One Championship featherweight titleholder Martin Nguyen has become one of the faces of the Singapore-based promotion over the last five years, and his journey to this point in his career has been filled with surprising twists and turns. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen, 30, grew up in the “Aussie life.” His parents escaped a war-torn nation and chose to start a family in Australia -- a country with a welcoming nature to those from abroad.
“I wasn’t bullied or discriminated against for being Asian,” Nguyen told Sherdog.com. “I was raised as an Australian kid.”
Though he once dreamed of stardom on the rugby pitch, his small size and recurrent shoulder injuries forced him to look in other directions. Nguyen accompanied a neighbor to a taekwondo school that also offered Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. He was instantly hooked, later incorporated striking and ultimately made the transition to mixed martial arts. “The Situ-Asian” made his pro debut in July 2012 and joined the One Championship roster as a 3-0 prospect a little more than two years later.
Nguyen finished five of his first six opponents under the One Championship roster, a submission loss to eventual featherweight champion Marat Gafurov his only misstep. Two years later, he avenged the setback, knocked out Gafurov and captured One Championship gold. The victory catapulted Nguyen into an ambitious two-fight run in which he attempted to become a three-division champion.
“The motivation at the time was based off opportunity,” Nguyen said.
After he dethroned Gafurov, he was healthy but lighter than expected. A move to bantamweight seemed possible, and since there was not a clear No. 1 contender waiting for him at featherweight, he saw a unique chance in front of him.
“I was like, ‘You know what? Before defending the title, why don’t I fight the champion of the bantamweight division?’” Nguyen said. “I planted the seed, [and] let the media blow it up and do what they wanted to do with it.”
Two weeks after suggesting the idea, his plan bore fruit. However, One Championship did not offer him a fight with bantamweight titleholder Bibiano Fernandes. Instead, it sought to pair him with lightweight champion Eduard Folayang.
“I was like, ‘Hold on a minute. This is the opposite of where I want to go,’” he said with a laugh. “‘I wanted to go down, [and] they’re making me go up.’”
Complicating matters, Nguyen considered Folayang a friend. He was unsure about the proposed matchup -- until the two men engaged in conversation. Nguyen’s competitive fires were stoked when Folayang was much more open to the idea of a fight than he expected.
“In my head,” Nguyen said, “I realized that after talking to him, he knew he wanted to take this fight because he thought I was an easy fight being the smaller guy.”
He challenged Folayang in the One Championship “Legends of the World” main event on Nov. 10, 2017 and knocked out the Filipino standout to become the promotion’s first two-division titleholder. The victory backed the organization into a corner and forced it to give Nguyen the opportunity for which he originally campaigned: a shot at Fernandes.
“It was hard for One Championship to deny me the bantamweight title, because that was what I was asking for,” he said, “and that’s how the champ-champ-champ status came up.”
Nguyen lost a five-round split decision to Fernandes -- he later relinquished his lightweight title due to injury -- but believes he would have defeated the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt if the changes he has since made had been set in motion sooner.
“Thinking back,” Nguyen said, “if I had switched camps before that fight, I would have won that title.”
The switch to which he refers involved moving his training camp from KMA Top Team in Sydney to Hard Knocks 365 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The decision was not an easy one to make. Nguyen admits he grows homesick when he has to be away from his family for longer than a few days. However, he knew change was necessary, as he felt he had begun to stagnate in the gym.
“When I fought Bibiano, then I fought Christian [Lee] and [Kevin] Belingon, I personally noticed there was no change,” he said. “I was still the same fighter. Everyone around me was getting better, and I was going nowhere.”
The urging of his wife helped ease Nguyen’s fears about the move, along with the help of fellow two-division champion Aung La N Sang and his family. Sang resides in Florida and trains at Hard Knocks 365.
“Aung La was here at the time, and we were all having our family dinners and days out together,” Nguyen said. “My wife knew that having Aung La and [his wife] Katie around would make me feel like I’m at home. It took my wife to tell me to go. It took courage for her to take on a father and mother role and tell me to ‘Get out of the house, get out of your comfort zone and evolve, because everyone is evolving and you’re not.’”
It did not take Nguyen long to settle in at Hard Knocks 365 and realize he had made the right decision, especially after he started working with trainer Henri Hooft. He claims Hooft has instilled a level of confidence in him that he had never felt previously, basing their connection around support and keeping everything basic.
“Working with Henri, it’s simple,” Nguyen said. “There’s no scientific s---. There’s no, ‘You need to do this and do this before you can throw this.’ No, it’s keeping it simple, throwing your ones and your twos, keeping your punches strong, your guard up, and that’s it. He builds confidence in you. I’ve never gotten this confidence from a head coach before. I wouldn’t ask for anything else now.”
Initial returns have been promising. Nguyen retained his featherweight title at One Championship “Roots of Honor” on April 12, when he knocked out Narantungalag Jadambaa with a flying knee. Early in the second round, he landed a low kick that crippled Jadambaa and forced him to retreat backward on one leg. Several punches and another low kick were followed by the fight-ending blow. The fact that low kicks led to Jadambaa’s undoing was somewhat surprising, given that they were not emphasized from a tactical standpoint.
“To be honest, we weren’t even looking for it,” Nguyen said. “The leg kicks were there, but the leg kicks were there as a distraction to [then] attack the body. My game plan going into that fight with Jadambaa was to tire him out and then knock him out. That was it.”
What comes next for Nguyen remains to be seen. Is a bout with new lightweight champion Shinya Aoki a possibility? Nguyen claims that was planned for the promotion’s “A New Era” event in March before he was sidelined by injury. Could a rematch with Fernandes be on the horizon? Nguyen does not have either man on his radar for 2019. Instead, he wants to run through a series of new contenders at 145 pounds and cement his legacy as the greatest One Championship featherweight of all-time.
“For the rest of this year, I just want to defend my legacy, and that’s defending the featherweight title,” Nguyen said. “I want to take out this whole division first before I call anyone out.”