How Aussie knockout artist Martin Nguyen pulled off two of the year’s biggest MMA upsets to become a a two-weight champion and honor his Asian heritage. (This feature originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Fighters Only; the interview was conducted before Nguyen knocked out Eduard Folayang to win the ONE Championship lightweight crown on November 10.)
In 2017, Australia got its first MMA world champion. And no, we’re not talking about Robert Whittaker. While ‘The Reaper’s interim UFC 185lb title victory against Yoel Romero was staggeringly impressive, Georges St-Pierre might argue about how legitimate his belt is.
There can be no argument about Martin Nguyen’s claim on the ONE Championship featherweight strap. The Vietnamese-Australian emphatically claimed his belt with a stunning victory over the previously-unstoppable, undefeated, undisputed Marat Gafurov.
The Dagestani grappler was 15-0 and mowed through every opponent in Asian promotion. He’d submitted each of his six opponents by rear naked choke, including a 41-second submission of Nguyen when they fought for the interim title two years before. Though he may not have wins over anyone in the UFC’s top 10, he is, without a doubt, an elite competitor.
There was a good reason, you might agree, for the Russian to come into the fight as a huge -675 favorite, but Nguyen didn’t accept that. He’d won each of his four fights since by first-round KO and he was planning to do the same this time, too.
“I had something to prove, but in terms of odds, I don’t look at that, man,” he tells FO. “I just think it’s two guys going into a fight, well-prepared, with plenty of time to prepare so anything can happen. And it did happen.
“With the first fight, I took the fight on a day and a half notice and if the odds came to play there I’d be like, yeah, I’m the biggest underdog. In terms of this one I was like, ‘Am I still the underdog?’ I had a full camp to prepare so I had no excuses.”
He didn’t need any. ‘The Situ-Asian’ caused one of the upsets of the year when a thunderous overhand right put Marat Gafurov down. Cue cries of: “The big kibosh! It’s goodnight Irene!” from iconic Antipodean commentator Michael Schiavello, and the coronation of a new champion.
Winning was far from straightforward, though. The first round was fraught with danger, as Gafurov got the challenger down into his world and threatened with his signature submission. This time, with time to prepare, the 28-year-old from Liverpool, New South Wales, had the skill and patience to escape and implement his game plan.
“That’s a big factor in the fight game,” he says. “You’ve got to think worst-case-scenario. That’s him taking my back and he did it in the first 40 seconds. Once I got put in that position I was like, OK, I’ve been in this position for six weeks in a row. That preparation was more the mental side of it, so I didn’t panic. I was in that position, so I had to get out of it. Eventually it went my way.
“We knew throughout the fight camp and the previous fights he had, the guy comes in with the left kick and he always comes in with the straight jab. That’s how he closes the distance. I’d been training that one punch in a fight camp for [Kazunori] Yokota too. With Marat, we knew he threw lazy kicks, but I don’t think it was a lazy kick. I think he was tired. I landed that punch three or four times prior to the knockout.
“After the first round he was tired, he threw it, the reaction was there, the timing was there and it dropped him and we just followed up on it. I actually felt better landing on Yokota. Marat, he landed an inside leg kick that put me in an awkward position, but the right hand still landed, so it was still good. I’ll take it (laughs).”
Once Nguyen had hammered the coffin nails into his ailing opponent, referee Yuji Shimada stepped in to stop the fight and the new champ jumped up onto the cage to celebrate, emotion took over. As the ONE vice president gave him the belt, he burst into tears and dropped to his knees.
“This one was for my dad,” Nguyen sobbed. “He was the sole inspiration this whole camp. I mentally broke, the boys kept me together and I kept turning back to my dad. This is the one thing I wanted to do in front of his eyes and, unfortunately, he can’t be here today, but I know he’s watching over me.”
Eight weeks of training for 10 rounds – double the championship total – with his team and a number of UFC veterans had pushed him to the limit. It had taken its toll and brought him to his lowest ebb, to the brink of giving up. But thoughts of his late father, and the struggles he’d been through kept him going.
As the Vietnam war struggled on towards its conclusion in the 1970s, Nguyen’s parents decided to flee from South Vietnam. They went through south east Asian refugee camps before arriving in Australia, where he worked as a laborer to build their family.
Shortly after Nguyen won his first title – in the Aussie organization, Brace – his dad died suddenly. From then on, he used his work ethic as inspiration in fights and the most grueling training sessions to honor his dad’s work ethic, and prepare himself to win the title.
“I use my dad’s struggle,” he explains. “Whatever I went through, it can’t be as bad as what they went through. That kind of leveled me out. My family means the most to me. Using our struggles together as motivation to push through to that next level is obviously a huge factor. We just ramped up everything, day in, day out. Mentally, there was stages where I was over it, but family brought me back to where I am now.”
Where he is now is on top of the Asian MMA world, which is a fitting way to pay tribute to his late father. He says he knows he’d be proud, just like his mother – though she’s too scared to watch his fights.
The next goal, along with a defense of the title, is to anchor the first major event in his parents’ homeland. His organization is yet to make its mark in ‘Nam, but with a growing economy and now a champion locals can get behind, it’s a good time to make a splash in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
“Being Asian-based I’d love to put Vietnam on the map. They need a local hero or Vietnamese background and I want to put my native country on the map. We’re trying to crack into the country and I want to be the guy to do it.
“I haven’t been back to Vietnam in almost 10 years. The last time was when I finished high school. Since then I started working and studying as a mechanic and stayed in Australia so I’m long overdue and can’t wait to go back.”
But would that persuade his mum to watch? “She doesn’t like the fact her son has a chance of getting hurt,” Nguyen says. “It’s just a mother’s instinct. I want to bring her back home to be at that event but we’ll see. She’s scared!
“My sisters buy the pay-per-view. They watch every fight up to mine, then they don’t watch it and just listen to the results,” he says with a laugh.
He’d also love to get more recognition in the homeland where he and his wife have raised a boy – an eight-year-old who stays up until the small hours when his eyes are red to watch his dad compete – and two girls. This son of Sydney would love to carve out a niche and cultivate more of a following in Australia, where the UFC has shown what an appetite there is for MMA with some huge shows, adding to a vibrant local scene that’s producing more and more top talent.
“We’ve got an interim world champion, Robert Whittaker, who’s done really well, and we’ve got me. It’s massive. There’s events starting up that are big already and bringing international fighters in. There’s a lot of shows and it’s all growing. You see fighters that are stepping up and ready to go international.
“I don’t have a huge following in Australia, I think I have a bigger following in Asia, but people do follow me. Everyone knows UFC, but I’d love ONE to crack into that market.”
A debut show in the country’s biggest city headlined by the defending champion isn’t too hard to imagine. And that’s yet another thing that would make Martin Nguyen’s family proud.