The Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory is located in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. Founded by AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias Mansor and Emily Barner, it began in 2008 as a small team of fighters training at a variety of locations around town (like a team of gypsies!), to opening doors to a small fitness & martial arts training studio in 2013. Currently, a variety of fitness classes, martial arts training, personal and group training, a kids program and self-defence seminars are offered to the public. The Borneo Tribal Squad also continues to train and as well as manage the team of amateur and professional fighters which includes Ann ‘Athena’ Osman, who is currently one of the most recognized faces in Asian and Female MMA, having defeated a world boxing champion and having been featured by media including Time Magazine and Al Jazeera.
AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias Mansor
AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias Mansor is a passionate athlete and coach hailing from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. He was a rugby player, wrestler & silat champion all at the Malaysian National Level, a professional Muay Thai fighter, currently a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) Purple Belt and he was one of the earliest Malaysian’s on the MMA helping to develop the sport as well as be the first MMA fight in Malaysia. He has medaled in a variety of sports including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and wrestling. He was the first East Malaysian ONE Championship Pro- MMA fighter and is now also the 1st ONE Championship Malaysian Featherweight MMA Champion.
A former school teacher, AJ turned national athlete while studying Sports Science at UM. He is well known for his Personal Training and Strength & Conditioning programs. Several international professional fighters and athletes have come to train and prepare for competitions under him.
AJ founded and is the head coach for the Borneo Tribal Squad in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, which is a team of young, developing fighters with a diverse background in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Silat & Boxing. Athletes on the Borneo Tribal Squad include Ann Osman, who has become one of Asia’s most recognized fighters in MMA and attracted the attention of Time Magazine, Al Jazeera and more.
AJ proudly represents his nation and is always striving to be a better athlete, fighter, coach. He emphasizes the importance of giving back and following winning his ONE Championship Featherweight National Title, he donated his prize purse to the Typhoon survivors in Tacloban, Philippines, and only days after his fight, he went to the severely destroyed town to volunteer his help. This earned him Recognition from the Philippines’ Government.
AJis always training, learning and competing to stay on top – he lives, eats and breathes what he believes in and lives to help others be their absolute best and healthiest selves!
Emily Barner is originally from Canada. She graduated with an International Masters of Business Administration (IMBA) from the University of Ottawa. Her work with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa as a Trade Policy Analyst originally brought her to Malaysia in 1998 where she was appointed the Executive Director of the Malaysia Canada Business Council in Kuala Lumpur.
In 2004, she joined Warisan Global Sdn Bhd/StartupMalaysia.org, in Kuala Lumpur where she has helped conceptualize and execute Corporate Social Responsibility programs as well as help the organization to develop initiatives to help inspire, create and connect entrepreneurs across Malaysia to a global eco-system. This includes being a part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week as the Malaysia Country Host which includes a myriad of programs for young entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs, technopreneurs, disabled entrepreneurs, rural entrepreneurs and cleantech entrepreneurs. Emily has helped to take Malaysians globally for the CleanTech Open, she had helped to conceptualize and connect a community of women entrepreneurs in Malaysia and has spent much of her time working with youth, especially university students nationwide, inspiring them to be more innovative and enterprising as well as running programs for them to become social entrepreneurs. She has been working on Startup Weekend Programs in Malaysia since 2010 and became a Startup Weekend Facilitator in 2011. In 2013 Emily worked on a variety of initiatives with the Social Enterprise Alliance, a regional NGO based out of Kuala Lumpur.
Emily has herself ventured into entrepreneurship/startup world, setting-up and managing The Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory – which includes both a gym with a variety of fitness programs as well as a team of professional and amateur mixed martial arts athletes (MMA Fighters).
Through her involvement in the world of Asian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Emily is now also Manager for several professional athletes including OneFC National Featherweight MMA Champion AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias Mansor, and OneFC’s 1st Malaysian Female Professional MMA Fighter Ann ‘Athena’ Osman who has been featured by media including Time magazine, The New York Times, Fox Sports and Al Jazeera. Emily is proud to be one of the few and earliest females involved in the growth and development of the sport of MMA in the region and hopes to be able to help inspire and empower more people, especially females to obtain higher levels in the sport!
Tell us about Borneo Tribal Squad.
The Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory based out of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah emphasizes fitness and healthy living as a lifestyle.
The Borneo Tribal Squad offers a wide variety of training programs for fitness, fun, weight loss, as well as for those who wish to compete, including Silat, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Boxing, Specialized Strength & Conditioning, and more.
The Borneo Tribal Squad also houses a team of amateur & professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athletes. Founded in 2008 by AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias Mansor, an international Professional MMA fighter and National Featherweight Champion in ONE Championship who is originally from Sabah, the team has been growing and gaining significant notoriety around the region and in the world of Asian MMA.
