MALAYSIA - Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter A.J. Lias Mansor isn't very tall, but when you meet him, you would readily believe that he can knock you down to the ground in a second. With his excellently chiselled physique, short-cropped reddish hair and serious demeanour, he easily puts the fear of fight into anyone. But when he speaks, an amiable, soft-spoken personality suddenly takes over.
Still, it's pretty hard to believe that this was once a 10-year-old boy from a poor family who sold fruits and kueh from house to house.
Hailing from Kota Kinabalu, Mansor is touted as the first Malaysian MMA fighter with a silat background. He will be fighting American Mitch "The Dragon" Chilson in the upcoming ONE Fighting Championship event at Stadium Negara on June 23.
Mansor is currently in KL to train with the MuayFit team, getting ready for probably the biggest fight of his freshly-minted MMA career. So far, he has had two fights, a win in the local F3 Fighting Championship and a loss in the DARE Championship in Bangkok.
Even so, he says, ONE FC had been keeping tabs on his progress, and when it was going to hold its inaugural event in KL, Mansor was approached to be on the fight card.
"In Malaysia there are not so many MMA fighters," he says. "So perhaps they were looking for someone who had been travelling and fighting professionally. They've always kept track of me, even when I was training in Canada and Thailand. I feel honoured.
"I do this because I love to fight and I love the sport. And I love to travel, improve my skills and also see the world. You never know who's keeping track of your progress!"
Mansor started training in silat during his schooldays, and has competed at the national level. Like most villages in Malaysia, Kampung Petagas, where he grew up, was big on silat. Naturally, he gravitated towards it. It also helped that one of his older brothers was a silat exponent.
"I started by competing in local tournaments at school level," says Mansor. "Like everything else, you need discipline to train in silat too. As I grew up, I started to get into karate and a little bit of taekwondo as well. When I finished university, I went to Thailand to train seriously in muay thai. When you have the love for martial arts and the skills, you can train in any form of martial arts. It was an adventure for me to train in the various forms."
The 37-year-old has a love for physical sports, which he says, worried his mother constantly. "But she knows I'm stubborn," he laughs.
When he went to Universiti Malaya to study sports science in 2000, he was also a forward for the national rugby team. He took a break in between his studies to represent the country several times, playing in the Asian Cup and the World Cup qualifiers against teams from Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. Then he resumed his studies and graduated in 2006.
"In university I focused more on my studies," he says. "For sports, I only played rugby. For martial arts, I only trained with sandbags and did some shadow-boxing just to keep on my toes. I started playing rugby in school and used to be of a bigger size (at 92kg), but since I now focus on martial arts, I had to tone my body down to a smaller size."
After university, he started his muay thai stint, training in Phuket in Thailand and Bangkok and competing in places such as Patong Stadium in Phuket and even Brisbane, Australia, chalking up an 8-1 record. It was during this time that he also became enthralled by the concept of MMA, and started training for it. At the time, the only problem was, there were no competitions in this country in which he could participate.
"When they started professional MMA competitions it really excited me," says Mansor. "I told myself that I wanted to compete in this. For ONE FC, I'm really pumped up, because this is in Malaysia, and I feel I'm fighting for my country. So this is special for me."
Mansor is the youngest of nine siblings. His father died when he was still a baby, and his mother single-handedly raised all nine of them by working as a labourer and taking on any jobs she could find.
"It was tough and a real hardship for my family," Mansor recalls. "We were a very poor family. I remember when I was 10, studying in Year Four, I helped out by selling fruits and kueh. I went house to house in my village. When I was in Form Three, I worked as a pump attendant at a petrol station just to help make ends meet."
Today, Mansor, who is married to a Canadian, is a personal trainer and also has his own MMA team in Kota Kinabalu, called the Borneo Tribal Squad. He is now training about 12 fighters, including three females. He enters them in professional fight events such as the F3 Championship in KL and Ultimate Beatdown in Johor.
Asked which martial art he likes most among the ones he has trained in, Mansor, who is of Bajau descent, replies: "It's difficult to pick a favourite. I started out in silat and it has helped to make me tougher. I also like other martial arts such as judo, karate ... they're like silat, they are very spiritual and very respectful."
But it's the spirit of the warrior in silat that he carries with him till this day.
"When you fight for something, you never give up," he says. "You have to give it all you got. It's a very practical way of living, not just for martial arts. When you study, you have to study hard. When you work for a career, you also have to give it your all. You can use the spirit of the warrior in your daily life as well.