Martin Nguyen may still be relatively unknown among western MMA fans and he may have started his martial arts journey at the relatively late age of 21 years-old but his rise to MMA glory is much akin to a true underdog story.
Born in Australia to Vietnamese immigrants, Martin Nguyen grew up playing rugby but was forced to quit after suffering multiple injuries. However, such adversity paved the way for MMA greatness. After winning a title with Australian fighting promotion BRACE, Martin Nguyen signed with One Championship and is currently the promotion’s featherweight Champion as well as their first ever two-division champion, having defeated Eduard Folayang for the lightweight title back in 2017.
Martin Nguyen recently sat down with KFK for an exclusive interview covering his incredible MMA journey, including his rise to stardom, training, potential title defense against the talented fast, hard-hitter Thanh Le, and much more!
Hi Martin, first off, it’s great to connect with you, and I hope you’re doing well? Welcome to Kung-Fu Kingdom!
Thank you, yeah I’m well!
Great! Our mission is to inspire 100 million people across the world to get into martial arts, your thoughts?
Man, I think that’s an awesome mission! Martial arts can benefit a lot of people in different ways, you know? But the way it benefited me is that it instilled a lot of core values like discipline and respect. I was a bit of a rebellious teenager, it was what it was. Now I thank God that I started martial arts because I wouldn’t be where I am without it.
Alright, now let’s start off with a few basics, when and where were you born?
I was born on March 5, 1989, in Sydney, Australia.
What is your height and weight?
My height is 173cm, (5’8”-ish), and my weight right now is 71kg (156lbs).
Thanks. So, back in the day you played rugby, but had to quit due to injuries, what made you decide that you were going to pursue martial arts specifically, instead of other sports?
Quitting Rugby…Finding Jiu-Jitsu
Yes, you’re right. I did have to hang up the boots due to injury. I was getting constant dislocations in my shoulder, rolling of the ankles, and my fingers were jarred. It just came to a head when I got married, I was 86kg, (or 180 or 190-ish lbs). I started jiu-jitsu to lose some weight. I never intended to fight at all. I’ve always watched the UFC, but it wasn’t an intention of mine to get into the cage or the circle or the ring. It just happened to be that I put my head down in training. The weight was coming off fast, and I took that one step to the next.
Competition Confidence & Training in Muay Thai
Got it. What made you eventually decide that you were going to compete in MMA?
So I started off with jiu-jitsu. I was training for about a year, and I thought “You know what? I wanna test myself in tournaments.” I was coming out victorious in tournaments. So I started Muay Thai. I started kickboxing, and MMA was blooming. The guys in the gym were fighting constantly, regularly. I was like “Man, I was training with these guys! They were coming off with big wins.” So I tried a tournament. I fought at 77kg. I did a tournament again and fought at 75kg. It was four fights per tournament, and I came out victorious in both competitions.
I was like “You know what? This is the next step, to get into the cage just to feel like what the real fighters feel like, so this is what I need to do.” So I took that step and I never looked back.
I see, so back then, how long did you train before you got your first amateur bout and what was your training regime like?
It was the same, up until 2018. I would just finish work, go straight to training, and go straight back home. Before I turned professional, I started training more in the mornings regularly, like morning runs, morning sessions. Prepare for work. I would have 10-hour days at work. Straight after work, I’d get straight into my uniform for whatever I was training that night, go straight to the gym and train. Now, I get the luxury of training full-time, spending more time with my family. Not only that, I also get to focus on the specifics of the sport.
That’s ideal. You’d won a title with BRACE in Australia before you signed with One Championship. What interesting highlights can you recall from that, and how did the fight go for you?
For starters, BRACE was the biggest promotion in Australia at that time. I remember the American guy I fought was meant to fight for the title, he was on a four-fight winning streak and was meant to fight the titleholder at the time. That fight fell through, and the titleholder had to vacate the title. So we fought for the vacant title.
My opponent was a huge prospect, a top boxer with a legit ground game. So for me, to go in taking this fight on a 2-fight win streak, I was the underdog, but, man, I didn’t really care. It was my first title, I wanted to take it with both hands. It was 5, 5-minute rounds, and I trained my heart out for it.
