Coming into his fight opposite former title challenger Wilson Reis in December’s UFC Fight Night 142 card in Adelaide, Australia, the promotion’s 12th-ranked flyweight knew he was walking on eggshells. Barely a month before “Ben 10” marched into the Octagon for the 7th time, the Ultimate Fighting Championship had “traded” the division’s most successful and recognizable figure in Demetrious Johnson to One Championship, and the organization seemed intent on shuttering the division -- handing out pink slips to veterans and prospects alike.
Nguyen, who was signed by the UFC in 2015 after footage of his 25-second KO of Julian Wallace went viral and had put together a 4-2 record with the promotion in the succeeding three years, found himself checking Reddit every morning leading up to the fight for news about the weight class he’d been climbing. After losing a gutsy decision to Reis, his worst fears actualized.
“My manager Jason House, he got it out of them [that I had been released],” Nguyen said, speaking to Sherdog.com about his departure from the promotion. “It felt like the UFC were panicking. They just panicked -- ‘Oh we need to cut a bunch of fighters, flyweights aren’t making us money. So we just need to find any excuse to get rid of them.’
“It just felt like it was random,” he continued. “Some people got cut after losing, other guys didn’t get cut after losing. Elias Garcia [who fought Kai Kara-France at the same event] was going into the fight on a loss [from July], so logically he should have been the first guy to cut. There are a few other flyweights that haven’t been cut yet. Like Alex Perez, who just lost to Joseph Benavidez. I just don’t know what kind of logic they’re following to make the decisions to cut people. It just felt like it was really random.”
The 30-year old, who leaves with a 4-3 UFC record, three finishes and a 49-second submission victory over former title contender Tim Elliott, has fond memories of his tenure under the UFC banner, though he was frustrated that they didn’t at least honor the last fight on his contract -- or allow him to jump up to bantamweight.
“I wish I got my third chance” he said, admitting that the fact that the division may be staying after its champion Henry Cejudo’s stunning 32-second KO victory over bantamweight kingpin TJ Dillashaw is also the source of some vexation. “Usually they cut you after three losses; they cut me after two. I felt like I was giving them a lot of entertaining fights. I’m an entertaining fighter. I like to punch people. I just thought they would have kept me on.
“I told the UFC I would move up to 135 pounds,” he continued. “I’m a big flyweight, have fought at that weight many times. [The UFC] told us they had to let us go -- there was no explanation to why they wouldn’t let me move up.”
Nguyen felt somewhat lost in the aftermath of his release, but an IM from heavyweight fighter Mark Hunt -- who also parted ways with the UFC after a decision loss to Justin Willis -- inviting him to compete in the E-Fighting League’s inaugural gaming event in the United Kingdom provided a welcome distraction.
“The [premise of] the league is having celebrities play video games,” he explained. “It was myself and Mark playing against one other in Mortal Kombat, NASCAR, Super Smash Brothers, this game Brawlhalla and a few others. I ended up on top, I won three out of five. It was a lot of fun to get over there, get my mind off everything. It was a lot of fun.”
Following the EFL event, which Nguyen’s life revolved around for a number of weeks as he helped the organisers set up, he stopped off in Tokyo for Rizin FF’s New Years Eve show to watch his teammate Damien Brown compete. It’s a night that left an impression on the Integrated MMA representative.
“It was really cool to be there live for the New Years event” he said of the experience. “I used to watch Dream’s [December 31st] events back in the day. They would do like a K-1 Dynamite kind of thing. To be there live was awesome. The production is amazing. The walkouts are just unreal. They have those giant LCD screens. Every fighter coming out is like its own show. It gets you so pumped up. When you’re there live, you feel the energy of everyone.”
Asked whether that’s a promotion he would be interested in signing with, Nguyen responds enthusiastically. “100 percent.” he said. “We’re talking to a few promotions: Rizin, One [Championship] and one of the bare knuckle shows…It’s hard to choose which one is my preference. It’s always been my dream since I was a kid to fight in Japan. Ever since I started MMA, I wanted to make it in the Japanese scene.”
As far as a free agent market goes, Nguyen isn’t complaining, characterizing his removal from the UFC as a “blessing in disguise” that would allow him to fulfil some career ambitions unlikely to be accommodated under the UFC banner -- including a fight with Demetrious Johnson, one of the greatest fighters to ever compete in MMA.
“You have [Kyoji] Horiguchi on one side,” Nguyen elaborated. “He’s killing it, on a steam roll. And then you have ‘DJ’ the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, in One. They’re both on this side of the globe. I think to fight either one of them would be a huge achievement. It’s like climbing Mount Everest, fighting the best. [The other thing] is I could hypothetically fight one of them straight away, or after one fight. That would be huge.
“I’d also love to fight in Vietnam” he continued. “I know One is going to Vietnam in September. I’m Vietnamese, I’d love to fight in front of my home country crowd. That would be amazing.”
Johnson, Horiguchi and some new frontiers on which to throw hands may be Nguyen’s immediate focus as he searches for a new home, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t keeping tabs on his old haunt. He watched Henry Cejudo blast through T.J. Dillashaw in the first defense of his flyweight title on the UFC’s inaugural event on the ESPN+ streaming platform last weekend, and he was more than impressed with the former Olympian’s performance
“I was really surprised at how hard and fast Cejudo came out” he said. “He came out guns blazing. He threw that body kick as hard as he could. Then that right hand over the top nailed him. I was really surprised that he could actually hit Dillashaw. Dillashaw has that head movement and footwork which makes him really elusive. Man, you see time and time again, every time Cejudo steps into the Octagon he looks so much better. Props to him for taking out the bantamweight champ.
“I can’t wait to see the rematch” he added enthusiastically. “You know it’s going to happen. At bantamweight I would think.”
When asked whether he’d consider returning to the UFC -- as a late replacement for one of the bantamweight or flyweight fights at UFC 234, in Nguyen’s adopted country of Australia, for example -- he paused before answering.
“That would be a very tough decision,” he said. “I don’t know. I think I’d say yes to it. Being in the UFC was awesome. Everyone knows what the UFC is. Everyone from back home. You tell someone you fight in Rizin, people say ‘What’s that? Is that a game show or something?’”
“But [Rizin] is becoming more and more popular” he continued. “And the spotlights are now on the flyweights. I’m kind of glad I’m going that new direction… but it’s a hard decision. I would definitely have to weigh up everything [if that choice materialised], and I’d need a guarantee they wouldn’t cut me after one fight.”
One door closes and another opens: that’s how Nguyen characterizes the next phase of his MMA career, lacking regrets or any negative feelings about the journey so far.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said when asked to describe the last few years of his life. “I don’t think I would change anything. I feel like, as many times as I look back on my UFC run and wish I would’ve fought more, at the same time I’m wishing I would have spent more time with family. I feel like I did everything I could, and I’m really proud to continue fighting out of Australia. This is going to be my home for the rest of my life. I’m looking forward to the future.
“Just thanks to my fans,” he added. “Anyone who has ever stuck by me. The people who’ve watched me from the start, when I knocked out the tattooed guy [Justin Wallace] until my last fight in the UFC. Hopefully they keep watching me. I’ve gotten a ton of support lately, it’s been amazing.”
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.