SINGAPORE: Aung La N Sang feels good. “Amazing”, even, with barely a week having passed since he was crowned Myanmar’s first-ever mixed martial arts (MMA) champion.
On June 30, willed on by a thunderous Yangon home crowd, the 32-year-old underdog stunned his undefeated opponent to capture the middleweight title belt of ONE Championship, Asia’s largest promotion.
While the historic feat cemented his status as arguably his country’s most famous athlete, it has also revived interest in his political views. It is a subject which quickly reverses N Sang’s otherwise genial mood and draws a deep, near-melancholic sigh audible over a phone call with Channel NewsAsia from his base in Maryland, US.
N Sang is a native of Kachin State, where civil war between local rebels and Myanmar's army has raged since 2011, killing thousands and displacing some 150,000 civilians.
“It makes me sad. I’ve always been against the war. I’m not neutral,” he said.
“But I’m not going to condemn a political party because that would put me in a political stance. And I just don’t want to be a political figure. I’m not a politician. I’m just an athlete.”
“At the same time I hope I bring the people, the nation together. That’s not on my job description, but I understand the impact I’ve had on people in Myanmar, and it motivates me to work even harder.”
Before being mobbed at every turn down Myanmar’s streets and before having his country's millions pause to watch him fight à la Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines, N Sang was “just a regular person” growing up in Kachin’s capital city Myitkyina.
“I wasn’t particularly smart or athletic. But I had a pretty good life,” he admitted. “I went to international school. I was very fortunate my dad was smart enough to give us the best education possible, and for giving me the opportunity to study abroad.”
Aged 18 he flew, alone, to Andrews University in Michigan and enrolled in an Agriculture Science course. While dad, a jade merchant, paid for the bulk of school fees, N Sang slogged at a dairy farm to pay for other expenses.
Here he learned a thing or two about work ethic, a useful trait when he picked up MMA in 2004. He had his first professional fight just a year later, absent the meticulous buildup undertaken by most modern-day competitors.
As he kept up with appearances in the cage, he eventually graduated and started work as a beekeeper in 2007. The balancing act didn’t last long - a year and a half later, he decided to go full-time in MMA.
N Sang would go on to fight in notable American promotions such as King of the Cage, Ring of Combat and Bellator while amassing his present record of 20 wins and 10 losses.
He joined ONE Championship in 2014, making an instant impact with a first-round knockout win - and five fights later, stands as champion.
“Instead of what I initially went out of Myanmar to do, which was agriculture, I switched over to MMA,” said N Sang. “But I was just a lot more passionate about it.”
SUPPORTING THE SUPPORTERS
His time in the US also gave him a wife and two-year-old son Aung De - a name preserving his Kachin lineage, as proudly revealed by N Sang.
The family attends the Kachin Baptist Church in Maryland as part of a local Kachin community, which includes N Sang’s mother and two siblings. Four of them were granted political asylum in 2005.
These American connections, coupled with his fan hordes in Myanmar, make for a sizeable following - which he believes translates into actual advantage.
“Knowing I get all this support makes me focus on training. It helps me cut out all the other things in my life I don’t need.”
N Sang has moved to repay the passionate backing of his compatriots. Earlier this year he held a charity auction in Yangon, and directed proceeds of over US$6,000 to a camp for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin.
“Money is the solution for people in need of necessities,” said N Sang, whose grandparents and cousins still reside - “safely” - in Kachin. “Educating somebody hungry and starving is not going to do nothing. Buying them something to eat is way better.”
For his achievement last month, N Sang was also given a cash award by Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence. He donated every cent to the same IDP camp.
“I’m very thankful and honoured they (the government) did that,” he said. “But I don’t need the money they gave me. And hopefully me giving back helps out some families and individuals that are really in need.”
CARRYING A COUNTRY
N Sang, who has also spoken of opening an MMA gym in Myitkyina, said that above all else, he hoped to be a positive act to follow.
“I don’t crave or like the attention I’m getting, but I do want to be a good role model.”
“You see, people in Myanmar don’t have the same opportunities as, say, Americans do. A lot of them feel they can’t succeed due to circumstance. They feel stuck in a rut, and some are sad with the political situation too,” he explained.
“And they end up with drugs, drinking, things that will help them ‘cope’.”
“Hopefully what I do encourages people instead that with hard work you can still succeed in whatever you set your heart to. And you can go past the situation you’re right in now.”
“In that sense... I feel like I’m fighting for my people.”
Not just those of his home state, but an entire nation: In 2012 he celebrated victory by unfurling the Kachin flag, but in 2017 he savoured his championship ascension by wrapping himself in Myanmar colours.
“With the country on my back, with everybody cheering for me… Maybe they can see they have something in common and maybe, hopefully this gives them some sort of togetherness and unity.
"Maybe I can bring them together.”
Whether or not that day comes, N Sang possesses a quiet, yet forceful confidence in where his path leads - and it has little to do with the American citizenship he gained in 2015.
"I may not be a Myanmar citizen now, but I know what my roots are. I know where I came from."
"When I went to the States, I wanted to eventually come back and help make a change in my country with the opportunity I had.”
“When I’m done with my fighting career, I’ll probably end up back in Myanmar.”