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Beating obesity, bullying and abandonment: ONE Championship's Agilan Thani shares life story

Learn how Malaysia’s most popular fighter turned his life around through MMA.

Agilan Thani (10-6) may be one of the most talented welterweights on the ONE Championship roster, but the Malaysian phenom had to battle through several obstacles to reach this point.

Those turbulent moments helped him gain a ‘never say die' attitude, and it is one he will bring to the ONE circle when he faces Jin Tae Ho (10-5) at "ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic" on Friday.

Before he could even learn how to walk or talk, life threw its first challenge at the young star. His mother abandoned him, leaving his dad, Thanigasalam, to raise their only boy on his own in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur.

The city was a rough place, too. Gangs were prominent on the streets and bullies patrolled the school hallways – and unfortunately for Thani, he was on the receiving end of his classmates' verbal and emotional abuse.

One of the factors that made him an easy target was his weight, as he ballooned up to 306 pounds. That often made him the butt of their cruel jokes. 

"I used to cry sometimes," Thani said. "Like, 'Why would people say these things to me?' because this happened for a long time. People always just made fun of me."

Fighting fire with fire wasn't something the young "Alligator" wanted to do. However, he soon discovered martial arts, and it slowly changed his life. 

Thani's baby steps were through karate. The irregular classes made it hard for him to pick up the trades of the discipline, though. But months later, he found Monarchy MMA and it was a much better fit.

There, the obese teenager was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and he never looked back. He was instantly hooked, and under the guidance of Bruno Barbosa, a black belt and the gym's head BJJ instructor, he flourished.

"I went there and things really changed a lot for me," Thani said.

"I went for my first two classes and I learned things fast, and eventually, I just like, got the fire, you know? I just followed the groove and became better, and better, and better."

Not only did Thani gain self-confidence, but in three years, he lost 132 pounds. The bullying at school came to a halt too.

The Malaysian found a new outlet that allowed him to be in control of things, and given the positive changes it has made in a short space of time, he continued to stick with it.

In 2013, just a year after graduating high school, he put his newfound skills to the test in his country's developing MMA scene. Thani earned a TKO victory in his professional debut. 

The following year, he participated in the second edition of Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts – the nation's premier amateur MMA tournament – and dominated the competition en route to the organization's welterweight belt.

Then in March 2015, Thani joined ONE Championship and took his career to new heights. The "Alligator" won his next six fights via submission or TKO, which ultimately earned him a shot at then-ONE welterweight world champion Ben Askren's belt in May 2017.

Unfortunately for the Malaysian phenom, his perfect record was shattered when Askren used his elite wrestling skills to force a submission.

Thani was out-dueled on the mat, but his self-confidence was shot well before the match,

"I was on an emotional roller coaster," he said. "When I saw Askren, I was starstruck. I was competing against someone who is one of the greatest in the world, and I did not believe in myself as much as I should have."

The Malaysian continued to experience adversity, as he lost a few heartbreakers and suffered a back injury. 

But once he was healed and returned to action in 2019, he closed out the year on a high note. He defeated the iconic Yoshihiro "Sexyama" Akiyama, fell just short of victory against Yushin Okami, and then ripped through Dante Schiro.

"I think 2019 was very good," Thani said. "(I came back) from back surgery and won two fights – I battled against former champions, current champions, and dangerous newcomers."

The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic haven't been too kind to Thani. It caused him to cut his training at Sanford MMA short and led to sporadic fight bookings. 

In addition, terrible storms flooded his house and destroyed his car. 

However, Thani has always overcome adversity. The 26-year-old Malaysian already beat his obesity issues and got through the bullying, and at "ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic," he plans to defeat Jin and work his way back toward a world title shot.