The life a person leads is often determined by the risks they are prepared to take. There are those who prefer the comfort of a daily routine, who find security in the familiar, and enjoy the stability and certainty that a lifestyle such as this offers. Then there are those willing to step into the unknown, who while they may be unsure of where their chosen path will take them, nonetheless feel the need to follow it.
Myanmar-born Kiwi Punnya Sai is just that type of person. At the start of the year, the 19-year-old was an unheralded talent living at the edge of the world searching for a way to turn his martial arts dreams into reality.
Now almost 12 months later, Punnya Sai’s abilities have not only brought him to the attention of ONE Championship but have given him the opportunity to reconnect with his cultural heritage. All of this only comes about because Punnya Sai, following his passion decided to purchase a one-way ticket from New Zealand to the Indonesian island of Bali.
Most people who travel to Bali, do so for the chance to unwind and relax, but Bali is more than just waves, sandy beaches, and tourist attractions. It is also home to Bali MMA, one of South East Asia’s premier gyms for those looking to train in mixed martial arts. Punnya Sai had been invited out to Bali MMA by his Muay Thai trainer Mike Ikilei, who had recently become Bali MMA’s head striking coach.
Since their days together back in New Zealand, Ikilei had long known that Punnya Sai was an athlete capable of reaching the world stage, but even he must have been surprised at how fast events unfolded over the next few months. It was a chance meeting that altered the course Punnya Sai’s life. Rich Franklin, ONE’s Vice President, was in Bali, filming the second season of ONE Warrior Series.
ONE Warrior Series is a reality show where Franklin and his team travel Asia, looking for up and coming athletes to compete in OWS. Selected athletes then compete in four OWS bouts and if they perform well enough can find themselves on the receiving end of a US$100,000 contract with ONE Championship.
Originally, Punnya Sai was not on the list of athletes Franklin had intended to scout, but after seeing the 19-year-old in a sparring session, an impressed Franklin offered him a contract. To make the moment even more magic, after hearing Punnya Sai’s story, Franklin, soon arranged for him to visit his relatives in Myanmar.
Punnya Sai’s parents left Myanmar for New Zealand when he was just eight months old. In an emotional trip back to the country of his birth, Punnya Sai was reunited with his extended family, many of whom he had never before met in person. The trip was filmed as part of the OWS documentary series and has been viewed over 100,000 times online. Punnya Sai has gone on to reward the faith Franklin placed in him by winning both his OWS bouts in stunning fashion.
A first-round submission win was followed up with a jaw-dropping 14 second first-round TKO victory. An impressive effort for an athlete who only transitioned to mixed martial arts ten months ago. While Punnya Sai is still in the early stages of his professional career, he seems to be developing a reputation as “one to watch.” After all, if he has achieved this much in one year, how far could he go in his second?