Malaysia’s Agilan “The Alligator” Thani had to endure a traumatic childhood, but it gave him the motivation to turn his life around and become a national hero.
The 24-year-old was abandoned by his mother, then suffered from obesity and bullying in his youth, but when he discovered martial arts he started a journey that would see him become one of his country’s pioneers in ONE Championship.
As he prepares for his return to the Circle for his next high-profile clash, the Kuala Lumpur native reveals how he succeeded in becoming an inspiration to his compatriots.
Rough Streets Of Sentul
Thani’s mother abandoned the family when he was still an infant, so he was raised solely by his father, who provided for his son as a restaurant manager.
“My mom ran away when I was a child, so whenever someone asks me, I tell them she went to the Olympics and never came back,” he says.
“It did not bother me at all because I have never seen my mom’s face and never had any interactions with her.”
When “The Alligator” was 8 years old, he moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, which he describes as a tough, crime-ridden area.
“People looked at you differently if you were from the higher or lower class, if you were a rich or a poor boy, if you have dark or light skin, and all of that stuff,” he says.
“Where I come from, it is a lower-class area, so I got bullied a lot. If you are a good boy, you get bullied a lot too, and I was a good boy. I was a lazy kid in school, but I never bothered anybody, so people started bothering me. I was a good kid in a rough neighborhood.”
Bullied & Beaten Down
Life was not much easier for Thani at school. He ballooned up to 139 kilograms as a teenager and his classmates started to pick on him for his size.
He was bullied with nicknames like “fat boy” and “Kung Fu Panda” as mean kids tried to embarrass him at every opportunity.
“Since I was fat, it’s like I had a woman’s chest,” he says, laughing in disbelief.
“I did not have a man’s chest, so people made fun of that. They said you can get strawberry milk on the left, and chocolate milk on the right. Those things are the main ways they verbally abused me in school, and if I said something back, they pinched my chest and ran away.”
Though he laughs now, Thani admits the constant torment wore him down.
“That type of bullying happened 90 percent of the time,” he says.
“I used to cry sometimes. Like, ‘Why would people say these things to me?’ because this happened for a long time. People always just made fun of me.”
At one point, he confided in his father and leaned on him for advice, but he did not receive much sympathy. He thought his son should stand up for himself.
“The first time I complained to my dad about the verbal abuse, my dad said, ‘The next time you come back with this problem, I will slap you in the face because you do not know how to handle your problems, but if it gets out of hand, I will help,’” Thani recalls.
Thani did not take his problems to his dad after that. Instead, he took it upon himself to lose his excess weight.
Salvation In Martial Arts
Thani was hooked on movies like Donnie Yen’s SPL: Sha Po Lang, so he was inspired to use martial arts to get healthy.
It was a while before he succeeded, however. He started karate to learn self-defense, but the infrequency of the classes meant he never got the results he wanted. After that, he was fascinated by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but he could not afford to train at the first gym he went to. Luckily, that was not the case when he found Monarchy MMA aged 16.
“I went there and things really changed a lot for me,” he says.
“I went for my first two classes and I learned things fast, and eventually, I just like, got the fire, you know? I just followed the groove and became better, and better, and better.”
“Alligator” lost 6 kilograms in his first two months of training and gained confidence that helped him to stand up against bullies, which forced them to leave him alone. Later, he started to work at the gym, too. From then on, he was ready to train mixed martial arts almost every day and the weight dropped off him.
By the time he was 18, he was ready to test his skills in amateur competition and within a year he had won five consecutive bouts, including four via stoppage, to win the MIMMA Welterweight Title. That was his ticket to ONE Championship.
Though he was just 1-0 as a professional when he made his debut in the world’s largest martial arts organization at ONE: AGE OF CHAMPIONS in March 2015, he was not overawed by the occasion.
A first-round TKO kicked off a run of six more wins by stoppage on the global stage to take Thani to a ONE Welterweight World Title shot against Ben “Funky” Askren. However, this was a bridge too far for “Alligator” and he was defeated for the first time in his life.
“I was on an emotional roller coaster,” the young athlete admits.
“When I saw Askren, I was starstruck. I was competing against someone who is one of the greatest in the world, and I did not believe in myself as much as I should have.”
Back Among The Big Dogs
Despite his defeat, Thani inspired his nation with his story and became a role model for Malaysian youth.
The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) recognized him for his accomplishments and sponsored a trip to America so he could work with the world-renowned Team Quest and return to winning ways.
Since that time, he has continued to travel to pick up skills from other high-quality competitors and fine-tune his training back home, and that has helped him to rebound and pick up four more wins as he attempts to get back to the top.
“I am at the position where I’m fighting big dogs – I gotta fight the tough guys in the division, so I gotta prepare mentally and physically,” he says.
Now Thani’s skills and mentality are on point, he hopes to continue to set an example for the next generation of Malaysian athletes and show them that anything is possible with hard work and dedication.
His goal is to get another chance to win a World Title and wear the gold, but beyond that, he wants to leave a legacy that will inspire his compatriots and provide a blueprint to follow in his footsteps.
“I gotta keep winning so I [can] put the country on the map. That way, more people will get opportunities in this country to pursue what I’m pursuing right now,” he says.
“I just want to be remembered [because] I helped mixed martial arts grow in Malaysia and set footsteps for the people who are coming up. I want the people in Malaysia to be able to take on this sport in the future and be like, ’Yeah, we can do this as well.’
“The ultimate goal is to perform as much as I can. Just me, a tiny kid from Sentul who fought in ONE Championship on the biggest stage in the world.”