SHE has been the subject of a story by Time magazine, and touted by the New York Times as one of the pioneers of Asian women in the brutal, male-dominated world of mixed martial arts (MMA). And yet, Ann Osman’s professional MMA career is only just getting started.

The 27-year-old Kota Kinabalu native has captured the imagination of the world as a strong Muslim woman punching through stereotypes after her first professional fight recently against Singapore’s Sherilyn Lim, seen by many as the first high-level MMA fight involving a Muslim woman.

Breaking barriers: Professional mixed arts (MMA) fighter Ann Osman has caught the world's attention recently for smashing stereotypes of Asian women.

Breaking barriers: Professional mixed arts (MMA) fighter Ann Osman has caught the world’s attention recently for smashing stereotypes of Asian women.

It was a fight she lost narrowly by a split decision, but that hasn’t stopped the world from getting caught up in her story.

“(The attention) is flattering, but I’m still keeping myself grounded,” said Ann during an interview with R.AGE. “I will always remember where I came from.”

But where she is now is a pretty good place. She has been inundated by media requests, posing in glossy magazines and featured glowingly by international media; and it’s not hard to see why considering her poster girl potential – she’s got the looks, the charisma and the fighting ability all in her corner.

“I’m happy that people perceive my participation in MMA as an inspiration, and I want to keep that up, to keep encouraging girls to break down barriers,” she added.

Breaking barriers
MMA is one of the toughest combat sports out there. It was originally promoted as a competition that would pit different forms of martial arts against each other to see which is the most effective of all. And because of that, rules were kept at a minimum, and the fights can get pretty brutal.

As a spectator sport, it has become hugely popular around the world. In Malaysia, the community has been growing slowly but surely. Ann herself, who is of Dusun-Malay parentage, was introduced to MMA just three years ago.

But her dedication to her training, while juggling a full-time job as a business development manager at a property company, saw her turning pro when she was signed to Asia’s largest MMA organisation, ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC). That led to her long-awaited professional debut against Lim in Singapore last October.

A much-anticipated rematch was due to take place last Friday at the ONE FC: War of Nations event, which would have been Ann’s first major fight in Malaysia.

At the weigh-in, Ann looked fired up after five months of intensive training. She also said she would dedicate the fight to the passengers and crew of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and all their friends and families, sporting a T-shirt with the message “Keep fighting. Never give up. #PrayForMH370”.

Sadly for Ann, Lim was 3kg overweight, and the fight was cancelled.

“It was disappointing, as the whole issue was totally unexpected. But life moves on, so I’m just going to keep training and looking forward to my next fight,” said Ann.

Nevertheless, the support she has received from the Malaysian public has given her much hope for her career’s future.

“I’ve been receiving so much positive support! I’m glad to see that we’re living in an open-minded society,” said Ann. “And I hope I’ve also made Malaysia proud.”

The Dusun-Malay fighter (left) at the weigh-in for her highly-anticipated rematch with Singapore's Sherlyn Lim (right).

The Dusun-Malay fighter (left) at the weigh-in for her highly-anticipated rematch with Singapore’s Sherlyn Lim (right).

Turning pro
Having grown up surrounded by the lush forests of Sabah, Ann has always been an outdoors person. She has been white water rafting, sea kayaking, hiking and mountain climbing for as long as she can remember.

“The outdoors is just in me,” said Ann with a laugh. “It’s in my nature to do new things and take on new challenges, so I’ve tried out everything that’s available.”

Despite always being relatively fit from her outdoor adventures, Ann still felt slightly overweight – no thanks to the variety of awesome food we have in Malaysia.

So she started attending Muay Thai classes, and later on, MMA.

“I started training just to lose weight and get in shape. I never thought I’d be in the sport for this long!”

But after her first amateur Muay Fit fight in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, which she lost, her competitive streak kicked in, and she became determined to do better.

She had only taken two months of classes at the time but after that, she took things up a notch in training and won her next few fights before finally getting her break with ONE FC last year.

“It’s the drive to learn more that really got me into MMA. I love the satisfaction of learning new techniques, and being able to apply them,” she said.

“Besides, this sport builds character. I am a better person today because of what I learnt in training and my knowledge on nutrition. I’m also more disciplined.”

Ann trains four to five hours on weekdays at a gym in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and on weekends if she is preparing for a fight.

Ann trains four to five hours on weekdays at a gym in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and on weekends if she is preparing for a fight.

Beyond MMA
Outside the cage, Ann has the full support of her family as she juggles her full-time job with her MMA career.

“When I first started doing MMA, my family was very concerned about my safety. But after seeing how careful I am about looking after myself, they became fine with it. I also did my part to educate them on the safety aspects of the game,” she said.

Ann trains around four to five hours every day, but makes sure she spends time with the people she loves.

“On weekends, I go for outdoors activities with my sister. I unwind with my friends, my fiancé and my family. It’s important for me to have a balanced lifestyle,” said Ann, who graduated from Universiti Putra Malaysia with a diploma in computer science.

A typical weekday for Ann starts at 5am with an hour-long cardio session before she heads to work. After work, she heads straight to the gym for her fight training, which is another three to four hours.

But even though her fighting career seems to be such a big part of her life, Ann says she’s still very much a girly-girl at heart.

“I might look like a gym freak in a dress, but I still love my heels,” she said.

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