BY GEOFF MUELLER – On March 19th, 2016 MMA fighter, and Crazy 88 Mixed Martial Arts coach, Aung La Nsang returned to his native country of Myanmar with one goal – To defeat Egypt’s Mohammed Ali during the main event of ONE Championship’s “Union of Warriors” card.
And I got to see him do just that, and the crazy lead-up to the fight, firsthand!
When Aung asked me to accompany him to Myanmar, I honestly was not sure what to expect.
While no stranger to visiting Asia, I had never visited the southern part of the continent. My only exposure had been through the news media, and more often than not it isn’t a pretty picture being painted.
After spending 10 days in Yangon, I can confidently say that (at least in the city) almost all of my concerns disappeared. The people were extremely friendly, the food was fantastic, and other than the Burmese people’s terror-inducing driving habits I could not have felt safer.
The other thing I was not prepared for was exactly how much of a celebrity Aung La Nsang truly is.
I had heard the people loved him, I had heard that people loved taking pictures with him… I want to reiterate, I.was.not.prepared.
From the moment we stepped off the plane, at 10pm at night, throngs of people were pointing, whispering, and building up the courage to come say “hi” and snap a selfie.
Children shyly gave him stuffed animals as gifts, girls giggled while asking their friends to snap a picture, guys nervously held up clenched fists, and one woman broke down and straight up cried as she took a picture with him.
It was insane.
We had to allot for fan time wherever we went; we couldn’t go anywhere, or do anything, without throngs of people lining up for their shot at a picture with the famous “Burmese Python.”
Which is why it was so difficult to keep to a disciplined training schedule in the days leading up to the fight!
Luckily, one of Aung’s childhood friends came to the rescue and made sure that we had a private training space available to us in the morning for his strength and conditioning and pad work.
In the evenings we spent our time with the fine folks at the Yangon BJJ Club, who greeted us warmly and made sure that we had everything we needed.
In addition to getting our evening rolls in, Aung and I divided our attention. He spent time coaching some of the other Burmese fighters who were appearing on the card, and who had limited MMA experience (they were all traditional Lethwei fighters) in the finer points of grappling for MMA, while I took over the regular jiu jitsu classes.
Even in the relative privacy of Yangon BJJ we still weren’t immune from the omnipresent press.
Over the course of the 10 days we were there, Aung conducted at least 15 television interviews, along with a handful of radio and newspaper ones as well.
Honestly? I lost count. And I was the one planning his schedule!
That was one of the things that really struck me; even after days of people lining up to take pictures with Aung, I didn’t realize how important he was to his people. He literally is the only sports icon they have, and they can’t get enough of him!
And that doesn’t include the media frenzy that occurred after he won his fight. It only proceeded to get crazier from there.
The balancing act was difficult but, like a true professional, Aung met his obligations with a smile and with well thought-out and kind words every time. Even when it was obvious he would rather have been training, or mentally preparing for his fight.
Even though the media and promotional duties were rigorous, they weren’t all tedious.
ONE Championship had set up a charity event, a couple days prior to the fight, to support the “Street School Initiative” (Ga Yu Nar Pyo Khin) at Karaweik Garden. This charity provides mobile educational services for under-privileged children who work to support their families during the day to the detriment of their daily schooling.
Vice President of ONE Championship, Rich Franklin put the event on with the help of Aung, myself, and the ONE staff.
We spent two hours playing with the kids, teaching them games like egg races and dodgeball, hooking them up with fruit and snacks, and just having an all around good time.
Every child was full of smiles, and super happy to high-five me as they completed a race or nailed one of their friends with the dodgeball.
“I’ve never played with Myanmar children before. It’s very nice to meet them and interact with them, and I love them. I’m very thankful that I’ve got this chance…” – Aung La Nsang to the press
In addition to the balancing act that was all of the training, the media obligations, and the promotional responsibilities, Aung was also trying to reconnect with the country he had left some 12 years ago.
So in-between everything else, there was a lot of time spent with family, childhood friends, and his church.
All of this culminated in the arrival of Coach Jomal, and Muay Thai students Ron Magbulos and Sophia Baratta two days before the fight.
Watching the entire card from behind the scenes was interesting to say the least. Five hours holed up in an un-air-conditioned stadium contending with sparks flying from the wires going to the live feed in the warm-up area (I watched the technicians splice it on the fly… no OSHA oversight here!), reporters and fans trying to sneak backstage to get pictures with Aung, and power outages in the middle of one of the fights… it was definitely an experience, one I am glad I had teammates there to share it with.
There were many times Jomal and/or Ron and I would just shake our heads and laugh at the craziness around us.
And then it was time.
As we walked out to the cage, I was once again struck by how unprepared I was for the amount of adoration Aung commanded from those in attendance in Thuwanna Stadium.
The roar of the crowd was intense to say the least.
With every punch or kick Aung threw, the crowd’s screams grew in intensity. I was surprised Aung could hear Jomal and my shouts of instructions, to be honest. But when he sunk in the guillotine? Pure pandemonium ensued.
The glorious cries of Burmese pride filled that stadium like I doubt it has ever heard before.
It is definitely an experience I will never forget.
Looking back on it; I see it is a testament to Aung, and the culture at Crazy 88, that people would fly halfway around the world to support him and watch him fight.
And rumor has it he, and hopefully I, will be returning again in the Fall…
I can’t wait.
– Geoff Mueller