The Borneo Tribal Squad is also home to Ann ‘Athena’ Osman, the first Malaysian Female Professional MMA fighter in ONE Championship who has also been featured by TIME Magazine as a next generation leader, Al Jazeera has done a documentary on her, as well as many more international media.
The team of both male and female athletes have a diverse background in Muay Thai, BJJ, Wrestling, Boxing & Silat. Always training hard and striving to learn and stay on top of their games, the BTS athletes have been entering a variety of competitions around the region. The team is active both in sports & the community.
How did you come up with the idea of Borneo Tribal Squad?
AJ has always been an active athlete, trainer and coach. This is what he lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes. It just became a natural progression happening rather organically. AJ was always travelling to train and compete, and he was also coaching some fighters here in KK. There were a lot of the business and admin side that he needed help with – contracts, proposals, logos, designs, logistics, etc and having a corporate background this was all very natural for me to help with. We ended up developing the team and its branding together, and eventually opening up our own gym!
As for the Borneo Tribal Squad the brand, we wanted something that really represented AJ and where his is from. With both of us travelling a lot internationally, Borneo was perfect as everyone has heard of ‘Borneo’ and it evokes very exotic tribal, headhunting images to both foreigners and Malaysians. We thought this was a perfect fit for our MMA team of fighters/athletes and have built up our brand and reputation from there.
Could you walk us through the process of starting up Borneo Tribal Squad?
The Borneo Tribal Squad has actually existed since 2008 and we were more like a team of gypsies, training anywhere we could – at gyms, tennis and squash courts, parks, etc – everywhere was our dojo! We were doing both personal training, classes at gyms and training the team.
In 2013, we really felt we needed a home for our team so we opened up The Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory in Lintas Square, Kota Kinabalu. Here we offer classes (including Silat, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Wrestling, Muay Thai, Boxing, MMA, Body Fit, Yoga, Pilates), personal and group training, special programs including ‘Super Kids’, Self-Defense, and of course Fighters’ Training!
We kept the startup process very simple and quick. Basically we put our own money in to start up – no loans or venture capital. This also gave us a lot of freedom to do things how we wanted. We found a place to open up, registered our business, renovated, and opened our doors! We really worked on a shoestring but focused on the quality of the services we are offering.
Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?
For us, the hardest part was probably finding where to locate the Borneo Tribal Squad! We were fortunate that starting up was relatively easy and we really did it on surprisingly small budget. Our priority was taking action to open up the gym and continuously develop and improve it as we go. We really are learning everyday – both about our industry and running our own business!
How have you been developing Borneo Tribal Squad since startup?
We have kept things simple in terms of opening up. We are a very humble studio where we have been focusing on having a solid foundation of training, coaching and affiliations – such as our Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) affiliation under Q23-American Top Team and Professor Adam Kayoom, who is Malaysia’s first BJJ Black Belt and an incredibly well rounded and respected martial artist worldwide. This in turn will help develop everyone here in KK, without them having to travel far or spend lots of money to improve as athletes.
In developing the Borneo Tribal Squad team, we have expanded to managing athletes professionally, helping with their contracts, sponsors, media so they can focus on their training.
We aim to provide world class training in KK, so that athletes do not have to travel elsewhere to prepare for their fights. Also, KK is a perfect place for fighters to come and train – it’s a perfect location well situated in South East Asia, with the sea, nature, mountians and peace and quiet to focus on their training!
What kind of feedback did you get for the Borneo Tribal Squad so far?
It`s been very encouraging – the public comes to the gym to train and stay healthy; we are seeing our fighters perform very well in competitions at all levels; fighters from overseas come to The Borneo Tribal Squad for their training camps in preparation for their professional fights, as well as fighters/people coming for their holiday training. We also get requests from companies for both self-defense and fitness seminars.
We are fortunate that the media has been very receptive to our team, as this along with word-of-mouth are the most invaluable promotions we could ever have and we truly appreciate this.
Do you face a lot of competition in this industry?
There is certainly more and more competition as MMA has becoming more mainstream, however, this also means more and more people want to come into gyms like ours for fitness as well as to become competitive fighters. And while it means there are more gyms and teams popping up everywhere, there are also more competitions and competitors to help everyone level-up and become better fighters here!
Most gyms tend to focus or be specialized in only one martial art or training program, while at the Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory, we offer more well-rounded training programs – a greater variety of martial arts training, plus fitness and diet programs, Super Kids, Self-Defense, Personal training and even fun outdoor training!