I was still training at amateur level, but still had the hunger to grab that title. I went in there, in his crowd, feeling as though in enemy territory, (even though we’re both from the same city) so I just did my thing. I ground-and-pounded him in the first round to take home the title. The winner of that bout got offered the contract with One Championship, and that literally changed my life.
Signing up with One Championship & the Loss of His Father
Incisive insights, thanks for sharing. At the time you signed up with One Championship, I believe your father passed away, sorry to hear that. How did you manage to bounce back from that tragedy and continue on with your MMA career?
It was hard, man. When I won the BRACE title, I brought it back to my dad. He was more focused on my safety and said, “You won a title, you can quit now. You proved that you’re the best.” I said “No, this is only the start. I get to fight all over Asia.” And at that time, it was like everything just went so fast.
No Parent wants to See their Kid get Punched in the Face!
One moment, he was taking photos with my BRACE belt. The next moment, we’re putting him into the ground. It was hard, but I’m sure he supported me. He was just being a parent. He didn’t want any of his kids to get hurt. No parent would like to see their kids getting punched in the face and all that drama. So my dad was being a parent at the time. I was being a naïve kid with an ambition and goal I wanted to reach, and that goal was unlimited. It was infinite and I didn’t actually know where to stop.
A lot of people ask me if I had a choice for my son, would I make him fight? I say “Hell no!” The fight game’s an ugly game, but if he really wanted to do it, I would 100% support him no matter what. If I had a choice of making him do it, I wouldn’t do it. You’ll meet some negative people throughout the journey, but I guess that molds you into the person you are today.
In Defeat & in Victory: Vs Marat “Cobra” Gufurov
Totally understand that. Let’s move on to some of your fight highlights. What are some interesting stories you could relate about your championship fight with Marat “Cobra” Gafurov – how did you prepare differently for the rematch (which you won in 2017) as compared to when you first fought (and lost to) him for the interim title in 2015?
For the fight against Gafurov, I was supposed to fight Bashir Ahmad. We knew Bashir would come out strong. I was a good wrestler. I was good on the ground. I was a ground fighter that liked to ground-and-pound the majority of my opponents, and Bashir was my next victim. Then 48 hours before the event, I got a phone call to come down and have a meeting.
I was told that Marat was missing his opponent. The champion, Jadambaa at the time, couldn’t get into the country and I was like, “Okay, you scratch my back and I scratch your back.” (Ed. Marat was originally scheduled to fight Jadambaa Narantungalag from Mongolia for the featherweight title at the time).
It was that type of situation, but with my mindset back then, I was never going to decline a title fight. I wanted to see where I was in my career and what I needed to work on, and Marat made me pay the ultimate price. I took Marat down, which was the plan for Bashir, and ultimately, I got submitted (with a Rear-Naked Choke). It is what it is. By the time of my second fight, Marat was the G.O.A.T and he’d won the title against Jadambaa.
Taking Out Marat’s Ground Game for the Win
I watched Marat’s career closely up until the day I had my rematch with him. We solely focused on where the eggs in his basket were. He put all of his eggs in his jiu-jitsu. All I had to really focus on was expending his jiu-jitsu, and the moment I did that, he couldn’t submit me at all, as you saw in the first round. He came out very reckless and tired, and ultimately, this time he paid the price.
On Fighting Eduard Folayang
Definitely a huge and strategic comeback. After that, you moved up to lightweight to fight Eduard Folayang (in 2017) -quite a formidable Filipino opponent- to win the lightweight title. What interesting stories can you relate about your fight against Folayang?
Well, the week after I beat Marat, we had a week’s break, and we came back to training the second week. We got an email from the officials at One Championship, and they said “Okay, we know you want to fight for the second title, so you have a matchup with Folayang and you’re moving up in weight.”
The Dilemma of Fighting a Friend…
I was thinking about Folayang. I mean we spent some time together in LA, and I consider him a friend. So hearing the story about where he came from, I thought, never in a million years, would I want to fight a friend and take everything they worked for, or for them to take everything I’ve worked for. It’s just one of those things you don’t do as an act of mutual respect.
