Aung La N Sang’s success has taken him full circle. Over the last 14 years, the Myanmar native has established himself as one of the best middleweights in the world outside of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and become a promotional face for the One Championship organization. During this process, the current middleweight and light heavyweight champion has also become a sports icon in his homeland.
The son of a jade merchant and stay-at-home mother, Sang, 33, grew up in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State. While he says they lived a middle-class life, the standards for middle-class in Myanmar and the United States are quite different.
“A lot of things you take for granted in the States we didn’t have,” Sang told Sherdog.com, “but we were middle-class. We were OK. We didn’t have nice things, but we definitely had food on the table.”
While they may have lacked certain luxuries, they were afforded the opportunity -- uncommon in Myanmar -- to receive above-average schooling.
“We were very blessed to have a good education,” Sang said.
That education included learning English, which made his transition to being a college student in the United States much smoother.
“There wasn’t much of a culture shock,” Sang said when asked about adjusting to life at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. The move was made easier by the reality that life in America was not as enviable as he expected. “I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I was going to be. They make it seem like everything is going to be so great in the movies and in our imagination. Then when we get there, it’s not even that nice. Our dorm beds [and] our mattresses were kind of crappy.”
Sang studied karate in his youth and admired martial arts film stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. However, it was a suggestion one day at the Andrews University gym that truly began his journey to MMA. On the advice of a person there, he attended a school affiliated with Carlson Gracie, the son of Carlos Gracie and nephew of Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Helio Gracie. After that first session, the man who came to be known as “The Burmese Python” was reborn.
“Ever since I did my first jiu-jitsu class, I was in love,” Sang said.
Soon, he brought his grappling talents to mixed martial arts, as he made his professional debut under the Total Fight Challenge banner in May 2005. Although it resulted in defeat -- he lost via first-round technical knockout -- Sang admits he was “hooked” from that point forward. Sang fought 25 times before arriving in the Singapore-based One Championship promotion. At the time, he adopted a new outlook. In the early days of his career, fighting was little more than amusing escape because Sang was focused on responsibilities in the classroom.
“I did it as a hobby for the longest time,” he said, “and I always thought, ‘Man, I can do this thing. I can make it to the big shows,’ but I never really took it that seriously. I always thought I had a lot of potential, but I never really did it fully -- 100-percent.”
However, Sang was a completely different fighter when he made his first appearance for One Championship in July 2014.
“When One took me in, I’d been training for 10 years,” he said, “so [my] skills [had] been building up and I’d been getting more serious, working on my boxing, working on my jiu-jitsu. When everything fell into place and I started fighting for [them], they did get the best version of me.”
On a physical and technical level, Sang believes his continued improvement can be linked to changing his gym to Hard Knocks 365 in Florida a year ago. There, he works with Dutch trainer Henri Hooft, who has overseen the development of a number of elite fighters. They built a strong relationship through a similar mindset -- a rapport he claims he never found at American Top Team.
“I couldn’t make any connection with the coaches [at ATT],” he said, “and then during that time, I did one training session with Henri Hooft, and his style [and] the way he teaches, they were exactly my style.”
Over his first year working with Hooft, Sang has gone from a fighter known for his grappling prowess to a well-rounded threat. He has earned finishes in his last three bouts due to his improved standup. In addition to improving his technical skills, Sang has sought out the aid of a sports psychologist.
“With [the help of] sports psychology,” he said, “I [started] to be in the moment and see and react to things, which makes me perform at a higher caliber than I am -- the best version of myself.”
Sang readily admits to feeling the pressure associated with fighting, especially in his most recent outing. He put his One Championship light heavyweight title on the line against Mohammad Karaki in the “Pursuit of Greatness” main event. It took place before a raucous crowd of his countrymen at Thuwunna Youth Training Center Stadium in Yangon, Myanmar.
“Under pressure, it’s hard,” said Sang, who stopped Karaki with punches 2:21 into the first round. “The whole country behind you, watching you, it’s hard, unless you know how to calm yourself down and fight at your peak.”
Sang’s last five fights have come in Myanmar. He has gone 5-0 and grown accustomed to sending the natives home happy.
“It’s crazy how much support I get and how they view me. It’s insane,” he said. “It’s added pressure, but it also makes me want to train harder and work harder. In a sense, it’s good.”
Because of his success in MMA, Sang has reached folk-hero status in his homeland. He was honored in December with a parade and presented with a specially made bronze sculpture of his likeness. The statue now stands in Kachin Manau National Park in his hometown of Myitkyina. Close to 40,000 people were reported to have attended the event.
“I actually told the committee I didn’t want it because it’s too early in my career,” Sang said, though he later relented and chose instead to be “in the moment.” He understands his importance as a role model for youth in Myanmar: “It makes me take things more seriously and makes you want to be a better example for [young people].”
Sang has also become a face for one of the fastest-growing MMA promotions in the world. Holding championships simultaneously in any MMA league -- not just in the UFC -- remains a difficult task that brings with it a higher level of prominence and pressure. Sang overcomes these obstacles with the same levelheaded awareness he takes into the cage.
“I don’t put pressure on myself, but I do know what I am capable of,” he said. “I am excited to be in such a position, and I am going to take full advantage of it.”
Having retained his light heavyweight championship in October, Sang will return to defend his middleweight title against Ken Hasegawa at One Championship “A New Era” on March 31 in Tokyo. He sees 185 pounds as his optimal weight class, as he believes added weight diminishes his speed and power.
“Middleweight suits me better,” Sang said, “but I am OK with doing light heavyweight, too.”
Sang would fight four times a year in a perfect world, risking each championship twice. However, he understands the difficulties involved with logistics and has already considered the idea of relinquishing his light heavyweight crown.
“If at any point I hold the division up,” Sang said, “I will vacate [the title].”
While he may be pessimistic about his future at 205 pounds, he retains high hopes for the year to come inside the One Championship cage.
“I love the promotion,” Sang said. “If my career ended today, I am content. This year is going to be huge. I’m going to get some good fights in, and I’m excited for that.”