“HEY babe! I got two goodlooking brothers for you. Want or not?” The message that flashed on the screen that languid morning as I was spooning dollops of Nestum into my mouth and mourning the lack of excitement in my life almost made me drop my handphone. Didn’t realise that I’d put an ad out for eligible bachelors... and TWO brothers at that!
Intrigued, I returned the message. “Who you pimping to me ah? Because so pandai you (so clever), you definitely got my attention now!” A series of hearty chuckling emojis ensue and a sheepish message eventually appeared: “No lah, I want to check if you’re interested to do a feature on this mixed Malaysian-Nepali brothers, Gianni and Keanu Subba. Their grandfather is a Gurkha and these two epitomise that (Gurkha) fighter spirit. Oh, and they’re also the rising stars of Malaysian MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)!”
Ahh, a story pitch... hmm... and into the mouth went another spoonful of stodgy Nestum and a return to contemplation.
Fast forward to today where I’m waiting in one corner of Monarchy MMA gym in Wisma MPL, KL, for my appointment with the brothers. I chuckle silently as I recall that morning exchange between myself and Tammy Chan from ONE Championship, a Singapore-based powerhouse MMA organisation in Asia, just weeks before.
Fortunately, I don’t have to wait too long before the brothers make their entrance. Catching my furtive gaze, they throw a quick wave before heading to another corner of the gym to limber up and prepare for the demo of some basic moves that we’d planned to capture on video.
“Damn, they’re wearing T-shirts!” The words scream in my head as the image of well oiled, well buffed fighting machines begin to dissipate into the deepest recesses of my mind. Perhaps it’s for the best for surely I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my job if they’d shed their T-shirts!
I’d wanted to meet the brothers much earlier but it hadn’t been possible as both Gianni and Keanu had been locked in training at Bali MMA, a gym in Indonesia where they hone their craft with other talented teammates, in preparation for their-then upcoming fight at Stadium Negara for the ONE: Quest For Greatness MMA showcase.
The exciting showdown last month saw flyweight standout, the 5’5 tall (166cm) Gianni, who’s also the elder of the two, being pitted against crafty Japanese fighter, Riku Shibuya. Meanwhile, brother Keanu was on fire for his featherweight showdown against young ONE Championship prospect, Christian Lee of Singapore.
As it turned out, it was a night of mixed fortunes for the brothers. The 24-year-old Gianni had plenty to celebrate, winning his fight against the 32-year-old Japanese veteran after three rounds with a unanimous decision victory. Sweeter still was the fact that he’d triumphed over a former ONE Flyweight World Title challenger.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old Keanu, a former Malaysian Invasion Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA) featherweight champion, did his best to prove his mettle against his Singaporean opponent and provided the home crowd at Stadium Negara with an epic showcase filled with pulsating action from the beginning. Unfortunately, luck was not on his side and it was the 19-year-old Lee who emerged victorious, winning via armbar submission as Keanu found himself caught in a precarious position.
The MMA world is no stranger to brothers who compete together inside the cage. There’s the Pettis brothers — Anthony and Sergio — from the US and also Brazilian MMA brothers, Antonio Rogerio Noguiera and his twin, Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, to name a few. Now with the Subba brothers, Asia too has something to shout about.
From ‘punk kids’ to ‘scary fighters’, this was the very description given by One Bantamweight World Championship title contender, Andrew Leone, who also co-owns Bali MMA, when asked to describe Gianni and Keanu. Leone would know as he has witnessed their growth first hand from when they first burst into the scene.
Born in Hawaii to a Nepalese father and Chinese-Malaysian mother, the boys grew up in KL and had their early schooling here before moving to the US for their high school education. Their Penang-born father, Suraj, took the whole family with him to Hawaii where he was pursuing his studies. “They started off with Taekwando when they were at school in the US. They were 10 and 11 then. We wanted to get them into martial arts because it instils discipline, loyalty, respect — we wanted those values to be inculcated into them from young,” begins the soft-spoken patriarch of the family whom I manage to corner while waiting for the brothers to complete their routine.
Recalling their formative years, Suraj, whose father, Major Henry Daniel Subba, served with the British army in Malaya and was an MBE recipient from the British Gurkha 2nd Gr. shares that his kids (he also has a daughter) grew up in a loving environment where respect and discipline were highly valued. “We made sure that their life was as normal as it could be. They did what they wanted to do but the discipline was always there.”
