Demetrious Johnson's protege James Yang may be one of the newer faces in the MMA world, but the undefeated American fighter has already lived the type of life that could serve as a synopsis for a Hollywood movie.
Yang (1-0), who meets Keanu Subba (7-5) in his second pro fight at "ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic" on April 22, would undoubtedly love to become iconic like his favorite childhood heroes, Bruce Lee and Jet Li.
And ironically, the 32-year-old Washington native followed them into martial arts, as well as the performance arts and entertainment industries. After watching those two legendary film stars display their martial arts prowess on the screen, Yang wanted to try it out right away.
Initially, his parents didn't allow him. But after lots of persistence, his father and mother caved in.
During a relative's birthday party, Yang's dream began to unfold. His cousin's brother-in-law, who was part of a lion dance team in Seattle, hooked him up with his first instructor, Tony Au.
"Tony trained Choy Li Fut, southern style kung fu, and during those times, a lot of instructors in the area were only about learning one discipline, and he was like the very opposite," Yang said. "He was like, 'Learn everything that you can, keep an open mind, and just absorb as much knowledge as you can,' and that kind of always stuck with me."
Lion dance is the unlikeliest source of knowledge for an MMA fighter. However, the art shared fundamental movements with kung fu. In turn, it gave Yang a solid base.
Just a year after training, he competed at the Tiger Balm Internationals held in Vancouver, British Columbia. The American participated in three events and amassed the Grand Championship.
After graduating high school, Yang wanted to grasp more knowledge in the striking disciplines. However, he wanted to get that knowledge 7,000 miles away in China, the birthplace of kung fu.
It was a bold decision, but he took great pride in it. Also, he learned it in the most authentic way possible – at a Shaolin martial arts academy in Northeastern China.
Yang underwent intense training under the tutelage of Shaolin monks, grinding for eight hours a day alongside other students who were on the same path. What was supposed to be a six-month stay ended up being an inspirational four-year journey. And aside from enhancing his martial arts skills, he also pushed through his own mental barriers and gained a new perspective on life.
"That's just part of my evolution and my journey of (going from) a boy to becoming a man, and growing as a martial artist," he said. "Going over there, seeing how other people live in the world and getting other points of view from people around the world is just something that helped me grow and develop as a human being, and being out there, I learned a lot about myself – the bad and good."
When Yang finally returned to the U.S., however, he knew that he needed to make some cash. He worked as a package handler, a martial arts instructor, and even as a Cirque du Soleil performer.
Still, the young star wanted to feed his hunger for more martial arts knowledge.
That happened in 2014 when he discovered AMC Pankration, the MMA gym led by Matt Hume and serves as the home base for 12-time flyweight world champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson.
Yang instantly knew that this was the place where he could develop even further, and he quickly formed a connection with Johnson and the rest of the camp's members.
"I'm lucky to be part of AMC Pankration," he said. "From our teammates to our coach, it's the same feeling. Number one is that they're all dear friends of mine first, before anything else."
Johnson, especially, has become a close friend and mentor.
A year after joining AMC Pankration, Yang made his amateur MMA debut and won the contest via first-round knockout.
After winning his next five bouts, the Washington native joined ONE Championship and beat Filipino veteran Roel Rosauro via second-round TKO in his promotional debut last September.
Now, he is preparing for his sophomore appearance against Subba on April 22, but he views the Malaysian fighter as nothing more than a roadblock to his ultimate goal.
"I'm trying to get to the championship belt; that's all I'm trying to do," he said. "A lot of guys are ahead of me right now, so I've just got to put the work in. I just got to keep putting on exciting performances, put on great finishes, and the rest will come. (I need to) stay the course, stay focused, and keep working."
And should he win ONE Championship's new golden belt someday, then it would be the perfect fairy-tale ending to his Hollywood movie kind of life.