Agilan Thani is a man on a mission.
The 22-year-old welterweight known as “Alligator” still has his eye on becoming the ONE Welterweight World Champion, and he can take a step closer towards that goal by defeating SFL Welterweight Champion Amitesh Chaubey on Friday, 9 March, at ONE: VISIONS OF VICTORY in his native Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Beyond his world title aspirations, however, he is looking to influence a nation of future martial arts superstars. As one of the most beloved heroes on ONE Championship’s roster, he wants to inspire a new generation of Malaysian youth, and further grow martial arts in his home country.
In this exclusive interview, Thani talks about the lessons he learned from his past matches, building a movement in Malaysia, and much more.
ONE Championship: Last May, you had your first, and only, career loss at the hands of Ben Askren. What was the biggest thing you learned from that bout?
Agilan Thani: I figured out that I have to train for myself instead of training for someone else. I needed to do things my way, like how I train to be as aggressive as I can. I needed to focus on my skills and my game plan instead of training for someone else.
I was being more defensive instead, worrying about my game. You have to worry about what your opponent is going to do, but you have to have a good game plan yourself. Usually, you have to do things that work for you, instead of something that you think will work when he does it to you.
Another thing is not to let pressure get to my head. There was a lot of pressure for that bout.
ONE: What are your thoughts on Askren retiring from the sport?
AT: Obviously, I would like to face him again because he is one of the best in the world, and to make a name for myself, he is the best one to face.
I do not know what to say about his retirement. He obviously has his family and his wife, and he has already been in the cage for a very long time compared to me.
He has been wrestling since he was a child, he went to the Olympics, and he has sacrificed a lot. Maybe he needs some time off. I respect whatever decision he makes. He is the champ, after all.
ONE: Are you still thinking about that ONE Welterweight World Championship?
AT: Yes, because everybody knows the world title is the pinnacle of martial arts, especially in ONE Championship. When you become a champion in ONE Championship, it is a big deal.
It is one of the best organizations in the world, and to become a champion in ONE Championship it is not only going to be good for me, but it is going to be good for Malaysia. It is going to get me more exposure, it is going to get me more opportunities, and it is going to get me more fans and all these things.
ONE: You train mainly in Malaysia, but have also traveled internationally to train at camps like Team Quest. How has that experience been for you?
AT: It is a good experience. I have been there a couple of times. Sparring is really hard over there, but it definitely helps a lot. It helps me learn a lot about other athletes and other martial artists, and how they train over there.
At the same time, I get a lot of exposure because I am going out of the country and working with people who are already so well known in the cage. It creates hype on me that I train with better guys and better teams.
ONE: Is it important to get out of your comfort zone in situations like that?
AT: It helps a lot actually, but not to the extent where I really need it. I need it, but not all the time. I like Malaysia a lot. I would like to bring more athletes to Malaysia. That way, martial arts can grow over here as well. Many people could come to Malaysia to train with our coaches.
We might be a developing country, but we are getting better at martial arts. We have to prove it so we can have people follow in our footsteps. If we keep leaving our country and going outside again and again to gain knowledge, then martial arts is not going to grow as much as it has in other countries.
ONE: Last month, you spent some time at the ONE Elite Retreat in Boracay. How was that experience?
AT: It was the most amazing experience that I have ever had in my entire life. They were not only trying to help us become good martial artists, but at the same time, a good athlete and a good representative of ONE Championship, which really helped us a lot.
I think it is a really good thing that ONE did for us. It showed how much they believe in us. Not only are they trying to market us as heroes to the world, but it shows that they believe in us and appreciate us.
One thing I learned is that ONE is not trying to market us as “fighters.” They are trying to make us heroes to the world so that people can look up to us. As a martial artist, I work towards that, because there is always going to be criticism.
Since the first day I started competing, people have been talking badly about me, but if I do not compete, then people do not know me. What ONE is trying to do is send a message to the world: if these guys can make it, you can make it. What ONE is trying to do for us is to make us an inspiration — not only to the other people, but to ourselves.
ONE: Do you hope to serve as an inspiration to your people?
AT: I want to inspire confidence in the people of Malaysia, because when I first started the sport, let’s be honest, nobody promoted me.
Nobody told me: “Oh, you will become big doing this.” Even my own parents, to this day, they do not support what I am doing. They just come to see me compete because I am going to compete.
If I can make it to the highest level of martial arts and become a world champion, that gives another opportunity to a teenager in Malaysia to look up and say, “This guy did it, maybe I should try.”
Sooner or later, people can be guided towards their own dreams, and they will not give up so easily.