HE’S the undisputed, but relative unknown, champion of the world.
His face is on billboards across Asia and he has thousands of adoring fans.
Yet back home, Martin Nguyen is virtually unrecognisable.
A man with championship belts in two divisions – a feat achieved by only a select few in the world of martial arts, such as
UFC megastars Conor McGregor and Georges St Pierre – Nguyen can stroll down the streets of Liverpool in Sydney’s west and virtually not be acknowledged.
But Nguyen couldn’t care less.
In fact, he prefers anonymity.
“In a way, it works out better for me,” Nguyen said, as he prepares to defend his featherweight belt against local hope Christian Lee at One Championship Unstoppable Dreams in Singapore on Friday night.
“I don’t want to be known as the actual world champion… a lot of people judge, especially back home.
“It’s good that no-one knows who I am. I can do my own thing and not be judge for it.
“There’s people who know me back home and they say ‘that’s the fighter’ and it’s still seen as barbaric. So in terms of the fans, I’m not too fussed.
“They’ll eventually know more about me and the journey I’m on.
“I’m not in this for the fame.”
Like Nguyen’s career, which has already garnered 10 wins, two losses and life-changing lightweight and featherweight belts, One Championship is also on the upward trajectory in terms of world dominance.
CHALLENGE: ‘ONE Championship will swallow UFC’
And Nguyen knows that one day, as he plots to become the first man in One Championship history to own three-divisional straps, he will earn the credit he deserves.
“If the day comes, it comes,” a humble Nguyen said, relaxed on the third floor of the Mercure Hotel in Singapore.
“There’s no advantages or disadvantages. I’m no better than anyone else I’m just a hard-working person.”
Born and raised in Bankstown to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen is your typical knockabout lad from the suburbs.
Rugby league was his sport of choice as a youngster, plying his trade as a six-year-old.
The kids next door – rugby league fanatics and diehard St George supporters – would toss the ball around in the back yard, making it an enticing proposition for Nguyen.
Soon he was part of the fun, and not even 12 months later, he was in the thick of the action.
“My neighbours asked my mum, “when are you going to let him come and play?” Nguyen recalled.
“Then it went from tossing the ball around to playing competitively. My first team was the Liverpool Catholic Club in the under-8s and I played their for a year, then it merged to Liverpool City.”
An emerging talent, Nguyen was soon making waves for Western Suburbs in senior rugby.
A dashing halfback and captain of his club side, Nguyen was a respected athlete, but only “half decent” by his own humble standards.
In the early part of his career, the athletic Nguyen was cut down by injury.
The list was long; sprained knees, broken and jarred fingers and thumbs and rolled ankles.
But the most devastating injury was a dislocated shoulder, a problem he still deals with to this day.
“That was what made me hang up the boots,” Nguyen said.
“I was playing at school, and we’d play at recess and lunchtime and there was supposed to be no tackling or anything, but with boys at an all-boys school there was a little ego and testosterone and we started playing tackle.
“One of my good friends was running the ball, and he was a big guy compared to what I was, so I thought I’d tackle him low and when I did I popped my shoulder out.
“It popped straight back in but it was excruciating pain. I went the whole day with it, but that afternoon I went to catch a ball and the hooker through the ball high and it popped out again.
“I’d go to sleep and I’d wake up in agony. It would just pop out in my sleep.
“I saw a specialist when I was in Year 12 and he said ‘you need a reconstruction’ and I said ‘I’m not having surgery’, so I decided to hang the boots up.”
As part of rehab, Nguyen hit the gym to “pump the weights”.
That lasted about 12 months before he was introduced to Fari Salievski’s KMA black belt school in Liverpool.
Salievski is one of the best in the business.
Teaching since 1982, Salievski is regarded as the No.1 coach in Asia.
A martial arts master, he boasts an amazing team that comprises Nguyen, three-time Australian champion Theo Christakos, UFC veteran Brian Ebersole and a host of others.
According to Nguyen, the inspiration to walk into the doors at KMA was the booming UFC brand and its hero Royce Gracie.
“Royce was tapping everyone out,” reflected Nguyen.
“My neighbour was training taekwondo at KMA and he said ‘we’re going jiu jitsu, you should come and try it out.
“At the time I was umming and arring and I didn’t know if I’d go. In the end I thought ‘I’ll go. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Nguyen arrived at the George St gym to a rude awakening.
“I was in tracksuit pants and everyone was in a Gi,” Nguyen said.
“I had socks and shoes on and I walked upstairs and said ‘I want to train’ and Fari said ‘we’re about to start’.
“I was like ‘what are these guys wearing’. We got into training and I gassed out straight away. I didn’t even know what an armbar was and I was like ‘there you go’.
“It was something very new to me, but I felt very welcome.”
Salievski described his newest addition as a “virgin in martial arts” but immediately took him under his wing.
“He pushed himself harder than most because of his competitive nature,” said Salievski, who Nguyen refers to as “Sir”.
“It’s the kind of style that humbles you, but for him to come back to training, he was really challenged. He was after a challenge and he found it.”
With a grounding in BJJ, amateur fighting soon became on Nguyen’s radar.
Members of the gym were “punching on out the back” and he wanted in.
“I was telling Sir ‘I want to be in there’,” Nguyen said.
