There comes a time in a dominant martial artist’s career when opponents take themselves out of the game mentally, before the opening bell even rings.
With an undefeated record and eight years of supremacy in his weight class, ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben Askren is quickly approaching that status.
At 15-0 and 1 No Contest, the “Funky” title holder has finished over half of his opponents while dominating the rest en route to decision wins. Stepping into the cage with him is quite a tall order.
However, do not count Malaysia’s Agilan Thani among those who have lost the bout in their minds before even facing Askren. Also with an undefeated record himself, the Kuala Lumpur native will challenge the champ in the co-main event of ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES, which broadcasts live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Friday, 26 May.
For the man known as “The Alligator,” putting an end to Askren’s title reign began as soon as the contest was announced.
“Most people put him way up there in their minds, so they have low self-esteem about themselves and do not believe in what they can do,” the 21-year-old challenger explains. “The key to fighting somebody good is your mind. You have to stay strong and believe in whatever you have.”
Thani’s toughest battles came long before he thought about his martial arts training, or even stepping inside the cage for an actual match-up. As a kid, he conquered the beasts of bullying and obesity.
After climbing those hurdles and becoming a MIMMA Welterweight Champion in Malaysia’s amateur mixed martial arts ranks, the Monarchy MMA product made his professional debut in December 2013. He handily won via TKO.
Thani continued racking up victories and joined ONE Championship, where he has become a seemingly unstoppable force in the promotion’s welterweight division. To date, he owns a perfect 7-0 record, with four wins coming by submission and three more via TKO.
The Malaysian’s thirst for more reached a boiling point following ONE: THRONE OF TIGERS this past February. Once “The Alligator” submitted Taiwanese combatant Jeff Huang via rear-naked choke in the second round, he demanded a title shot at Askren’s gold.
“I have been competing in ONE Championship for two years now,” he says. “I have been winning all the time and finished my opponents, and I wanted to fight someone better than Jeff. I do not want to keep facing pretenders.”
Thani has gotten his wish. He will square off against Askren for the belt in the co-headliner of ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES. However, Thani may have his hands full, because as requested, the American is anything but a pretender.
Aside from his stellar campaign in ONE, the 32-year-old is a two-time NCAA Division I Champion and a former Olympian. With those credentials, along with a perfect professional record, the Malaysian is arguably getting a step up in competition against the top welterweight on the planet.
Askren’s accolades do not faze the Monarchy MMA product. In his mind, the battle is already won. He refuses to speak of “ifs,” opting to tell the world what will happen “when” he dethrones the seemingly unbeatable champion.
“When I win the title, it will be a great moment, because all these years, my main goal has been to be a world champion,” he explains. “And secondly, it will be a great moment for all the people who have supported me — not just my family members, but my teammates from Monarchy MMA, my girlfriend, and my friends.”
Defeating Askren will be more than a massive feather in the cap of the Malaysian. For Thani, getting his hand raised means his fellow countrymen can raise their hands in victory, too. After all, he would become the nation’s first-ever world champion in mixed martial arts.
“People will finally see a Malaysian win a world title as well, because most people do not believe in Malaysians. They know Malaysians can win local tournaments, but not world titles, and I am about to prove them wrong and set the stage for Malaysia. We can compete and do it at the world-class level.”