Sometimes, it’s the casual athletes that can make the biggest impacts when they go all-in on the game. In fact, the hobbyists arguably have a higher knowledge than those that are pros from the get-go.
Former ONE Championship lightweight and featherweight champion Martin Nguyen has not always been a fighter. That’s not say that he wasn’t athletic, but his life has not always revolved around combat sports.
“I grew up playing rugby league,” Nguyen told Combat Press. “I grew up playing that for 10 years of my life until I hung up the boots, because I wasn’t growing. I was always tiniest guy on the field, and, you know, the guys were 16 to 17 years old, and there’s islanders that like were bigger. I was like, man, I can’t tackle these guys. Like, every single time I do attempt to tackle, it was like a dislocated shoulder or something broke. I just decided to give it up.
“I had my first son and got married and got fat. I had a friend who was training martial arts, and we were watching a UFC, where it was B.J. Penn versus Matt Hughes. He had just submitted Matt Hughes, and I was like, ‘You know what? That’s pretty cool.’ I thought BJ Penn was like the GOAT back then. And, then, in comes Georges [St-Pierre], and he derails B.J. Penn and I was like, ‘This is really fascinating.’ Like guys actually fighting, and how is this legal? My friend was training at a gym at the time, and he told me to come in one day with him. The rest is history.”
The history, however, barely even started when Nguyen started training. In fact, at first, he was really just training jiu-jitsu for fun. He was working full-time and had a family to feed – a family that was not completely in the know. His parents did not approve of his fighting at all. And, his wife, which he married in 2010 and already had a couple kids with, was not entirely thrilled.
My parents disapproved of me fighting for sure. I still think to this day they disapprove, but I’m old enough to make my own decisions. My father passed away, so even the time when I just started my career in MMA, I had just won an Australian featherweight title. I brought it home and showed him. He said, ‘There, alright. You won the title. Now, you can stop. Now, you don’t need to fight no more.’ He wasn’t really like the guy that was into fighting. He just didn’t really understand why I was doing it or whatever. Before he passed away, I had told him that I got a contract to fight for ONE Championship, and it was an opportunity to get paid a bit more money.
“She was the one that told me, ‘If you start fighting, I’m not going to be happy,” Nguyen admitted. “Obviously, I had to do it behind her back. I was doing tournaments, and it was like three to four fights per day, and I was winning these tournaments. I brought the first trophy home, and I was like, ‘I won by competing in jiu-jitsu.’ It said on the trophy, ‘mixed martial arts,’ and she was like, ‘Did you fight?’ I was like, ‘yeah.’ She didn’t like that, and we had a little argument, but I was like, ‘Look, I’m safe, no damage to the face.’”
Nguyen ended up training eight weeks for his next jiu-jitsu tournament, which he told his wife was his last. But, he won that one, and had the bug. He could not stop. Eventually, he moved to MMA, went 8-0 as an amateur, racked up a couple Australian titles, and the he got a ONE contract. It was after his first title that he approached his parents with father with the good news.
“When I just started my career in MMA, I had just won an Australian featherweight title,” Nguyen stated. “I brought it home and showed him. He said, ‘There, alright. You won the title. Now, you can stop. Now, you don’t need to fight no more.’ He wasn’t really like the guy that was into fighting. He just didn’t really understand why I was doing it or whatever. Before he passed away, I had told him that I got a contract to fight for ONE Championship, and it was an opportunity to get paid a bit more money.”
Nguyen’s father passed away of sepsis at only 55 years old. It was a very young age to pass, and one that hit hard. However, today, his mother has a great support system around her. She had family move to Australia from Vietnam to be with her, and she gets a lot of visits from grandkids.
Nguyen’s pro MMA career has been nothing short of spectacular. After going 3-0, he entered ONE Championship in Nov. 2014. He would go on to earn a 5-1 record in the promotion before taking the featherweight strap from Marat Gafurov in Aug. 2017. He followed that up by taking the lightweight strap against Eduard Folyang only three months later to become a two-division champ.
