Keanu Subba's Winding Journey To International Stardom

Keanu Subba knows the world can be an awfully cold place, but he has always done his part to make it just a little bit warmer.

Born to a Chinese mother and a Nepalese father, the 23-year-old featherweight spent the majority of his childhood in Malaysia, alongside his sister and older brother, Gianni, who is a top flyweight contender in ONE Championship.

Though he enjoyed his youth, there were several occasions he was picked on. He was one of only a few Nepalese students who attended a local school, and was often mocked because of his ethnicity.

“The other kids used to make fun of me because I was different, because I was Nepalese,” Subba admits. “But I always tried to toughen up. I tried to never get bullied. I was always the one kids talked about, because I was different.”

By the age of 10, he was enrolled in taekwondo because his parents wanted him to learn how to defend myself. It was a martial art he excelled in, as he participated in tournaments and took home a few gold medals.

Sadly, two years later, he was forced to quit because his family relocated to another part of Kuala Lumpur, and were unable to provide him with rides to the dojo.

In 2007, however, Subba was part of an even bigger relocation. He and Gianni were invited by a family friend to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, and get a taste of American life.

There, they attended high school, and even did a little bit of wrestling. But most notably, during this time, the brothers caught their earliest glimpse of true martial arts competition. Bouts under unified rules were just beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness in North America, and were nationally televised.

Excited by this new martial arts trend, the two brothers set out to train at a gym. The only problem was, they could not afford it. So, they improvised: they went to Wal-Mart, bought 12-ounce boxing gloves and studied YouTube tutorials.

As Gianni once famously told him, “If you cannot learn from a gym, you can always learn from YouTube.”

A Final Farewell

Tragically, in 2010, his stay in the United States came to an abrupt end.

“I had to come back, because I had a cousin who was dying from cancer. He was like a little brother to me. I knew if I continued with high school in America, then I would not have been able to see him,” the Malaysian remembers.

Subba returned to Kuala Lumpur to be by his cousin’s bedside. He also decided to forge ahead with his martial arts pursuits, and eventually stumbled upon a kickboxing gym. Though it was his first-ever formal training, he caught the eye of the gym’s head coach, who offered him a match at a local show against Malaysian pioneer AJ “Pyro” Lias Mansor.

The bout took place in March 2011. Subba, who was three months shy of his 17th birthday then, stood across the cage from a muscular and revered martial arts veteran, who also happened to be a former national rugby player.

Despite the difference in size and experience, the Malaysian teenager showed heart. And while he lost the contest via unanimous decision, his heroic effort made his cousin smile that night.

“After that bout, he (my cousin) said, ‘You are my hero. You fought someone. You have all this heart,’ because I dropped AJ in the first round and beat him up pretty good. Back then, I was this little scrawny kid with zero muscles in my body, and AJ was stacked,” Subba recalls with a chuckle.

“I thought to myself, if I really give everything I have, I can go far in this. That is when I decided to go 100 per cent.”

Unfortunately, that would be the only time his cousin saw him compete, as he tragically passed away a few months later.

Bali Dreaming

Subba was motivated more than ever. He left the kickboxing gym, and immediately linked up with the more competition-oriented Monarchy MMA. Also, Gianni returned from a brief stint at BYU-Hawaii to train alongside his little brother.

The two would take different paths to success, however. Gianni signed with ONE Championship in 2012 and has exclusively competed professionally for the organization, whereas the younger Subba hit the amateur circuit and became a two-time MIMMA Featherweight Champion.

At the end of 2014, the brothers Subba made another big move in their lives, and relocated to Indonesia. There, they train with the likes of head coach Don Carlo-Clauss, Muay Thai World Champion Tiffany van Soest, and another famous set of brothers, Anthony and Andrew Leone, at Bali MMA.

Finally, in 2015, Subba joined his elder sibling in ONE Championship, making his promotional debut in October at ONE: TIGERS OF ASIA against Florian Garel. Though the featherweight had been competing for years, the nerves finally hit him at the big show.

“I had the biggest adrenaline rush three minutes into the bout. I was throwing up in my mouth,” he admits. “I was thinking, ‘If the match goes into the second round, I may gas out really bad.’ He surprised me with his head movement and he was dodging all my punches, but thankfully, I was able to finish it with 10 seconds left in the first round.”

Subba has continued to thrive in ONE. He has chalked up a respectable 5-2 professional record, and most recently disposed of talented up-and-comer Ahmed “The Wolverine” Mujtaba at ONE: THRONE OF TIGERS this past February.

That win was especially emotional for Subba, because his dear friend and training partner, fellow ONE warrior Casey Suire, passed away weeks earlier in a motorcycle accident. Following the first-round submission victory, Subba dedicated the win to Suire.

Even to this day, the Malaysian remembers Suire fondly, and has incorporated the lessons he learned from the Bali MMA senior into his life.

“Basically, he was almost turning 40, and he quit his job to pursue his martial arts dreams,” Subba reminisces. “Since my first bout in ONE, he has always been there. He helped everyone out, and pushed us to work hard.

“Even though, most of the time, he would just get beaten up by Anthony and Andrew [Leone], he would always show up. He showed us the importance of just showing up for your teammates. That really stuck with me, to always be there for others, and not just yourself.”

Now, Subba prepares for an epic showdown against Christian “The Warrior” Lee (6-1) at ONE: QUEST FOR GREATNESS on 18 August in Macao, and he is determined serve both his cousin and friend’s memories well.