Myanmar might not be blessed with a wealth of sporting heroes, but when cage fighter Aung La Nsang defeated Jason Louch just two minutes and 30 seconds into his latest bout, a star was born.
The 27-year-old fights out of Elkridge, Maryland, but has never forgotten his roots—holding up a ethnic Kachin flag after his latest stunning victory and pledging a portion of his winnings to help displaced civilians in northernmost Myanmar.
Nicknamed the “Burmese Python,” the 6’1” (185 cm) athlete remembers his upbringing in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina despite moving to the United States at the tender age of 18. Well-spoken and charming, he betrays a sharp sense of humor not necessarily anticipated in a professional pugilist.
“I started training Brazilian jujitsu in 2004 and then after four months I entered a mixed martial arts [MMA] contest,” he told The Irrawaddy. “I had a friend who did it before I started and in my first class he taught me with an arm bar—it’s a submission hold which is an arm lock and he almost broke my arm. I was super impressed with the effectiveness of jujitsu.”
Aung La Nsang now teaches for Crazy 88 Martial Arts Academy in between preparing himself for competitions. His impressive 14-8 win-loss career record is the result of five hours training every day—a grueling mixture of strength and conditioning work, sparing and technical drilling.
“I try to set a goal and I try real hard towards that goal,” he said. “If you don’t have a goal then you won’t have any direction—that’s the motto I try to live by right now. Put your heart into it, give 100 percent and you will achieve your goals.”
The fourth child out of three boys and two girls, Aung La Nsang did not receive any fighting instruction before arriving in the US but admits to long having a taste for combat.
“I always fought with my brothers and people but I never trained formally in Burma. But kicking and punching is in our blood. I didn’t formally train in Lethwei or Burmese martial arts though,” he said. “I did have an older brother who used to always beat me up, but not anymore!”
Now his goal is to work up to the highest level of MMA competition—the global Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which broadcasts to a multimillion viewer audience in 22 languages across 150 countries.
“It’s a bigger promotion,” said Aung La Nsang. “I’ve got some friends in the UFC and I do well against them—I’m not going to say that I beat them up, but skill-wise I’m there. But I’m under contract with the CCFC [Cage Fury Fighting Championship] and it’s a big promotion in the US east coast.”
In order to reach his target, the Burmese Python must first take a bite out of current welterweight champion George Sullivan. “In August, George Sullivan fought and they offered me that fight, but I wasn’t in training camp yet so I didn’t take it,” said Aung la Nsang. “But I guarantee in another fight or so they will let me have a crack at him.”
Yet it could have been so different for the former International School Yangon student who majored in agriculture at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and subsequently worked on a dairy farm.
“At college I studied agricultural science and it was my intention to do agriculture back home,” he said. “That would be my dream—to open a gym and do some farming in Kachin State.
“It’s not going to be in the near future, that’s for sure, as I’ve still got my dream here to follow and a lot of fighting—this is just the beginning, I feel like I’ve just started to get the hang of fighting.”
And if there is any adversary that concerns Aung La Nsang, it certainly is not the muscle-bound modern gladiators he encounters in the steel-lined octagon.
“I worked for a migratory bee company out of college,” he said. “I did beekeeping for a year-and-a-half all over the United States. I loved it but I was having trouble achieving my goal of becoming a MMA fighter so I had to stop that.
“I would get stung every day pretty much, and let me tell you that you never get used to it—it hurts every time. I don’t know if it’s worse than getting hit. Getting punched in the ring doesn’t hurt that much—I mean you feel it, but you just can’t prepare yourself for that sting.”
Despite Aung La Nsang’s intention to one day adopt a pastoral lifestyle in his homeland, a key change must materialize before this could occur—peace between the Naypyitaw government and the ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The two sides have been engaged in an escalating conflict since June last year with around 90,000 civilians displaced by fighting near their homes and forced live in temporary camps by the Chinese border.
“Right before my last fight I was in tears because I wanted to win for Kachin people so bad,” said Aung La Nsang, who admits to having distant family in the KIA. “I’m going to keep fighting for them to raise awareness, but I’m a fighter first and not a politician so there’s only so much that I can do. But I shall try to help as much as I can.”
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.