After losing one of belt and defending the other in March and May of 2013, respectively, he challenged Kevin Belingon for the interim bantamweight strap. That one did not go his way, so he started to re-think his training. This eventually landed him at what is now known as the Kill Cliff Fight Team.
“Thankfully, Henry Hooft and Aung La Nsang, they invited me over, and Aung opened up his doors to his house for me to stay over for three or four weeks,” explained Nguyen. “And, Henry opened up the doors to the gym and invited me in. Just that brotherhood there and everything that those guys have. You know, these guys live and breathe MMA. And, they do it worse than me. Like they sleep in their cars, and some days, when it comes to food and nutrition, I don’t even eat. This is all to chase the dream of MMA.”
Nguyen started doing six weeks of his camps in Florida, while still living and training at home in Australia. After defending his featherweight strap a couple more times, he eventually faced Thanh Le in Oct. 2020. This one did not go his way, and he ended up getting knocked out in the third round.
“I always say my toughest opponent is my next opponent,” admitted Nguyen. “But, the toughest one was my title loss against Thanh Le.
“The fight against Thanh Le was challenging for me mentally. I just felt like I let my ego get ahead of me. I just kept walking into his shots. I didn’t respect his shots, not one bit. Nine times out of ten, he can close his eyes and throw a shot, and it would land, because I just kept walking forward. He got one good shot, and I was on chicken legs.”
In Sep. 2021, Nguyen dropped another one to Korea’s Kim Jae Woong, before getting back in the win column with a third-round knockout of Kiril Gorobets in March of this year.
“When I lost to Thanh Le, it was more like I felt like I lost, because it was ego’s sake,” said Nguyen. “But, then when I came back and I lost the second time, I was trying to force something and rush something just in order to get that title shot again. I obviously got caught and got knocked out myself.
“This third fight, it was kind of like – I wouldn’t say make or break – it was just kind of to the point where I needed to fight my game. Why am I trying to push something that’s not there and find something that’s not going to happen? I had to let the fight go and go back to what it used to be – wherever the fight went, we just adapted, and we controlled, and we tried to do whatever it takes to get the win.”
On Friday, Spe. 30, Nguyen will be back in action when he faces Ilya Freymanov at ONE on Prime Video 2. Russia’s Freymanov is coming into the bout with a 10-2 record, and will be making his ONE debut on a three-fight winning streak. Nguyen knows all he needs to know about his opponent.
“I know that he’s a kickboxer, and that’s all I need to know – just to be on point,” Nguyen said. “He’s 10-1. It says 10-2, but, apparently, his first loss was an amateur fight. Regardless, if he wants to say that he’s 10-1, he’s 10-1. He’s just another dangerous guy that I have to be on point, and make sure I’m ready for everything he throws or does to me.”
A challenge is nothing that Nguyen would ever back down from. From the rugby team to the MMA gym to the cage, he always appreciates a tough opponent, and that’s what he expects. On Friday night, he also understand fans should expect one thing on his quest to get the crown back.
“I’m exciting to watch,” said the former champ-champ. “I don’t need to sell the fights. My fighting style sells itself.
“I started it as a hobby, and it kind of became something that I was somewhat good at. I got an opportunity to fight under Asia’s largest promotion, ONE Championship. Even in fighting for ONE Championship and competing under ONE Championship, I still had a full-time job. I’m a qualified trade mechanic. Up until I won my second world title as a lightweight to become a two-division champion, I decided that maybe I should put both feet through the door when it comes to training and not halfway all the time. I only became a full-time fighter in 2018, end of 2017. It’s something that I grew fond of doing, and I love doing, and being able to provide for your family at the same time as doing what you love is a blessing.”
ONE on Prime Video 2 airs live in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video starting at 8 p.m. ET. Check below for full results.
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