So I was like (to Folayang), “Sorry, I didn’t want to fight you, but this is what’s being offered. What do you think about it?” And he was said, “We’re martial artists at the end of the day, and if we have to fight, we have to fight.” So, in my head, I thought “He is a martial artist. Our friendship means nothing. I’m just another opponent to him.” So I signed the contract, he signed the contract, and the fight was on.
Sounds like a tricky spot to be in, but it’s also understandable – after all, this is the fight game and it’s also business. After your lightweight bout, you fought for the bantamweight title twice and defended the featherweight title 3 times. Who do you consider to be your most challenging opponent?
On Fighting Koyomi Matsushima & Jadambaa Narantungalag
My most challenging opponent was my last bout against Koyomi Matsushima – a very, very talented fighter. His record speaks for itself, his fighting style speaks for itself. He’s very elusive. It’s very hard to adapt to his fighting style. It took me almost a round and a half to do that. Usually, I adapt straight away in the first round, but Koyomi is just one of those fighters to who you can’t adapt to so quickly.
He was so fast, moving in and out. You had to fight with precaution, and it took me a while to get his pace. Also my fight with Jadambaa – Jadambaa was like a wrecking ball, so we had to evade the wrecking ball and be the wrecking ball.
Moving to Hard Knocks 365 Combat Gym in Florida
I see. Definitely some solid challengers there. Let’s talk about training. After your fight with Kevin Belingon, you moved to Hard Knocks 365 in Florida. What made you decide to make the move, and what was training in Florida as compared to training back home in Australia?
So, after the Belingon fight, my coach and I sat down. We were watching my fights, and what I noticed, (not to say that it was bad or anything but) for me as a champion and martial artist, I considered my performances from the Bibiano fight to the Christian Lee fight to the Belingon fight -done within a span of 3 ½ months- to be pretty stale or the same. So I felt like I was not getting any better. I was the same fighter in all 3 bouts, the most important fights of my career, and it took me losing twice and almost losing to a split decision, to realize “Man, what the hell’s going on here? It’s the same fight!”
It was the first time in my career when all of those three fights went to decision. It was something that I wasn’t comfortable with. I mean, obviously, I got injured and was training very hard at times to make a comeback, but I had to sit down and said to my good friend Aung La, and my wife, “We need to change. We need to evolve, because if I fight the way I’m fighting, we’re just gonna be crashing really hard when it comes to me losing.” I had to step out of my comfort zone of training with my family at home to separate the two. So, that’s when I made the decision to go to Florida, purely for training.
On the Hotly Anticipated Fight vs Thanh Le
Definitely understand the move. Now there has been talk of you fighting Thanh Le next. How do you view Thanh Le as an opponent and have you actually been preparing for your potential bout against him? How do you expect the fight to turn out?
The bout with Thanh Le was scheduled to take place back in April. Until borders open and everything gets back to normal, Thanh Le will hopefully still be the opponent I plan on taking on. This bout against him will definitely be fireworks. He’s ultra-talented. He’s fast. He’s been hitting hard in his last fights, but it’s really nothing that I haven’t seen before, so it’s up to me as a martial artist to adapt to his style. I just gotta touch him and he’ll go to sleep. We’ll see what happens when we come face-to-face.
A Day in the Life of Martin Nguyen
Very keen to see this. Okay, can you walk us through a day in the life of Martin Nguyen?
Well, as of right now, I wake up. It’s school time for my kids. I have my wife prepare them, and I drop them off. It’s one of those things I never take for granted anymore. I spend a day with my wife. Throughout the day, I’ll get a deep session with my coach in the morning. As of now, we’re only training once a day. We get a big session in during the day. After that, I pick up my kids. It’s more of a chillax pre-camp.
When I’m in Florida, we wake up at 7 or 8am and do team training. After that we go home, eat and sleep. Then we then go out for our second session. Then we’ll come back, rest, play card games. So that’s fight camp.
Martin’s Training before & during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Can we get into the specifics of your martial-arts training before and during the pandemic?
Sure. Before the pandemic I was training for the bout against Thanh Le. I had pretty brutal sessions. We were killing it with two training sessions a day. I signed the contract. I was super-excited. The training was intense. Then the pandemic came about and everything was shutting down. Countries were in panic mode. Borders were shutting down, and no one could go in or out. It was insane.