The family spent six years in the US before returning home again. Asked what his sons are really like with each other, Suraj smiles before replying: “Just like best friends. They really do look out for each other and are extremely supportive (of each other), in life and as fighters.”
Suffice to say, the Subba’s are a close knit family. Both he and his wife, shares Suraj, support their sons’ passion 100 per cent. “We never pushed them to go into this. But the moment they showed interest, we were with them all the way — taking them to the gym for their training and being there for their fights. My wife watches every fight!”
As with any competitive sport, you win some, you lose some. And whenever the latter happens, his sons would be given their space and time alone to gather their thoughts, shares the technical consultant. “Once they’re ready, we’d come together and discuss. Most often the boys already know what went wrong and we’ll just return to the drawing board to plan how to move forward. My role? I’m their father-cum-adviser!”
Suddenly, his phone beeps and Suraj excuses himself to take a call. Catching their eyes, I motion for Gianni and Keanu to join me. Sweat slightly colouring the back of their dark Tshirts, they saunter over to where I’m sat. Keanu, the youngest of three siblings, I notice, is shyer, allowing for his more gregarious older sibling to assume much of the spokesperson’s role.
Pleasantries over, I get to the point, noting the growing look of concern on the faces of their entourage (the boys were due for their medical straight after our session). So what’s it like in the cage?
It’s Gianni who’s the first to reply in his light American drawl. “Once I get inside, I try to maintain a tunnel vision and just focus on what I have to do. I hear the crowd and it makes a huge difference. I feel the energy and all the love every time we fight at home.”
Unlike Gianni, Keanu shares that once he’s inside the cage, the only voices he hears are from those in his corner. “When we fight, we’re given three cornermen — our coaches — and it’s their voices I hear. Most of the time I’m just tuned out.”
Nerves can be a real killer, concur the brothers, which is why being able to generate a state of calm is paramount. Although a challenge during their early years in the sport, today they’ve managed to find their respective methods to attain it.
Says Gianni: “I’ve had 12 fights in total. I was 18 when I had my first fight and the rush did get to me. In the last couple of years, we’ve started to learn about the mental game — meditation, calming your nerves and saving that adrenaline for when you fight. Early on in our career, we’d 100 per cent go for the kill as soon as the bell sounded. Now we know how to conserve our energy.”
To summon that calm, the boys would put on their headphones. While Gianni admits that he actually has nothing emanating from his, Keanu shares: “I don’t like any of that pumped up stuff. Just instrumental music and positive vibrations.”
Asked about the kind of opponents they find ‘sticky’, the brothers agree that it’s the type that are relentless. Says Gianni: “They don’t have to be the most skilled but they’re the type that like to come forward and make it like a dog fight. We used to find it a challenge in our early days but now we’re better at dealing with these kinds of fighters.”
The door to the gym opens, followed by some anxious faces. Time to wrap up they sheepishly signal. Tapping my notebook, I mouth that it’s my last question. What’s it like to be brothers and both fighters? I pose.
Both Gianni and Keanu turn to each other before the latter motions for his elder sibling to respond. “We grew up together and we’ve been driving each other since young. We’re both competitive. It’s certainly motivating to have someone who shares the same passion as you,” concludes Gianni, as Keanu slowly nods in agreement.
SHOTS ON SUBBAS
1: BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO?
KEANU ON GIANNI: He’s more disciplined
and patient. I’m still getting there.
GIANNI ON KEANU: I’m very honest, sometimes to the point of being blunt. Keanu’s strength is he’s more cerebral. He thinks things through more.
2: FAVOURITE SUPERHERO?
3: WHAT’S ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
KEANU: To visit my dad’s childhood place in Kalimpong, India. I just want to see what kind of environment he grew up in.
GIANNI: The Sahara.
4: WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST FEAR?
KEANU: Losing people important to me.
5: AWAY FROM THE CAGE, HOW DO YOU LIKE TO SPEND YOUR TIME?
GIANNI: I enjoy trying out new
recipes. I like to cook and I’m a real foodie.
My dad is a great cook and I think he’s the best chef in the world.
KEANU: Travelling. One country I’d love to visit is Japan.
6: IF YOU WERE NOT A FIGHTER, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’D BE DOING?
GIANNI: I love animals. I used to
volunteer at the zoo. Maybe I’d
work with animals if I were not
KEANU: If I were not fighting,
I’d be travelling the world —
maybe as a photographer or videographer.
Pictures by Syazana Rose Razman and courtesy of One Championshi