In a classic rags-to-riches tale with a martial arts twist, Agilan Thani proves again and again that nothing is impossible
The rise of mixed martial arts champion Agilan ”The Alligator” Thani reads like a Hollywood script: His mother left the family while he was an infant – he tells people she went to the Olympics and never came back; his father, two uncles and an aunt then did their best, living in a shared one-bedroom apartment in Kuala Lumpur. His father, Thanigasalam, worked very hard, later becoming a restaurant manager overseeing a few eateries throughout the capital city, and often worked until the wee hours of the morning.
They lived in a rough neighbourhood with some of the highest incidents of petty crime, and Agilan was often picked on by bullies for his bulk – he ate well as a child as his father would strive to provide whatever he asked for and, at one point, weighed 139 kilogrammes. However, when he was 16, a movie starring Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen inspired him to start training in martial arts, and the rest is history.
Yen’s beautifully choreographed fight scenes opened Agilan’s eyes to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA for short), and he decided to join an MMA gym to learn its many disciplines.
Looking back, Agilan says being bullied played a role in his decision. “Eventually, the verbal abuse waned. I started training at Monarchy MMA when I was 16 and lost 10 kilogrammes,” says Agilan. With his newfound confidence through martial arts, he started to stand up for himself, and the bullies left him alone, no longer seeing an easy target.
Although his father initially did not agree to his involvement in the sport, he was still supportive of Agilan’s passion and provided money for him to train and buy gloves – whatever he needed to improve himself. Agilan later started working at the gym so he could be independent and pay his own bills.
“(My father used to ask), ‘how long can you do this? Is this a good future?’ But now that I am making good money and I have my own place, he supports it more than he used to,” says the 21-year-old, who used to wake up at 4.30 am every day to help his girlfriend slice vegetables in a grocery store.
Agilan also praises his father for his work ethic, which is “to work with what you have, no matter what”, and tries to emulate him. “If you do not have a shovel to dig a hole, and the only thing you have is a tablespoon, you have to take that spoon and dig until you make that hole,” he explains.
Nicknamed “The Alligator” because of his preferred method of submitting his opponents on the ground, Agilan at first thought he did not deserve such a powerful-sounding moniker. He says that he doesn’t necessarily try to play to his nickname or set a standard to live up to, but he will always try his best to win each fight.
The former Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA) Welterweight champion has won all five of his fights as an amateur fighter, and won six out of seven fights at the pro level – his only defeat was to Olympic wrestler and ONE Championship welterweight world champion Ben Askren in May this year.
“It's still a long way before I become a world champion, I know that. But maybe this is where I start,” says Agilan, referring to his loss to Askren. “I've taken the defeat in good spirits. I don't have any regrets and I don't blame anyone. It's my fault.”
Far from being daunted by the loss, Agilan is already planning his next move. “I have to go back to the drawing board. I will be back in the gym very soon to train and improve. I’m still in high spirits. I want to fight as soon as possible. Fighting again and winning will motivate me,” he says.
“Although I didn’t win, I'm still proud at being able to put Malaysia on the map. Having had the experience of facing a world champion, I can now better prepare myself mentally and physically for future matches,” adds Agilan.
It seems quite apparent that apart from fulfilling his own dreams in his mixed martial arts career, Agilan is also doing it for the country. He has said that he is set on winning a world title if only to prove that Malaysians can succeed on the world stage.
As he told ONE Championship, “They think 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.”