Martial arts is powerful, and not just in the physical sense. In fact, martial arts is one of the world’s most valuable treasures, with the ability to transform people’s lives for the better.
It provides discipline, enhances health, boosts self-confidence, and equips people with self-defense skills, amongst others. Truly, the benefits are endless.
While martial arts continues to transform lives on a daily basis, including all of the athletes in ONE Championship, it miraculously altered the course of reality for seven of our heroes in particular.
Even when life seemed its darkest, it became the key to unlocking brighter days.
#1 Eduard Folayang Fought His Way Out Of Poverty
Eduard Folayang was raised in extreme poverty. He was one of nine children, five of whom died from common illnesses because his family could not afford proper medical care. Struggling to make ends meet, his mother worked at a laundromat, and his father toiled as a laborer and part-time farmer.
Being illiterate, his parents knew that the key to a better future lay in education, which is why they made sure all their surviving children would made it through school in search of a better life when they reached adulthood.
To help ease the financial burden, Folayang became an athlete. He picked up martial arts when he was 14, earned a wushu scholarship to the University of the Cordilleras, received his degree, and competed as a member of the Philippines Wushu Team.
“Landslide” went on to win three wushu gold medals at the SEA Games, headlined ONE’s first-ever event, and claimed the ultimate prize in Asian martial arts — the ONE Lightweight World Championship — in November 2016 to solidify his status as a Filipino martial arts icon.
#2 Aung La N Sang Became Myanmar’s National Hero
Even as he approached his university years, Aung La N Sang never imagined he would be a martial arts phenomenon. The “Burmese Python” attended Yangon International School, joined the institution’s sports program, and left for a collegiate education at Andrews University in the United States back in 2003.
He was going to do something in the Agriculture Science field. Or so he thought. Just a year after arriving in America, he saw a big Samoan student hit a heavy bag in the school’s gym, and was instantly enamored with combat sports. A three-hour drive to a Carlson Gracie affiliate school sealed his fate, and he has been a dedicated full-time martial artist ever since.
Aung La N Sang made his professional mixed martial arts debut in 2005, amassed a wealth of experience with 19-10, 1 No Contest record, and returned home to Myanmar in 2016 with ONE Championship to become an instant martial arts sensation and national hero.
Now, he is Myanmar’s most recognised athlete, and has a chance to make history as the nation’s first-ever World Champion by defeating reigning kingpin Vitaly Bigdash in a rematch for the ONE Middleweight World Championship. The bout takes place as the main event of ONE: LIGHT OF A NATION in Yangon’s Thuwunna Indoor Stadium on 30 June.
#3 Bibiano Fernandes Went From Janitor To World Champion
Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes had a traumatic upbringing in Manaus, Brazil. He lived in poverty, his mother tragically died when he was only seven-years-old, and his father abandoned him and his siblings in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The young Brazilian was even sick with malaria, and came inches to death.
Soon, everything would change. After he left the jungle, he discovered a BJJ academy in his poverty-stricken hometown. However, Fernandes, who had resorted to cleaning houses and washing cars for money, could not afford to pay his fees.
Fortunately, the instructor saw potential in him, and allowed him to clean the gym in exchange for training. The Flash” took advantage of that opportunity, becoming a dedicated student who ultimately earned a black belt. He went on to win several gold medals in the “gentle art”, including the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships three times.
He then set his sights on mixed martial arts, and after a storied career that saw him claim several prestigious titles and international acclaim, he reached the pinnacle of his career by capturing the ONE Bantamweight World Championship in 2013. He has since defended it several times, establishing himself as the most dominant champion in the promotion’s history.
#4 Agilan Thani Overcame A Lifetime Of Obesity And Bullying
Raised solely by his father, Agilan “The Alligator” Thani shared a one-bedroom apartment with three other family members in the rough neighborhood of Sentul in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It was not an easy childhood. He rarely saw his father, who was too busy with work trying to make ends meet, was bullied and beaten on a weekly basis, constantly abused by his peers, and suffered from childhood obesity. At his heaviest, Thani weighed an astonishing 140kg.
All that would change once he discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu after watching the movie Flash Point when he was 13. He sought out training, bargained with his father to pay for classes, and even paid his own way by working at Monarchy MMA.
After years of remaining dedicated to his diet and craft, he lost close to 60kg, gained self-confidence, and focused on becoming an elite mixed martial artist. It was a miraculous journey that led him to a title match against ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben Askren this past May at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES in Singapore.
#5 Adrian Matheis Transformed Trauma Into Strength
When Adrian “Papua Badboy” Matheis was a child living on the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, he was surrounded by violence. In the late 90s, Indonesia went through political turmoil, and religious violence was rampant.
One particular episode saw an angry mob murder his grandfather in front of his very eyes. Fearing for her family’s life, his mother escaped with Matheis and his siblings through the jungle to the island of Papua, reuniting with his father.
From a chaotic childhood to his teenage years, which were full of street fights and delinquency, he desperately needed a change from he unruly norm. His parents encouraged him to do martial arts, which gave him the much-needed discipline and direction he sought, and the young Indonesian found purpose and fulfilment.
Matheis is now a budding prospect in ONE’s strawweight division, wants to be a role model to his fellow countrymen, and become a symbol for the positive change martial arts can have on the human spirit.
#6 International Superstar Roger Huerta Left His Troubled Upbringing Behind
As a child, Roger “El Matador” Huerta never had a stable environment. His father was a drug addict, and his mother abused him. Despite Child Protective Services placing the 7-year-old Huerta in foster care, his mom abducted him and fled from America to El Salvador during a civil war, abandoning him soon thereafter.
A year later, she returned to America with Huerta, and placed him on his dad’s Texas doorstep before disappearing once again. The cycle of daily abuse would remain unchanged, and after relocating several times, Huerta was left to live on the streets as a homeless youth, even joining a street gang for survival.
However, when a friend’s mother gained legally custody of him and enrolled him in a Texas high school, he blossomed. “El Matador” excelled in wrestling, earned a scholarship to Augsburg College in Minnesota, and turned to mixed martial arts in 2003.
He eventually became a superstar in North America, the sport’s first athlete to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2007, and has since relocated to Thailand. He eventually signed with ONE Championship, and having defeated Adrian Pang in a three-round thriller last November, is a force to be reckoned with in ONE’s stacked lightweight division.
#7 Bruno Pucci Defeated Growth Problems And Childhood Obesity
During his childhood in Brazil, Bruno Pucci experienced a couple of medical issues that severely affected his life. He needed hormone replacement because he was not properly growing, and he eventually became overweight due to the therapy’s side effects. The doctor told him playing sports and staying physically active would help to solve the dilemma.
After trying a handful of sports, he and his father stumbled upon a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. The young Brazilian had a tryout, was fascinated with the world of submissions, and has been hooked on martial arts ever since.
Pucci went on to become a two-time BJJ No-Gi World Champion, made his professional mixed martial arts debut in October 2011, and is one of the most gifted athletes in ONE Championship’s featherweight division.