Myanmar hails a hero as MMA fighter Aung La Nsang is crowned world champion – believed to be the nation’s first in any mainstream sport

Thirty-two-year-old fighter stuns Russian favourite in front of home fans in Yangon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 10:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 9:01pm

Aung La Nsang was unknown in Myanmar five years ago. His name will now never be forgotten here after the 32-year-old claimed his nation’s first-ever world mixed martial arts title late on Friday night with a stunning upset of Russia’s Vitaly Bigdash.

“The fans helped me to this victory,” said Nsang, after lifting the One Championship world middleweight title by unanimous decision.

“I wanted to give them, and to give this country, a world champion. I have lost before but I never give up.”

There was much debate around Yangon before the fight about whether or not Myanmar has had a world champion before in any sport, apart from the country’s traditional martial art of lethwei.

The absence of records because of Myanmar’s troubled past means a definitive answer could not be found, but what’s certain is that Nsang is the country’s modern-day hero to this nation of 54 million.

“He is incredibly strong but I felt at peace,” said Nsang.

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“I felt confident and comfortable. I hope to be an inspiration to the people of Myanmar. This is for them.

“It feels like I am very blessed and hopefully I can bring blessings to other people as well.”

Nsang left his family’s home in the northern city of Myitkyina as boy looking to further his studies, first in Yangon and then in the United States before finding mixed martial arts and – in 2014 – being discovered by the Singapore-based One organisation and brought back to Asia to fight.

His popularity and commercial clout has grown in tandem with his rise up the MMA ranks.

He has said he wanted his fame and his success in the cage to help unify a country still beset by problems, not least in his home Kachin state, where government troops frequently clash with those seeking independence.

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On Friday night he said he hoped the upset win would help “bring Myanmar together.”

Nsang was called up on just 10 days’ notice back in January to face the previously unbeaten – and seemingly unstoppable – Bigdash in a title fight in Jakarta. He came in looking a little undone, took a huge left foot to the head in the third round but fought on courageously to the final bell before losing to the Russian by unanimous decision.

It was an effort that added to his growing legend in Myanmar, and he returned home this week looking a different beast entirely – fit and completely focused.

Nsang laid on a brutal first-round assault at the packed Thuwunna Indoor Stadium on Friday night, pummelling Bigdash to the mat. Somehow, the Russian 32-year-old stayed in the fight and the next four rounds were tight.

There were around 8,000 locals in attendance – they sounded liked 80,000 – and Nsang said his fans had carried him to victory.

“I could not do this without you, Myanmar,” Nsang screamed into the microphone upon being handed the belt.

“I’m not intelligent, I’m not good, I’m not fast but with you I have courage, I have respect and I have what it needs to win a world title.”

Insiders from the Bigdash (9-1) camp reacted with surprise, and later pointed to a shoulder damaged in early exchanges, and to hopes of a rematch.

But the moment belonged to Nsang, whose record in the sport goes to 20-10, one no contest – and whose place in his nation’s history is now assured.

“I will never quit. I will take on any challengers. I will keep fighting,” he said.