Is Ben Askren the best welterweight in the world? It’s a question that will remain theoretical for as long as the top talent in the division is divided between multiple organizations, but he remains an intimidating opponent for anyone, especially a 21-year-old from Kuala Lumpur.
Agilan Thani was 12 years old when Askren was competing in the 2008 Olympics. The youngster will have to bridge an enormous gulf in terms of experience if he wants to claim the ONE Championship welterweight title at the expense of the decorated American on Friday in Singapore.
But it’s a challenge Thani requested and one he has embraced. Undefeated as a pro or an amateur, he’s won 13 straight fights and feels the time is right to step up and take on one of the best fighters in the sport at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes.
“I’m clear in my mind that I’m not afraid of this guy, but I’m afraid of his abilities, so I’m doing my best to work towards it. Finally, a fight that I want.”
Thani called out Askren after stopping Jeff Huang earlier this year. He’s stepped into the ONE Championship cage on six occasions, emerging with a stoppage win every time. But none of the opponents the Malaysian has faced in his career to date are of the same caliber as the man he meets at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Friday.
In fact, Thani was not pleased with his performance against Huang, who he finished midway through the second round. It left the undefeated welterweight feeling he needed more of a challenge, hence the spontaneous callout.
“I over rushed that fight. I was just trying crazy stuff. I finished the fight late. It didn’t went (sic) the way I want. Maybe I didn’t train hard enough, (but) the next week I went to the U.S., started a new camp, trained again.”
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Thani said he could sense fear from Huang as they prepared to enter the cage and knew straightaway that the fight was won. He’s unlikely to have an intimidating effect on Askren, but feels the two-time NCAA Division I champion is far more fallible than people think.
“He has lost before. He went to the Olympics; he didn’t get a gold medal. At high school, he lost five times to the same guy. If he’s so good, he shouldn’t have lost.”
While this might seem like bravado on Thani’s part, he is well aware of Askren’s abilities and is under no illusion as to the size of the challenge ahead of him.
“It’s Ben Askren. He carries this aura that he’s gonna take you down, gonna put you down, gonna maul you for five rounds. Might happen to me, but I’m clear in my mind that I’m not afraid of this guy.”
MMA barely existed in Malaysia when ONE Championship was founded. But in the last six years, the sport has taken off with amateur and professional competitions held every month and gyms popping up across the country, not just in the capital.
Thani is Kuala Lumpur born and bred. He was an undefeated champion as an amateur and has always dreamed of winning a major title.
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“I’ve always wanted to be a world champion since I started my career as a MMA fighter. It will mean a lot to me, but at the same time it will mean a lot more for the community because the sport is growing here and we need something big like this to help us grow.”
Askren is 11 years older than Thani and hasn’t been fighting frequently for the last few years. The young Malayian might find cause for optimism here as he’s been a regular inside the ONE Championship cage, appearing six times in the space of just 26 months.
It means Thani has plenty of momentum behind him heading into ONE: Dynasty of Heroes. It is a welterweight title match that pits youth against experience. The 21-year-old is hoping to stun the world by becoming the first fighter to ever beat Askren.
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