“He told me ‘just train hard and I’ll let you know when’.
“I started kickboxing classes and wherever they went I tried to join in. One day I got invited to the back and I got belted so hard.
“I thought ‘I don’t think I’m going to come back tomorrow’.”
Nguyen remembers it like it was yesterday.
Pulling his head gear on and biting into his mouth guard, he climbed between the ropes to spar with Nihad Hrnjic.
A student of Salievski, Hrnjic was “hard as nails” and tipped the scales at 90kgs.
Nguyen, ringing wet, was less than 85kg.
“He was a beast,” Nguyen said.
“He just keep jabbing me and my head was bouncing off his glove.
“I didn’t even land a punch. I was hitting air more than body.
“I only had that one round and I was finished. I thought ‘this is way out of my comfort zone.
“I went home and I thought ‘is this for me?’”
Months later he took part in a Royce Gracie jiu jitsu tournament, where he won three fights.
With his hand raised, Nguyen suddenly had a thirst for the sport.
His initiation was C Grade MMA, where the competitors wore pads and head gear.
Nguyen had four fights, for four victories, and entered another amateur tournament.
Qualifying for the welterweight final, he was lined up against fearsome American boxer Maurice Llewellyn, who had been “knocking everyone out”.
Sitting on his stool in the corner, Salievski barked orders: “First chance you get I want you to tackle him. Put him on the ground, I don’t want him to hit you,” Salievski said.
“Martin put him on the ground and it was over”.
Nguyen added: “I had him in an armbar and I heard three cracks. I was reefing his arm and extending and it was cracking, cracking, cracking.
“But he literally wasn’t tapping. The fight went into the second round and he took me down. I reversed it and got a second armbar and he tapped.”
Nguyen’s cage debut followed, meeting Ryan McGuire at the St Mary’s Band Club in Sydney’s west.
Kitted out and with his hands wrapped, Nguyen was in for a major disappointment.
“The promoter came in and said: ‘Martin, you’re not fighting tonight’,” Nguyen recalled.
“My opponent didn’t get his bloods done, so they cancelled my fight and I had family and everyone there for my debut.”
A week later, Nguyen was rematched against McGuire at welterweight on a different promotion.
The bout didn’t last long, with Nguyen unleashing a vicious ground and pound to finish his opponent inside the first round.
Six days later Nguyen was back in the ring, fighting in Fearless 3 in Blacktown at lightweight.
Gunning for the finish, Nguyen dislocated his right shoulder but he managed to put it back in to later claim victory via rear-naked choke.
With nine-straight amateur wins under his belt, the major local promotions were beginning to take notice.
Nguyen stepped onto the Brace canvas as a 21-year-old, defeating Aussie Richard Kemp-Hay.
A win followed against Australian Thomas Ruderman, which Salievski described as “the making” of Nguyen as a professional fighter.
“That was the fight that changed Martin Nguyen,” Salievski said.
“That guy was tapping everyone out. He was a whiz on the ground and he was choking everyone out.
“Even the promoter said ‘why are you putting Martin in this fight? Are you sure you want to put him in there?
“In the end, it was the most violent fight. In fact, Martin ended his career.
“He has never fought since.”
Nguyen conquered fellow New South Welshman James Mullarkey in a grudge match, setting up a title shot at Brace.
Nguyen defeated Luke Standing via KO in the first round, subsequently opening the door to One Championship.
He penned the contract in December of 2013, but didn’t make his debut until November the following year.
The reason? A pimple on his chest.
It developed into a nasty infection, forcing Nguyen to undergo surgery.
Just a week after receiving a number of stitches, the wound opened up in training, forcing him back to hospital.
“I went home, jumped out of the car and it opened up again,” Nguyen said, shaking his head.
“So I went back to hospital and they stitched it up and I had to pull out of my fight (with Bruno Pucci at One FC 16).
“I had a D cup on one side and an A cup on the other and it was completely filled with puss. It was a bad staph infection and that’s why I covered my chest.”
A tattoo masks most of the damage, but the pain and suffering is visible.
“It was ugly,” Nguyen admitted.
Eventually he made his long-awaited appearance against Filippino Rocky Batolbatol, winning the featherweight bout via submission.
The remainder of Nguyen’s career is well documented.
He lost to Russian Marat Gafurov at One Championship Odyssey of Champions in 2015 before going on a six-fight win streak, claiming the featherweight and lightweight titles along the way.
The first man in One history to hold two-divisional belts, Nguyen came within a whisker of a third strap in March when he suffered a controversial split-decision defeat to Bibiano Fernandes in Thailand.
As Salievski puts it, “one judge got in the way of us creating history”.
Asked how he felt about the loss two months on, Nguyen replied: “I’ve learnt to get over it.
“Look, I didn’t get to enjoy my holiday, it was burning me that much.
“It was that feeling of having something you’ve worked so hard for, taken away.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it. As much as I’ve re-watched the fight, it’s not going to change the result.
“I’ll just get back into training and prove to everyone that I can do it.”
What hurts more is Nguyen is convinced he won the fight.
“Even Bibiano was asking his trainers, ‘did I win the fight?’
“When they announced his name he was so surprised. At the end of the day, history is history but if I had of won by split decision I would definitely give him an immediate rematch to prove I am the champion.”