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Sex might sell in women's MMA, but that isn't an option for ONE's Ann Osman

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Ann Osman sees the negative comments. She knows that what she does -- and maybe who she is -- doesn't exactly meet the approval of some around her.

Osman is an MMA fighter, rapidly becoming one of the most popular athletes, regardless of gender, in Asia's ONE Championship. She's also a Muslim woman. Those two don't necessarily go together with regards to the conservative views of the religion. Osman sees it first hand on social media.

"People write, 'Oh she's not a real Muslim, she's not wearing a hijab, she's wearing shorts, she's fighting -- she's not a real Muslim,'" Osman told MMAFighting.com. "It hurts, but I can only shake it off. It doesn't really mean anything to me. As long as I'm happy in doing what I do, that's all that matters."

While UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is appearing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Osman won't even wear a sports bra during weigh-ins before her fight against Walaa Abas at ONE Championship: Age of Champions in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. Even baring midriff publicly in that setting would be considered too risqué in the Muslim country.

And yet, Osman's growth in popularity has been somewhat of a phenomenon. For the first time ever, MMA will be live on broadcast television in Malaysia on Friday because of Osman and fellow Malaysian Peter Davis, who meets Rajinder Singh Meena. Adriano Moraes defends his ONE flyweight title against Asuka Mikami in the main event.

"Ann Osman is the highest covered athlete in terms of media coverage for the entire country, I mean ever," ONE CEO Victor Cui said. "If you really look at it, she's a fighter with three fights under her belt."

Indeed, Osman is just 2-1. She has won two straight since a controversial split decision loss to Sherilyn Lim in her pro debut in 2013. The 28-year-old is coming off a first-round TKO of Aya Saeid Saber last October. That was her first fight in Malaysia and it skyrocketed her popularity.

Yeow Lim Chet, the owner of HIT Fitness and Martial Arts in Kuala Lumpu told Al Jazeera this week that women now make up 40 percent of his clients, which he credits to Osman.

"A lot of them who come here for fitness, first thing they do is [say], 'I saw the fight -- Ann Osman. I want to try it,'" he said. "I think she's very brave, especially when we are from a Muslim country.

"She wants to open up opportunities for other Muslim women."

Osman, who lives in the Borneo region of Malaysia, said she has gotten messages from dozens of women across the country telling her she inspires them. This is not something that a woman who just picked up Muay Thai for fitness and owns her own business expected.

"It kind of dawned on me made and me realize that what I'm doing actually helps people and what I'm doing actually changes people's lives," Osman said. "It just makes me more motivated to be even better."

Women's MMA carved out a niche long ago in Japan, where all-female fighting promotions have existed for more than a decade. But in more conservative Southeast Asia (ONE is based in Singapore), women's fighting is still extremely new. Cui is cautiously optimistic about its development and doesn't see it growing quickly to the heights that Rousey has taken it in the U.S.

"I don't think immediately," Cui said. "Not right now. It's still in its early days. The talent pool is still quite limited. And there's also different religious and social conservatisms that are around women fighting as well."

ONE, though, is committed to women's MMA. There is another female fight on Age of Champions and the promotion continues to sign new talent from across Asia and the Middle East.

Osman has been the driving force and when ONE introduces a women's flyweight or strawweight title in the future (she has fought at both), she wants a crack at it.

"Right now my focus is on getting that belt," she said. "When they develop the female division and it warrants them to have that world title, then I'm there. I'll be there to fight for the title. At the moment, that is my ultimate goal."

Becoming a sex symbol or even a major drawing card is not necessarily something Osman wants. There's no doubt that her looks have caused her to achieve some of the attention -- she has been billed as "beautiful" and "gorgeous" in Asian publications -- but Osman has a firm stance on what she'll allow in terms of coverage.

"That's not really what I want," Osman said of being referred to as that. "But I understand the media has different angles to market their magazines and papers. If that's what they want to write, that's what they're going to write. For me, doing photo shoots is my way of cooperating with the media. If I felt like it was out of line, then I would say no. If I think it's OK, I go with it. It's not something I feel obliged to do."

That doesn't means she's judging someone like Rousey, whom she looks up to as an idol.

"I don't think it's something that they have to do, but if they want to do it, then it's fine with me," Osman said of swimsuit shoots and the like. "I don't see anything wrong for them to do it. For myself, I'm really just focused on other stuff. That's not something I feel I need to do in order to market myself."

In many ways, Osman's rise to stardom is the one Cui envisioned when he founded ONE in 2011.

"Asia is dying for Asian athletes and Asian heroes," he said. "There's so few Asian heroes and Asian athletes for people to cheer for here in the region. When guys and girls like Ann Osman get showcased, they really are a powerful inspiration and everybody rallies around them."

To some surprise, the response to Osman has been mostly positive despite the religious taboos. Not that it matters to her.

"To me, my relationship with God is personal and doesn't have anything to do with other people," Osman said. "I'm pretty confident in what I do. As long as my family gives their blessing, that's all that matters to me. They're the most important. I really am focused on what I'm doing and it's something I really want to do and achieve. I don't see it as a problem. I don't really care what people think."