As a nation with over 31 million inhabitants, Malaysia is a major part of the Southeast Asian landscape.
However, when it comes to the martial arts, it has not always been held in the same esteem as its neighbors – Thailand has Muay Thai, Myanmar has lethwei, and Indonesia splits the glory with Malaysia for silat.
Now though, there is a new breed of warriors looking to put their country on the map, and they plan to do so by using the world’s largest martial arts organization as a platform.
Mixed martial arts is still relatively new to the country, but it is developing quickly, and there are plenty of talented Malaysian stars climbing their way up the ranks in ONE Championship.
“We have been part of it since day one,” says Gianni Subba (9-3), who has the most bouts (11), victories (9), and knockouts (3) in the promotion’s flyweight division.
He is not exaggerating, either. His younger brother, Keanu Subba (6-3), has sealed his own place in the nation’s sporting history.
“My fight was the first one in Malaysia,” reveals his sibling, who recalls a March 2011 contest with local pioneer and fellow ONE competitor A.J. “Pyro” Lias Mansor.
“Back then, there were almost no mixed martial arts gyms. I was at a cardio kickboxing gym, and just said yes when I was asked if I wanted to do it.”
Truth be told, one of the very few gyms offering a full regimen during that time was Ultimate MMA Academy in Johor Bahru, which another ONE athlete, Melvin Yeoh, opened in December 2006. That is considered to be the oldest mixed martial arts gym in Malaysia.
In other parts of the nation, however, proper training venues were scarce.
Although a couple of facilities were operating, the demand was growing, and that forced a change. Soon, there were legitimate investments aimed at making better-functioning gyms and bringing in more experienced coaches.
“The gyms started hiring good BJJ instructors that were experienced, and it was not just people watching YouTube videos and trying to teach their students,” Keanu continues.
“I live here and have trained here for a long time, so I can say that when I started, I definitely needed guidance,” he admits.
“Good coaches were brought to Malaysia to guide us and build a scene — instructors from Brazil, Thailand, USA, New Zealand, and Holland who brought BJJ, Muay Thai, and kickboxing.”
With an influx of knowledge at the coaching level, talent was unearthed at the grassroots level, and the sport began to grow.
Most of ONE’s most successful Malaysian athletes were part of amateur promotion Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA), which helped to cultivate them into professionals.
In addition to Keanu and Thani, Jihin “Shadow Cat” Radzuan (3-0) and “Jungle Cat” Muhammad Aiman (4-2) were all MIMMA Champions. They cut their teeth on the local amateur circuit, and it played a pivotal role in the health of the scene.
“Many of us came from MIMMA,” Aiman states. “It is the big amateur show, the champions stepped up to ONE, and it keeps giving them a good name.”
Keanu adds that the regional organization helped develop unknown talents, all while educating the masses about the budding new sport.
“Without Malaysian Invasion, we would not have been able to build local stars,” he reiterates. “It helped the grassroots guys to come through, and it being on TV really gave Malaysians a clue as to what the sport was about, so it was a really positive thing.”
Despite all the positives, nothing is perfect, and work still goes on to keep on building, educating, and inspiring.
The exponential growth saw gyms open up all over the country and apart from the established shows, others have struggled to take a foothold.
“It was getting bigger and bigger, and now it has gone flat a little bit,” Aiman says.
That has made it difficult for all local talents to gain the necessary experience — especially the female athletes.
“We do not have too many events in Malaysia,” Radzuan mentions.
“For the girls, it was hard to find a fight,” she continues, still with the belief that her home nation can showcase the best of combat sports to the potential fans-in-waiting. “We need more events so they can let people know about it.”
As more and more homegrown talent comes through the ranks, the nation’s top athletes hope they can move the scene forward through their endeavors in ONE Championship.
“Martial arts changed my life,” Gianni states. “I hope what we are doing now can help people, and it will help people.”
Perhaps it would help even more if one of their own is able to win the World Title.
Thani made history as the first home-grown Malaysian to challenge for the gold in May 2017, but ultimately fell to welterweight king Ben Askren.
Despite that, the five aforementioned Malaysian athletes are still very young — in fact, they are all 25 or under. With some more grooming, they could very easily challenge for the belt in the near future, and even claim it.
“I do not think I am at the top level — that would be too much ego,” the humble Thani begins.
“But hopefully, the competition I have faced, like Ben Askren and Zebaztian Kadestam, gives Malaysians the hope that we can perform at the highest level. I think in another five or ten years, we will have World Champions.”
As Thani, Radzuan, Aiman, and the Subba brothers continue their quest for World Title glory, simply being present in ONE Championship showcases Malaysia’s finest martial arts talent to viewers all around the globe.
They are all focusing on their own careers for the foreseeable future, but when these athletes form the next generation of coaches and mentors, the country will be in fine hands.
Shanghai | 8 September | LIVE and FREE on the ONE Super App: http://bit.ly/ONESuperApp | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast