Myanmar fight fans swarmed to a Yangon hotel on Thursday for a glimpse of a mixed martial arts specialist dubbed the “Burmese Python” as he returned home after over a decade in the United States.
Aung La N Sang, who has caused a stir in the kickboxing-mad Southeast Asian nation since his arrival earlier this week, made his first public appearance at the press conference to promote a fight planned for March.
The 30-year-old told AFP on Wednesday that coming back to Myanmar “felt like a dream, but at the same time it felt like home”.
He also told reporters that he wanted to help Myanmar fighters, trained on the bone-crunching local kickboxing style lethwei, to diversify their techniques in order to compete internationally in mixed martial arts.
Aung La N Sang was born in Myanmar when the country was still under junta rule, but left when he was 18 to study agriculture in the US state of Indiana.
He had planned to return to his homeland to start a farm in the northern state of Kachin -- a war-torn area bordering China where he was born.
But after discovering a love for jiu jitsu his “dreams have changed” and he stayed on to train in mixed martial arts in America, where he now runs a gym.
The 6’1’’ middleweight fighter now has 16 wins and 9 losses under his belt, and a keen following in the mixed martial arts community.
But he is especially beloved by boxing fans in Myanmar, who have battled the country’s lacklustre Internet speeds to follow his progress online and laud his visit on social media.
“We are very proud of him,” said Saw Lwin, one of several dozen fans who packed Thursday’s event. “He makes the world know about Myanmar and we can believe one of our fighters is famous in the US.”
Lethwei is hugely popular in Myanmar and local pugilists say it is the toughest member of Southeast Asia’s kickboxing family -- even more brutal than Thailand’s better known Muay Thai.
Head-butts are allowed and competitors have their hands wrapped but do not wear gloves as they attempt to batter their opponent into submission.
Spectators in front row seats are close enough to hear bones shatter and expect a sporadic showering of blood and sweat.
A win is by knock-out only, but if no one gets knocked out in five three-minute rounds, the match ends in a draw.
Aung La N Sang predicted a bright future for the sport to rival Muay Thai, if its “primitive” rules could be modernised.
He had no formal training in lethwei growing up, but said it is “as normal as eating and sleeping here”.
“All the boys want to fight,” he said.
He said changes in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won landmark November elections, meant he would likely return more frequently to the nation.
After this week’s visit he will return for his ONE Championship match in mid-March against an undisclosed opponent at a stadium in Yangon near where he lived as a child.
The match will be broadcast across Asia, where the sport commands an avid fanbase.
“It’s going to be a homecoming and I am going to sell that place out,” he told AFP.