As a traditional martial arts performer and a key training partner of the legendary Demetrious Johnson at AMC Pankration, James Yang stepped into the Circle as something of an enigma in his professional MMA debut last September.
The American promptly showed what he was capable of with a second-round TKO of Roel Rosauro, and fans can’t wait to see his encore performance against another experienced opponent at ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic on Friday, 22 April.
Yang will face ONE Championship veteran Keanu Subba at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, but after living and breathing martial arts his whole life, he won’t feel like a rookie in this intriguing featherweight clash.
Ahead of his sophomore outing, we look back at the unique journey that brought the talented athlete to the global stage at the age of 32.
A Grandmother’s Inspiration
When Yang reflects on the people he admires most, his grandmother, Dung Lee, immediately springs to his mind.
For as long as he can remember, the featherweight wanted to be a martial artist. He watched endless hours of cinema featuring masters of various disciplines, and his “Po Po” was always there to stoke the flame.
He told ONE Championship:
“My late grandmother came to this country with nothing, and she just persevered through a lot, and she made an amazing life for us here with just hard work.
“Bruce Lee was a huge influence [for me], and Jet Li in his Wong Fei-hung movies. As a child, that’s what I always grew up watching, and my grandma would put that on for me.”
Beyond their relationship at home, Yang’s grandmother became a role model for him in all walks of life.
A specific incident stands out for the AMC Pankration representative, who recalls watching her battle against the odds to defend her grandchildren in a dangerous situation.
“The biggest memory I have about that time was when my grandma took me and my cousins out to this track to walk around, and we got attacked by these two guys.
“They were like throwing stones at us and cursing at us, doing all the profanities. And my grandma fought tooth and nail to protect us. She threw her shoes at them and ended up walking home barefoot that day.
“And all I could think about during that time was, ‘I wish I was bigger to protect them.'”
Chasing His Passion
Even though Yang had a burning desire to begin training in martial arts, his parents’ tight financial budget and concern for his well-being briefly stalled those plans, and he got his athletic start in local organized sports instead.
But the young American was relentless. He continued asking them for permission to follow his heart, and finally, he got a breakthrough.
“I was around 10 or 11 years old. We were at my cousin’s birthday party, and her brother-in-law was part of this lion dance team in Seattle, Washington. Lion dance is like a performance art that’s really dear to my culture.
“She, out on a limb, just asked him, ‘Would you be able to set him up to learn anything?’ And he connected me to my first instructor. His name is Tony Au. He is the leader of the Ying Yung Tong international lion dance team here in Seattle.
“Tony trained Choy Li Fut, southern style Kung Fu. And during those times, a lot of instructors in the area were only about learning one discipline. He was the very opposite. He was like, ‘Learn everything you can, keep an open mind, and just absorb as much knowledge as you can.’ And that always stuck with me.”James Yang looks back at the start of his training
Despite training only one day per week, Yang returned each time with a cavalcade of questions for his instructor so that he could continue practicing on his own.
Soaking up knowledge like a sponge, his work ethic for his passion took over, and it drove him to his first competition just one year later.
“We had to go to Vancouver, British Columbia, [Canada]. It was a Tiger Balm International, and I competed in three events. It was weapons forms, hand forms, and san hou, which at the time was sanda. I actually ended up getting the Grand Championship.
“That day was crazy. My events were all at the same time. So I would literally do my form, run off, do my fight, go back and do the next form, go back fight the next guy, go back do a form, and then fight again.
“And then at the end of all that, they took all the champions from different divisions and put them in to compete for the Grand Championship. So I had to do that one more time with all my forms again, and it just worked out for me that day.”
Embodying Martial Arts Values
Martial arts are not a profession for Yang – they’re a way of life.
In fact, the American left high school at 17 and moved to live and train in a rural Chinese Shaolin temple for three years. During that time, he embedded the martial arts ethos more deeply into his psyche.
The qualities instilled in him through that journey have now led him to ONE Championship. And that did not happen by accident, as Yang chose the organization in part because of their shared values.
“I don’t want to be just copying the words [ONE] say, but they really evaluate what martial arts is about. They’re not selling controversy. They’re not selling drug use or abuse of whoever. I’m not down with all that.
“At the end of the day, you got to think, our time is fleeting, but the next generation that’s coming up, they’re watching. The kids are always watching.”
While he’s certainly focused on his next task against Subba, Yang also thinks beyond the Circle Wall.
He views martial arts as a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement and self-growth. With that in mind, he hopes to make waves in the deep featherweight waters while staying true to everything he considers sacred.
The American added:
“That’s why I love ONE. Because they actually respect the values and the athletes, and their fighters are all people that people can look up to.
“And not just to be a fighter, but they can look up to them and take that inspiration and do whatever they want in life.”
Now competing on the global stage, Yang has a chance to lead from the front and showcase the values of martial arts to millions of viewers around the world.
But more success will lead to an even bigger platform, and with that in mind, he’s ready to leave everything in the Circle on 22 April.