The author with AJ Mansor
It was a little past noon when the chartered Air Asia plane descended into Tacloban airport. From his window seat, AJ Mansor spied the destruction below.
He was in Manila when Typhoon Yolanda made landfall. Although the Philippine capital was spared from the super typhoon’s wrath, Mansor had seen the disturbing and harrowing images emanating from the Visayas. The images haunted him even as he flew back to his native Malaysia for One FC 12: Warrior Spirit.
AJ “Pyro” Mansor was staring at retirement. At age 39, he certainly wasn’t getting any younger in a demanding sport like mixed martial arts. Furthermore, he had lost three consecutive fights to drop to 1-3. So much for setting the MMA world on fire.
Then he went up against Melvin Yeoh, another Malaysian seven years his junior. Yeoh sported a 6-1 record (including a five-match win streak) and was a heavy favorite against Mansor heading into their November 15 match in Kuala Lumpur. Yeoh talked a lot of pre-fight smack at Mansor but when the bell rang to open their fight, he had the crap beaten out of him as he lost via unanimous decision. Mansor was the Malaysia national featherweight champion.
It was a highly emotional Mansor who was interviewed by One FC anchor Jason Chambers moments after referee Yuji Shimada declared him the winner. The victory he so craved had happened.
In the ensuing interview, Mansor publicly begged One FC CEO Victor Cui to give him some one other than a fellow Malaysian to fight. Just as Chambers was about to end the interview, Mansor declared, “I was in the Philippines last week. I was in the storm and typhoon. I will donate my win money to all the Philippines typhoon (victims). My prize money I donate to the Philippines.”
And thus One FC and ABS-CBN arranged for his trip to Tacloban where he could help out in the relief effort. He not only gave his prize earnings from the fight but he further added an undisclosed amount.
As soon as he disembarked from the plane, Mansor saw the devastated airport. He began to shake uncontrollably from sadness and seemingly hopeless situation. “And this was just the airport,” he recalled later.
He was with a group of doctors and nurses that was headed for Tanauan, one of the worst hit areas in Leyte. He was the only one with no background in medicine but that didn’t stop Mansor from helping out.
“I have never seen anything like this in all my life,” related the Malaysian. “I have seen other typhoons or even the effects of the tsunami in Japan. That was terrible too. But this is my first time to go to ground zero.”
Ground zero left an indelible impression on the MMA fighter more than any of the blows he’s received in his entire career. He flew in with a broken bone in his hand and his ankle hurting bad from his fight with Yeoh. But that wasn’t going to stop him from helping.
After all, Mansor had known a lifetime of hardship.
He grew up in Sabah and was later raised in the Kota Kinabalu area of Malaysia. He was the youngest of nine children and his mother, Nuriah Awang, worked three, four, sometimes even five jobs to feed her large brood (their father had passed away).
How they got by he doesn’t know to this day. “It was difficult,” he winced at the memory. “It’s a miracle how we all survived.”
When Mansor was 10 years old, he accompanied his mother to market to buy vegetables, fish and fruit. He was hungry and couldn’t wait to savor the rewards of a long day’s work. To his surprise, his mother gave some of their money to a poor and homeless person.
“Ma,” he protested. “Why are you giving him our money? What about us?”
Replied his mother: “No matter how poor we are we can always help other people.”
Mansor admitted that he didn’t quite understand it but it stuck in his mind. Years later, he finally did understand.
His donations to the victims of Yolanda aren’t the first. He’s always given some of his earnings to the poor and the needy. When pressed about why he does so considering his MMA career hasn’t exactly brought him riches and fame, Mansor answered: “I have only what I need.”
And so in Tanauan, he helped the needy. Mansor pitched in the distribution of food pack. He also joined a teacher in reading for some children and helping them draw while their parents lined up for relief goods. Despite his injuries, he carried his share of heavy equipment.
His group was quartered in a home that was partially destroyed; one of the few left standing. Only there wasn’t much of a roof to protect them from the elements. During his first night, a light rain fell as he lay on a sleeping bag. Mansor shivered in the rain and remembered his younger days in Sabah where he experienced the same. “It’s funny how some times you feel like you’ve come full circle.”
“Every where we went there was devastation. There was no running water or electricity. People feel helpless. But we arrived not only with food, water, and medicine but also hope. That’s a powerful weapon,” related Mansor who finds a parallelism with his career that seemed to be on a downward spiral. “Hope gives you the ability to get up.”
People were surprised to find out that not only was he Malaysian and a MMA fighter but he had largely come on his own.
“I remembered what my mother said about helping other people. You do what you can,” he said a day after his return to Manila yet still highly emotional.
Mansor was on ground for three days and two nights. But they will be some of his most memorable of days. “Even when I close my eyes, I cannot forget what I saw? I can never forget the smell of the dead.”
Mansor is on his way back to Malaysia to recover from his injuries and see to his ill mother (she is now 83 years old). When he returns to his three-month old MMA gym where he has a few students, he will communicate what he has seen and learned. Not only from his Philippine experience but also from his mother.
He’ll be defending his championship some time next year but he knows his career is winding down.
“Hope after all,” he said as we parted with a manly embrace, “is a powerful weapon.”
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.