For two and a half years, Agilan “Alligator” Thani washed toilets, swept and mopped floors, and did the laundry at the gym where he was learning mixed-martial arts (MMA).
While most kids that age would probably depend on their parents, Agilan who turns 22 in August, just wanted to be independent. He did not want to burden his dad who was a single parent.
“My dad worked hard, but it was not going to be enough for us to survive if I started training. So I thought I better start taking the initiative to work.
“My goal at that time was to make sure I never asked for a single sen from my dad anymore. Since 18, I have not taken a single sen from him,” he says in an interview at the Monarchy MMA gym in Kuala Lumpur.
In the earlier days of his work as a janitor, Agilan slept in the gym as taxis were too costly, while public transport did not operate by the time the gym closed at midnight.
He eventually got a bicycle for himself, where he could cycle back to his one-room flat in Sentul, but even that lasted three months as the bike was vandalised.
At the time Agilan joined the gym, he weighed 145kg and even had to wear size 52 trousers, making him an obvious target for bullies in school and in his neighbourhood.
He used to be called Kungfu Panda, among other taunts.
Those days seem a long way off now, and Agilan who is 175cm tall, now weighs about 83kg and wears size 32 trousers.
But the loss of almost 60kg in one year didn’t come just like that – it took him a lot of will power and intense training to achieve.
His big portions of rice went, and so did the snacks in between meals. Dinner was sometimes just a bowl of yoghurt, according to Agilan.
His training and dedication in the gym has reaped rewards, with Agilan competing in the ONE Championship, the largest sports media property in Asia.
He gained more recognition in MMA after being given a shot at the Welterweight title against former Olympian Ben Askren during the Dynasty of Heroes fight in Singapore on May 26.
He is the second Malaysian to fight for a World Championship title, the first being Ev Ting, who fought for the ONE Lightweight World Championship title.
The script, however, did not go as planned, with Agilan losing to the American who is widely recognised as one of the best welterweights in MMA today, and one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound.
It was Agilan’s first loss in a fight.
Regardless, the young fighter shows maturity beyond his years and has time on his side.
His transformation from an overweight teenager to an elite combat sports athlete has been nothing short of remarkable.
Living in what is considered to be a “notorious” side of Kuala Lumpur, Agilan who failed his SPM exams, could have been part of a gang, but he was never drawn to them.
Instead, Agilan – who has never smoked or consumed alcohol – took up martial arts when he was 16, starting with karate. He then turned to MMA after being inspired by Donnie Yen’s 2005 Hong Kong action flick SPL: Sha Po Lang.
“I was already doing karate before that and the movie got me more interested in the martial arts he was doing. I Googled the movie and found out that it was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu,” recalls Agilan.
Agilan says the intention to learn martial arts wasn’t to take revenge on anyone; it was to become a better person.
“I took the initiative to train hard and became good at it, eventually making it to the competitions,” he explains.
From Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he eventually learnt Muay Thai and wrestling from fighters who visited the gym.
And from being a janitor, he eventually became an instructor and subsequently started fighting professionally.
Agilan made his MMA debut at the F3 Championship in December 2013, before competing in the Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (Mimma) circuit the following year.
He won all five of his amateur fights in the Mimma circuit, including the Welterweight Championship in October 2014.
In Malaysia, the MMA scene is still considered to be relatively small and doesn’t have much of a following. This prompted Agilan to seek proper training for himself in the United States where there are more MMA athletes.
His first stint in the United States that lasted three months was one where Agilan says he lived “like a beggar” and spent US$1,600 (RM6,700) altogether, including flight tickets. The prize money he won from his fights was used to fund his training.
Agilan slept on the couch or floor of the gym. He ate cheap food such as US$1 (RM4.29) pizzas and drank water that was refilled from fountains.
That stint was followed by two others where Agilan stayed in better places, ate better food and had better training. He once again reinvested his growing prize money income into training.
The ONE Championship came calling in 2015, with Agilan getting the nod to contest a fight not long before it was scheduled.
Despite being relatively out of shape and overweight at the time, Agilan – who specialises in wrestling techniques – took that opportunity and won his bout. (Fighters need about six weeks to be fully-prepared for a big fight.)
He won his next five bouts in the ONE Championship before getting his title shot against Askren.
While most would be happy with just getting a title shot, Agilan will go back to the drawing board and take his time to find a way to come back stronger and win the world championships that he has been aiming for.
He only blames himself for his first ever loss, and says that he has to work on his mental side.
Working on his mental state
“The mistake is on my side ... my mental side. We’ve got to work on that ... slowly get back into it because it’s not easy coming out of a loss. It’s the only thing I have done with my whole life and made money out of. I have to do it the right way,” he muses.
Mehdi Bagheri, an Iranian wrestler who has been training with Agilan for two years, says that he lost his fight mentally on the day.
Bagheri, who was with the Iranian national team, observes that Agilan has come a long way in MMA and wrestling in particular.
“He doesn’t have much problem with his techniques. He is on a high level. He learns fast, is talented and is focused. He is young and can only get better,” he says.