Agilan Thani entered the year 2019 on shaky ground. The Malaysian welterweight had been stopped in his last two fights of 2018, first succumbing to Zebaztian Kadestam’s strikes, then, then tapping to a Kiamrian Abbasov rear-naked choke.
Despite this rough patch, Thani’s first contest of the year was a big one. In June, he was tasked with welcoming Japanese MMA legend Yoshihiro Akiyama to the ONE Championship cage.
The Malaysian admits he was a little surprised when this bout was first offered.
“When I first got the news, I was starstruck,” he told BJPenn.com of his initial reaction to this matchup.
When it came time to fight, however, Thani was able to push these feelings aside and focus on the task at hand — though he says his admiration for Akiyama never dwindled.
“When I was fighting him, I just had respect for him,” he said. “I had no stuttering moments. I was never frozen. I knew it was my win to grab that night.”
In the end, Agilan Thani was able to make the most of his mammoth opportunity, as he defeated Akiyama by unanimous decision. Unsurprisingly, the Malaysian talent is very happy to have this victory on his resume.
“I beat Akiyama,” he says proudly. “I feel good about my skills. I can go forward with more confidence.”
For Thani, of course, the work is far from over. In fact, he’ll soon have the opportunity to battle another Japanese veteran not unlike Akiyama in Yushin Okami. Thani will meet Okami, who previously challenged for the UFC middleweight title, on the first portion of the ONE: Century double-header, scheduled for October 13 in Tokyo.
Just as he was when ONE Championship offered him a fight with Akiyama, Thani says he was thrilled to be offered this Okami matchup. The setting of the bout excites him greatly too.
“I’m very grateful, as usual,” he said. “They offered me one of the biggest cards of the year, which is the 100th event, in Japan.
“I’m very excited — sometimes I can’t even explain it. I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve always wanted to go there, and this is my opportunity to go and perform in front of the crowd in Japan. It’s always an honor to fight in Japan, because it’s where PRIDE was, where the crowd was so big, and everybody was a big star there.”
While Agilan Thani is very excited for this bout with Yushin Okami, he is not anticipating an easy night of work. In fact, he believes Okami will be even more difficult to defeat than Akiyama.
“Yushin is going to be even tougher than Akiyama,” he said. “Yushin has been in the fight game longer, has more fights and more experience than Akiyama. I have to be more careful and I have to be smarter with my fight this time.”
In Okami, Thani will meet a well-rounded fighter with a particularly dangerous grappling arsenal. The Malaysian is wary of his foe’s strengths, but is confident his preparation will carry him to victory.
“I’m not sure how good he is, but I’m preparing for the worst, and the best,” he said. “I just need to go there and test myself. I know he’s not an easy guy to beat, that’s for sure.
“He’s very smart with what he does, especially on the ground,” he added. “But you can’t underestimate your own skills either, because he may look strong, but you never know how strong until you fight the guy.”
In addition to Okami’s technical ability, Thani will have to be cautious of his foe’s experience. The Japanese veteran has shared the canvas with many world-class foes, such as Anderson Silva, Mark Munoz, Chael Sonnen, Alan Belcher, Nate Marquardt, Jon Fitch, Evan Tanner, David Branch, Ronald “Jacare” Souza, Ovince Saint Preux, and most recently, Kiamrian Abbasov and James Nakashima under the ONE Championship banner.
Thani respects his foe’s accomplishments, but is reluctant to dwell on them.
“I’m going in with one goal, which is to do my best against him,” he said. “I can’t think about ‘he’s fought this guy, and this guy’ and lower my standards down. I need to keep my confidence high. I can’t dwell on what he’s done in the past. That’s just not going to work right for me.”
Needless to say, Agilan Thani is dialled in on the task at hand. He’s confident he can find a way to beat Yushin Okami in Tokyo, and prove his skill not only to all the fans watching, but also to himself.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “I used to fight for so many reasons, but now I only fight for one reason: to prove to myself that I am capable of fighting at the highest level. I want to constantly be there.
“I didn’t even know I would fight people like [Akiyama and Okami],” he said. “I’m from a small town, I never thought I’d be fighting on the big scene, but now I’m starting to respect myself more.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 9/16/2019.