech­niques. He is on a high level. He learns fast, is tal­ented and is fo­cused. He is young and can only get bet­ter,” he says.

Photo: ONE Cham­pi­onship

— Pho­tos: P. NATHAN/ The Star

Man in the mir­ror: Agi­lan ob­serv­ing his form while train­ing. His ded­i­ca­tion in the gym has reaped re­wards.

— GLENN GUAN/The Star

Agi­lan (right) dom­i­nated his fight against Tai­wan’s Jeff Huang dur­ing the ONE Cham­pi­onship match at Sta­dium Ne­gara in Kuala Lumpur in Fe­bru­ary.

’I took the ini­tia­tive to train hard and be­came good at it,’ says Agi­lan.

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