We feel fortunate that by offering a greater variety of training, our team and trainers gain a solid well-rounded knowledge and experience in all the aspects important to MMA including muay thai, wrestling, boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu , Silat, MMA, even yoga, pilates and fitness/diet programs!
By promoting our gym, ensuring our team is out competing and staying active and in seeing results in our members, we are delivering solid fitness and fighter training, we always work at staying competitive and recognized in the industry.
Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?
We are in both the fitness and martial arts/MMA industries.
Fitness is definitely a growing industry as people are becoming more and more aware at how important good health is. You see more and more people subscribing to gyms, signing up for boot camps, entering marathons and taking active vacations now.
MMA is becoming more and more mainstream. It used to be perceived as a blood sport, but now people are understanding and recognizing how athletic and strategic the sport is and it is becoming widely accepted. People want to sign up for sports like Muay Thai, BJJ and MMA purely for fitness and fun, not necessarily just to be a fighter nowadays!
At Borneo Tribal Squad, we combine both for some incredible fitness programs!
At the same time we are working on developing world class, well-rounded MMA fighters and have been seeing more and more competitions and promotions coming up in Asia, as well as the world. So MMA is definitely growing and we are excited at the opportunities opening up for our team!
Insights on the industries are that as they are growing, interest is growing. So while we may see more competitors around us, there are also more opportunities and people who want to be involved. In running your own business, you just have to recognize that you cannot be complacent and always learn, evolve, promote and make sure people know you are there for them!
What is the future of the industry?
MMA and the fitness industry in South East Asia is definitely getting bigger. We see more gyms opening up, more fighters emerging, more activities, merchandise, TV programs, media, etc – everything around fitness and MMA are growing!
To stay relevant, we always have to be learning and developing ourselves as well.
We are making sure we are always developing and providing quality programs and merchandise at the Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory. We bring in quality coaches and have world class affiliations, for instance our Brazialian Jiu Jitsu Affiliation under Professor Adam Kayoom and Q23/American Top Team.
Our international network is important and we are always working on expanding this network to bring in coaches, to send our athletes out to competitions, and to offer training camps for international athletes here at the Borneo Tribal Squad. We are always thinking, ‘What next?’
Were there anything that disappointed you initially?
Nothing has disappointed us so far. We certainly hit speed bumps in business all the time, and when it is your own business, it’s you own ‘baby’, so sometimes it is easy to take the struggles and issues very personally. But we are always looking at the bigger picture to move forward whenever we are faced with a challenge. We always strive to offer quality training and fitness programs and grow the team and business. We are realistic, some days will be easy and awesome, while other days we will question why we ever started up our own business – however, we usually face those challenges head on, it’s the fighter in us, I think it makes us stronger not only in the gym but as business people as well!
What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia??
I think being an entrepreneur anywhere is challenging. While it is one of the toughest things we have ever done, it is also the most rewarding. Waking up every day and being absolutely passionate about what we are doing and how we are helping people is an absolute blessing.
What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?
Wherever you are Asia, North America, Europe, all entrepreneurs face challenges – it is how resourceful, adaptable and hungry you are that determines your success!
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
AJ was already busy as a personal trainer, a professional athlete and coach, it was just a natural progression to combine all of this under our own business and to continue to grow it from there. Now we are still doing training, while managing and developing athletes as well.
In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?
Being tenacious, resourceful, adaptable, patient, self-motivated are all critical as an entrepreneur. Also, having mentors is so important – you are not alone and not expected to know everything, so having people you respect in business and in the industry that you can talk to makes a huge difference with your progress.
Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?
Waking up every day and doing what you love, being in full control of our decisions and growth and seeing people’s lives change for the better is success to us!
Gratitude for being able to operate the Borneo Tribal Squad as a couple,that is success!
The reality in running your own business is that you sometimes question why you gave up a salary, security, often simplicity to risk starting up your own business – and that risk never disappears, even when things are going very well, you are still fully responsible for the well-being of the business. I always read business articles wondering why I never hear about the struggles, long hours, and how failure can actually help you improve. We only read about the success and glamour and wonder where we fit into it all. So this is why it is important to decide on what success means to us as the individual business owners, and right now the struggle is real, but so is the fire to keep growing and the passion in what we are doing – success is not an end goal, success is something we strive to achieve every day – seeing our athletes perform well in competitions, seeing our members achieve their weight loss goals, seeing people wear our branded tshirts, seeing our numbers increase, introducing new programs…these are all successes thus far – and we are still in our very early stages!
Just always remember why you started up and to not focus on the destination, but enjoy the journey and all the speed bumps along the way!
Facebook: Borneo Tribal Squad MMA & Fitness Factory
Facebook: AJ ‘Pyro’ Lias
Instagram: AJ Pyro
Instagram: Emily Barner
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