Four years ago, Martin Nguyen was a little over a year into his professional career. In November 2013, he was packed into a car on a three-hour ride to what was set to be his first professional title fight. It was an uncomfortable weight cut for Nguyen as he made the trip from Sydney to Canberra, Australia. However, this was part and parcel with the regional fight scene. A fighter has no other choice but to make it work.
Nguyen was headed into a battle of the undefeateds. He stood across the cage from Luke Standing. It was Nov. 29, 2013, and the BRACE featherweight belt was on the line. So too was the status as Australia’s best featherweight prospect. There were rumors about potential international interest in the outcome of the bout, but both fighters were still so fresh in their respective careers that there were certainly no expectations from either of them.
After some back-and-forth exchanges, Nguyen saw an opening. As Standing pushed forward, Nguyen bore the brunt of his punches and leaned back against the cage before shooting forward. The tide was about to turn.
In what had become a signature of his short career, Nguyen took the action to the mat. Once there, he went to work. Nguyen took the win by technical knockout in the first round. It was another dominant display.
“I won the title. The belt was put around me, and Kya [Pate] got on the mic,” Nguyen told Combat Press. “He had a folder, and I thought he was gonna give me a shout out or something. I didn’t really know what was happening. All I knew was that all my friends and family were there and I just won a title, so it was a good night. Then he offered the [ONE Championship] contract.
“I was gobsmacked, but I felt like it was time. I was undefeated, so I thought this was the time for me to step up. You just can’t keep fighting and protecting your record. Sometimes you’ve gotta step out of the bubble and test yourself, and that’s what I did.”
That’s moment the wheels were set in motion for Nguyen. There was an initial feeling of disbelief, but it was just that — a single passing moment. After the initial shock wore off, he started to see what was ahead of him. However, he never lost sight of what he left behind.
“You’ve just gotta pinch yourself and remind yourself where you came from,” Nguyen admitted. “Fighting on BRACE, there was always a destination of where you want to be and what you want to become. Everyone wants to be a world champion. For me, that was obviously my goal too — and I wanted to be on the world stage and I wanted to be a world champion — but what set me differently from everybody else was that I had a plan and, you know what, that plan played out.
“I still remember that fight, and after that I had two Australian featherweight title fights lined up. I didn’t even know at that time that winning that title would win me a contract. As soon as I got that contract, I looked at the [ONE Championship] roster. I was the one being fed to their superstars, and I was just telling myself that I’ve gotta take these guys out, and, as soon as I take these guys out, I’ll be in their position and I’ll be climbing the ranks.
“Sure enough, my second fight in and I’m fighting for a world title on 48 hours’ notice. And that’s what put my name on the board — for stepping up against a world champion and just throwing myself in there and testing myself. Yeah, I lost that fight, but I took in more on the emotional side of that fight. I learnt so much about myself and what my body could handle and I used it as motivation to be where I wanted to be, and that’s what got me to where I am now.”
It’s not an uncommon narrative in the world of combat sports: a highly touted fighter still holds down a job between training, fighting and promotional commitments. As a fighter soars toward what is, for most fighters, the often unattainable heights of world-championship status, that’s when there can come a time for the “tools” to be put down for the final time.
“Up until I won my second title, I was still working full-time,” Nguyen revealed. “I was training twice a day and working those 10-hour shifts about a month after [the title fight]. I was still doing that until I got a call from Chatri [Sityodtong, ONE Championship CEO] himself and they put me on a nice salary where I don’t have to worry about working and can spend more time with my family.
“It was just like a sigh of relief. Someone had just pretty much told me that I don’t have to wake up early anymore — even though I still do; it’s natural for my body now. I get up and go train and then come home and get the kids ready for school. It felt weird at the start, but it was a big relief to not have to stress my body and stress my mind just to make that dollar. I mean, it got me two world titles, so it’s not like it was a big hassle going to work. I don’t mind going to work — t’s like brain training for me with all the numbers that I deal with and the day-to-day stuff — but it’s a big thing for me, because I’m now able to spend more time with my family, and that’s the one thing that I’d been lacking throughout my fight career.”
This was a far cry for Nguyen from when he started his career traveling for hours in a car after a hard week of work just to fight for a few dollars and some experience. Hitting the road a day before stepping into the cage most definitely pales in comparison to his newfound fight commute to the cage, which now involves stepping on a plane and getting to explore the world.
“Going overseas to fight, I treat it like a mini holiday,” Nguyen said. “Whenever I go over, I travel around everywhere and I make the most out of the country that I visit. I’m not one of those fighters that just sits in the hotel room and watches movies. I’m already missing my kids, so I’m trying to spend as much time doing something so my day goes faster. I get homesick. The first couple of times I went over for ONE Championship, I was so homesick and I just wasn’t me, but we’ve made it a habit for every city that we go to, we go and travel around and we check out the tourist spots, we try their delicacies and we make the most of it all.”
On March 24, Nguyen gets to take another working holiday. Nguyen takes aim at ONE Championship’s bantamweight champion, Bibiano Fernandes, in an attempt to further make history by becoming a triple titleholder with the company. Fernandes, who is undefeated inside the ONE Championship cage, boasts nine victories for the promotion and hasn’t lost a fight since 2010. Fernandes is set to be by far the biggest test of Nguyen’s short career.
“Bibiano is an absolute legend in this sport,” Nguyen said. “He’s been around. He’s put in his time, triple to what I have. No matter what, even if we get some grudge going on or whatever, I’m still going to respect him for the amount of time he has put into this sport. With the amount of time that I’ve put into this sport already and I know how hard it is, he’s done that triple. I can’t really compare myself to him in terms of experience, but I know that he’s the next one in line and I know that I only want to test myself against the best and at the moment he’s that guy on top of the mountain. And what better way to test my skills than against a legend?”
It’s easy for a champion to get lost in the idea of what happens next, akin to Conor McGregor, who won two world championship titles and never actually defended either of them. Nguyen, however, has it all mapped out. He has every intention to not only make history, but also to defend his claim to fame.
“I already have a plan for this,” said Nguyen. “I plan on winning this title. Straight away, as soon as I win this title — depending on how I feel after fight night and whether I’m injured or not — if I’m not injured and I’m unscathed, I will be defending the belt straight away, because I’ll be at weight already. Then, I’ll move up to featherweight and defend that [belt] and then I’ll move up to lightweight for the end-of-year bash.
“It’s all planned. I already have opponents in my head who I think ONE Championship will be putting me up against, so I’m also getting myself ready for their particular styles and their type of game. I’ll be observing them throughout year as well, and I’ve got my plan.
“I don’t plan on losing.”