I had to make the decision to go home to my family before Australia closed its borders, otherwise I’d potentially not be able to go home because there were no flights going in and out. While I was being quarantined at home, I was doing my own thing like home workouts. I’ve still been training every single day since coming back from Florida. It just hasn’t been as physically intense as in smashing it with sparring. In a way, it’s like a rested training.
Martin’s Preferred Food Fuel
We can relate. So what is your diet normally like leading up to the fights, and what food helps you stay strong and energetic during training and life?
To be honest, I eat whatever I want. Training sessions are that hard that I burn everything off. When I was in Florida, I could eat burgers, Chick-fil-A and barbecues. I would put my heart in training and lose everything I ate the previous day. For me, foods that help me stay strong would be stuff like rice, noodles, your normal Asian food. Aung La’s wife, Katie, cooks at home, and she cooks super-healthy meals as well. So we eat clean, but we could eat anything we want because we burn everything in our training sessions.
Martin’s Advice on Dealing with Life’s Challenges
I see. Similar thing with me when I was training in Thailand. What advice would you give to people who are trying to rebound from a tragedy or any unfortunate life-changing event like how you managed with the loss of your father?
If anyone finds themselves in a bad time in their lives, they’ve got to think about the positives. Sometimes people will think there’s never a positive to come out of a negative situation, but there is. When one door closes, another one opens. You’ve just got to look at the bigger picture. Your life might not get better, but it’s still better with memories than shutting off the whole world and not creating new memories. Either way there are decisions that still need to be made.
Losing my dad was the most difficult time. Now I have to close that door, open a new door and restart. Think about the positives and good vibes only.
Martin’s Advice on Pursuing an MMA Career
Wise words. Now, what advice would you give someone looking to pursue an MMA career?
If you’re pursuing MMA as a career, put your mind into just doing MMA, the main thing I’ll tell you is to stay disciplined, stay true. It’s going to be a rocky road, and you’re going to need real people around you to tell you, “Okay you’re not doing this or that right.” You might think you’re doing something right, but you’re not. You need that second set of eyes to tell you and mentor you, but you gotta stay true to yourself. So, never change who you are, and also stay disciplined.
Fun & Leisure
On to the entertainment side, are you into martial arts movies?
To be honest, I’m not martial-arts crazy. I mean, I do martial arts, but I’m not that crazy to watch movies. I’ve watched a few growing up, and I’ve watched kickboxing fights. I don’t really get to watch movies, but when I do, I normally pick comedies.
Like Jackie Chan films?
Yes, like “Rush Hour”, that’s funny, that’s my type of movie! Also, something with a storyline. That’s what gets me interested, but if it’s just guys fighting constantly, then I’ll get bored. I mean, there’s gotta be a storyline, otherwise, why are they doing it?
True. What are your hobbies outside of martial arts?
I like to hang out with my family and my training mates, play games and ride my bike.
I see, what’s a geeky or interesting thing about you that most people don’t know about?
Umm, I’m not sure. I’m pretty much a secluded guy. I like to keep back and chill with my family. I’m not the type of guy that goes out and misses close people, family and occasions. I’ll go out and see everybody, but for me, hanging out and going out is like hanging out to eat. We like to socialize over food.
Cool. Now if you could be a superhero, who would you want to be and what superpower would you most like to have?
Probably Superman and to be able to fly! If I could choose a superpower, I would like to go back in time…
Nice. What’s a warrior-wisdom piece of philosophy that’s helped you become who you are today?
I always go by the words, “Stay true to yourself no matter what.”
Martin’s Message to KFK Followers & Fans
Good one. What special message would you like to share with Kung-Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
Stay close to your true ones, hug them tight because you never know when you’ll see them again. Also, if you’re pursuing a mixed martial arts career or anything in your life, just stay true to yourself. Stay disciplined. Take the right steps, don’t take shortcuts because shortcuts will lead you nowhere in life.
Memorable, because simple. Thanks Martin, for sharing your martial-arts story. It’s been an honor and real pleasure to talk with you and we wish you all the best of success with your upcoming fights.
Thanks man, thank you so much Jeff!