Known as ‘The Hunter’ as much for his striking prowess as his tough upbringing in the wild parts of Papua New Guinea, has long been one of Australia’s best Mixed Martial Arts fighters. It is hard to find an Aussie MMA fighter who has competed at the highest level more continuously over the last decade than Pang, who is the current CFC lightweight title-holder and one of the stars of Dan Higgins’ Integrated MMA camp in Brisbane. Pang sat down with Blitz writer Chris Postupalski to talk about his history as a martial artist and his future as a fighter.
So Adrian, you’ve recently become a father. How has this changed your outlook on life?
Fatherhood has been great! No matter how hard/bad my day has been it is always better once I see him every night. Also my partner Melina has been a fantastic mother and given me the time to train as normal.
I have heard a lot of fighters (more-so the high earners) say that they fight so their kids don’t have to. Knowing how hard and dedicated you have to be an MMA fighter, would you let your son compete in MMA or would you prefer he take up a much safer sport like tennis or golf?
I would let my son do whatever he wanted to do and he would have my full support. At least I know I would be able to provide him with the opportunities that I never had. It takes a long time to get good pay when you fight professionally so I’m not sure where the “I fight so my kids don’t have to” line comes from. I know there are a lot of fighters who do genuinely struggle but most don’t do it that tough.
Being a Chinese-Papua New Guinean, did that make it harder for you growing up in Papua New Guinea?
No, not at all. There are a lot of PNG-Chinese in Niugini and we got along fine with the natives of our area – the Tolai people. Sure, there were some rough times but usually it was pretty good and most of my close friends are still up there.
I have to ask about your spear scar situated on your right arm. I believe this happened in the jungles of PNG. Can you describe what occurred?
[Laughs] Wouldn’t say the jungles of PNG, as we lived on the coast in east New Britain Province, in a town called Kokopo, which is 30 minutes from Rabaul. When we used to live there, the people would always fight on weekends, so we used to watch Dad and the work boys fighting until we were old enough to do it ourselves. Basically anything goes when it all breaks out – people use machetes, sling shots, spears, rocks, bottles and I mean anything. So during one of the melees, I got hit with a spear across my forearm. Pretty minor compared to what some of my tribal friends have. My brother has a curved slash across his forehead.
Was there any particular reason for the fights, or was it just a tribal tradition?
Like most cultures it was generally alcohol-fueled violence. That is why all the fighting mainly happened on a weekend. When it was tribal fighting it was always between two or more tribes settling scores/paybacks, so unless you were from that tribe or were in the way, you wouldn’t get involved.
You tell that to any Australian, their eyes open up but you seem to just laugh it off.
Yeah, it is just normal up there and we were used to it. Dad taught us to cope and not complain.
Living in PNG must also have had its advantages. You must have enjoyed living close to untouched beaches.
Yeah, we lived right on the beach and not far from a secluded surfing beach. No one has surfboards up there, so we used to use logs or carved timber for body-boards. Dad ended up buying an old surfboard off an airline pilot so that’s how we got our first board.
Who is the better surfer – you or Kyle Noke?
I’d say I’m better due to the fact I’m a lot lighter, whereas Kyle Noke sinks the boards. Many a time, I have had to rescue Mr Noke from the white wash, where he nearly drowned when in a state of panic. He drags me under while trying to save himself! [Laughs]
Do you get media recognition in PNG? What is the general public understanding about the sport?
PNG people love sport, especially contact sports! After every fight I get a main picture and story in the local newspapers, Post Courier and National News. I am very well known up there and when I visit I get a lot of congratulations from the locals, right up to police commissioners and politicians! I love my country Papua New Guinea and they are right behind me.
So a dinner with the PNG Prime Minister isn’t far off?
[Laughs] Yeah, PNG is a great country and support their athletes very well. Would be honoured for dinner with PM should it arise.
Tell us about your move to Australia. How old were you and was it hard to make the transition?
We moved to Australia to attend boarding school. Mum was trying to get a better life for us and worked very hard to keep us here. I was 13 years old, but would still return to PNG every school holidays. So it was only until I had finished school in 1994 that I began to live here permanently. However, I still visit PNG regularly and my father, James Pang is still up there.
Your first official martial arts style was Southern Tong Long Chow family kung fu. How old were you and what made you start training kung fu?
I started training kung fu properly whilst still attending high school. I actually decided to do martial arts seriously, when I lost my first fight at school. I had always wanted to do Chinese Kung Fu but was hard to find good, authentic kung fu.
You traveled to Hong Kong to train with your Sifu; can you tell how that was?
Sifu Paul Brennan took a few of us to Hong Kong to train and live with the Grandmaster Ip Shui. We lived there in Kowloon City and trained on the rooftops, as well as training at the old school in Mongkok. There were some hard men over there and it was interesting to hear the rival stories between kung fu schools. The training was awesome but only made me realise how tough my Sifu was, to bear all the hardship and punishment it took to get where he was. Was great to see the respect he had there among the kung fu people.
If MMA is teaching us something, it’s that just about any move from any martial art can be used successfully in the cage, if it’s used at the right time. Can you talk about this and how you incorporate kung fu into your fights?
Any martial art is good if used correctly. It also depends a lot on the practitioner. As Bruce Lee said, use what is useful! What may work for one, may not work for the other. The more experienced I get, I try to incorporate more kung fu style striking into my practice and fights; however, when I first started, as in anything, I had to empty my cup and learn/correct a lot of things in myself.
Let’s talk about your first fight. At the time, you were only training submission grappling for a few weeks and you lost via a triangle choke. The fight was on a kickboxing card, and had the whole crowd on its feet by the end. What memories do you have from that fight and how were the nerves leading up to the fight?
That was a memorable experience. Probably my hardest fight ever [Laughs]. I had never been in a ring and never competed in full contact sport under a set of rules. I remember being in a Thai clinch and I didn’t know what on earth was going on. I guess the rawness of the fight is what made people so hyped by it. Perhaps if for that fight, I would not be here today as it made me decide to go and learn BJJ/MMA properly.
I have also read in a past interview that you used to sneak BJJ sessions in between your kung fu classes. Were you sneaking out to better yourself as a fighter, or was your ultimate goal straight away MMA?
Yes, I used to train BJJ with Darren McKean and the classes he had were the same nights as kung fu. As I have always been a loyal student I would finish class then drive to over 30 minutes to BJJ and get in the last 20 minutes of class. I have always loved to fight so knew that the ground game was a neglected part of many martial arts training. Always wanted to do MMA and Darren McKean was very helpful towards helping me achieve that goal.
At that time, the general public (who had not seen Gracie tear through the opposition in the UFC) was still very uneducated about grappling. I hear that a former boxer actually challenged you while you were in a gym having BJJ sessions?
No, it was in a boxing gym, sparring some teammates at Brendale, when I was challenged. This guy just jumped straight in the ring and put on a pair of MMA gloves, grinning ear to ear. He was laughing at the thought of all the damage he was going to do with those little gloves on. Cutting a long story short, minutes later he was slammed to the floor and his arm was hyper extended to a sickening degree. Next day I got in trouble by the gym owner for breaking the new boxing coach Spike Cheney’s arm. I was unaware of how good a boxer he was and that he was the last Aussie boxer to win a medal at the Olympics! We became good friends after that and had a mutual respect for each other. Had a few good challenges in that gym.