On April 28, in the main event of ONE on TNT IV in Singapore, Aung La N Sang will attempt to defend the promotion's light heavyweight title against Reinier De Ridder. It will be his second consecutive fight with the Dutchman, after losing the ONE middleweight title to him via first-round submission last October.
In other words, he's under significant pressure to win.
Yet heading into this crucial clash, much of Aung La N Sang's attention has been focused elsewhere—on things that would make the outcome of even the most important fight feel insignificant.
The former two-division ONE champ now calls South Florida home, but he was born and raised in Myanmar. Myanmar, for those unaware, was formerly called Burma, named after the country's Burman ethnic group. In 1989, the military leaders of the day changed its name, ostensibly to improve the country's international image and foster unity between the numerous ethnic groups within its borders.
Today, Aung La N Sang is hailed as the Southeast Asian country's greatest sporting hero. His countrymen tune into his fights en masse and even built a statue in his honor in his hometown of Myitkyina. Unfortunately, as anybody who's been following the headlines knows, Myanmar is currently embroiled in a period of immense turmoil and tragedy.
On February 1, the country's military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and several other members of the country's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). The Tatmadaw promptly declared a state of emergency, alleging the NLD's November election win was fraudulent. The country's election commission has said there is no evidence to support those allegations.
At that time, Aung La N Sang was preparing for a fight with Vitaly Bigdash—his originally slated foe for April 28—who was later forced off the card and replaced by De Ridder.
"The military takeover happened in early February, when the elected government, the NLD, was supposed to go into office," Aung La N Sang told Bleacher Report. "[The army is] terrorizing their citizens. They're shooting protestors and picking people up at night and shutting down the media and all the TV channels—there's only the propaganda channels now. A lot of people are living in fear in Myanmar right now. I don't think I'll be able to go back home because of this."
After the military takeover, which the U.S. government has designated a coup, the streets of Myanmar's cities erupted in protests that were met by violent crackdowns. Clashes between protesters—as well as armed groups such as the Karen National Union—and the military have since left over 700 dead and many more injured. On March 27, over 100 anti-coup protesters were killed in a single day.
Amid this chaos, many of Aung La N Sang's supporters in Myanmar have reached out to him for help. Unfortunately—and much to his disappointment—there's not much he can do from the other side of the world, beyond publicly calling for an end to the coup.
"At the start of camp, it was so hard," he said. "Every morning—even now—I would get messages. I would get messages from friends, family, fans [in Myanmar], telling me what's going on, telling me about kids getting shot for no reason. It makes me appreciate America and the freedom we have here, and it reminds me of all the evil around the world.
"There's not much I can do on a personal level," he added. "A lot of my Burmese fans really look up to me, and I'm sorry that I can't be Rambo and go over there and fight this coup for them. It's so difficult because a lot of people, especially in the beginning, were calling me out [for not doing enough], saying really hurtful things."
The situation in Myanmar took a toll on Aung La N Sang and understandably distracted him from the fight at hand. Thankfully, he was able to enlist the help of a sports psychologist through his training home of Sanford MMA.
"This is my second time working with a sports psychologist," he said. "After the last fight [with De Ridder], I felt like I wasn't mentally there, and Sanford has really good connections because of Sanford Health. It was meant to be, almost. They brought in a sports psychologist a couple weeks after my fight, and I was like, 'Man, I need this.'
"It was the most important thing. I was thinking too much about what was happening in Myanmar. I was depressed. The sports psychologist helped me allocate time in my day, instead of just being all over the place and sad."
Unfortunately, Aung La N Sang had already left Florida when he learned that Bigdash was out and De Ridder was in, so he could not rely on Sanford's sports psychologist to help him digest the news.
"I was very worried," he said. "[I got the news] when I got to Qatar. A ONE Championship rep said, 'Can you call me back right away?' and I was like, 'No, don't tell me this is happening.'
"I said, 'I'll fight anyone.' I even said Reinier would be good, too, because he was supposed to fight on the same card and lost his opponent.
"[When it came together] I was excited. I was very happy."
If Aung La N Sang is able to defeat De Ridder, he'll retain the ONE light heavyweight title and, in all likelihood, set up a trilogy fight with the Dutchman with the middleweight title once again at stake.
That's his desired outcome, but he also hopes a win will help the people of Myanmar—whether it inspires them on a grander scale or simply provides a brief distraction from the chaos that swirls all around them.
"We know a lot of the Burmese people are going to tune in. Even though it's going to be in prime time in the United States—early in the morning in Myanmar—there's going to be a lot of people cheering for me. I just hope it gives them a sense of hope, a sense of strength, and some happiness in their lives.
"But, man, the fighting I do doesn't compare to what's going on Myanmar," he added.
"I hope [there's a resolution], or there won't be a country left."