By Maung Zarni
Burmese dissident Maung Zarni tells the inspirational story of his fellow countryman, who is fighting to unite the nation
It is instinctive for people to look for someone to idolize, look up to, and imitate. Someone from whom they draw strength and inspiration from, to go on with their lives toward where they want to go and who they want to be.
Aung La N Sang might be an ordinary mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in the eyes of many people in the world, but he is absolutely adored by over 51 million Burmese people as a hero in his motherland.
The whole country stands still each time Aung La steps inside the ONE Championship cage.
Aung La’s superstar status has been covered in every mainstream newspaper in Myanmar. He has been a regular staple on each household’s television screen.
On the day of his fight, all walks of life unite in support of Aung La, which he often rewards with a sweet victory.
During his battles inside the cage, Aung La says his countrymen are a source of strength and inspiration to win every match.
“I feel very honored to be able to represent my people. They love the sport. I am very surprised at how much support I get from the people. They are my inspiration every time I compete,” Aung La said.
“Myanmar is my mother. It’s the country that made me who I am today. I will try my best to be a positive role model to everyone. There is no greater feeling than performing for all of my people. I am truly honored for this opportunity,” he added.
Since he became the first Burmese MMA athlete to win a world title, Aung La’s name will never be forgotten.
With a full training camp behind him and the roar of a raucous hometown crowd cheering on his every move, “the Burmese Python” finally accomplished what he set out to do, defeating Russian rival Vitaly Bigdash to become the new ONE Middleweight World Champion.
Aung La edged Bigdash by way of unanimous decision in their rematch at ONE: LIGHT OF A NATION, which took place at the sold-out Thuwunna Indoor Stadium in Yangon, Myanmar, last Friday, June 30.
The 32-year-old Myanmar national hero lost to Bigdash in January, but he managed to exact his revenge by blemishing his opponent’s undefeated streak, leaving Bigdash with a 9-1.
With tears streaming from his eyes, Aung La stood at the center of the ONE Championship cage, basking in the adulation poured upon him by a loving Yangon crowd chanting his name.
While the coveted belt is draped over his shoulder, the newly-minted ONE Middleweight World Champion shared his victory with his countrymen and women: “Myanmar, how does it sound to have a world champion?”
“I cannot do this without God. I cannot do this without my teammates. I cannot do this without you, Myanmar. I’m not talented. I’m not fast. But with you, I have courage, I have strength, and now I’ve won the world title,” Aung La said. “The fans helped me reach this victory. I wanted to give them and to give this country a world champion.”
As his popularity and commercial clout have grown in tandem with his rise in the MMA ranks, Aung La has stressed that he wants his fame and his success in the cage to help unify and inspire the people of Myanmar.
“I hope to be an inspiration to the people of Myanmar. This is for them. It feels like I am very blessed, and hopefully, I can bring blessings to other people as well,” he said.
The victory makes him the first Myanmar national to win a major MMA world title, and more broadly, the most successful individual Myanmar athlete on the international stage.
More than three quarters of a million people witnessed the action-packed encounter live online, with many more watching on television or gathering at local beer stations, plus casual MMA fans tuning in from 118 countries around the world.
In Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital where Aung La was born, hundreds of refugees at the Mai Na IDP camp clustered around a projector screen to see him fight.
After he was declared the winner, the entire camp erupted into jubilation as Aung La got the job done against Bigdash.
“This is where my heart lives and has stayed. I will always be home in Myanmar. They have embraced me just as I have embraced my roots. Myanmar will always be home to me. The time I spent growing up here is what makes me the man I am today, and for that, I’ll always be grateful,” Aung La said.
Victor Cui, ONE Championship’s CEO, stressed that Aung La’s achievement represents a foothold for MMA in Myanmar, as it is the company’s strategy to build local, homegrown Asian martial arts heroes from the grassroots level.
“Aung La N Sang commands a superstar presence in Yangon. The people just adore him. Whenever Aung La shows up anywhere in Myanmar, expect a massive throng of passionate fans. It’s actually incredible to witness. When he performs in Yangon, the cheers blow the roof off the stadium. In Yangon, Aung La is a bona fide superhero,” Cui said.
“Since we have decided to focus on developing Myanmar, there is no doubt a sharp increase in MMA’s popularity in the country. Not just that, but traditional Let Wei practitioners as well. A lot of Myanmar’s top Let Wei competitors are now training in MMA, and it is such a wonderful feeling to have had an influence in that,” the CEO added.
Cui believes that the people of Myanmar have found a deeper meaning in Aung La’s illustrious prizefighting career.
“Aung La N Sang has single-handedly made MMA one of the most popular sports today in Myanmar. His presence just oozes with superstar quality, and the fans just love him. He represents what it means to be a true Burmese warrior. His backstory is compelling and completely relatable to fans in Myanmar,” he said.
Now a celebrated world champion in the constantly-evolving sport of MMA, Aung La stressed that the work to bring Myanmar into well-deserved prominence around the globe is not yet over.
The fighter said: “If I can inspire at least one person, one child, to know that anything is possible in this world, then I have done my job as a martial artist. Martial arts isn’t just about fighting. It’s about giving back to the world that has given you life. I’m doing this for my people, and when I fight for my people, nothing is ever difficult.”
Maung Zarni is an exiled Burmese human rights activist , educator and activist with nearly 30-years of deep involvement in Burma’s affairs. He blogs at www.maungzarni.net He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.