Unknown here, superstar over there
Macau and Hong Kong. Kuala Lumpur. Singapore.
If you’ve passed by hotels and shopping centres in the middle of these major cities, you might have seen my face on a billboard; massive video billboards promoting my next ONE Championship fight and my journey as a martial artist.
You see yourself up there on that screen and think, ‘Wow, that’s crazy!’
When I go over to Asia, I hate to say but every 10-20 metres I get stopped and people want a photo. Over there, I’m Martin ‘The Situ-Asian’ Nguyen. I’m the first man ever to hold two ONE Championship belts (featherweight and lightweight) and I’m about to fight for a historic third (interim bantamweight).
It will be my third fight in Manila. I love it there, the Filipinos are educated fans. Against an explosive local fighter in Kevin Belingon, it will be huge – 15,000 at the venue, many more watching on TV. And my title unification fight would be even bigger: a rematch with legend Bibiano Fernandes, trying to avenge a devastating loss.
Yet back in Australia … nothing. No one knows me here in my own country. I’m just another bloke on the street, while going about my business of being a world champion.
I love it. Unknown, unbothered. I can be myself: a family man, a husband, a dad of three.
I keep telling my kids that dad’s not famous. They tell me I am, because I’m on YouTube!
FOOTY, MMA & DAD
I only started taking MMA seriously at 22. Before that, I played rugby league. I was a halfback and my favourite player, as a Brisbane Broncos fan, was Darren Lockyer.
I played Harold Matthews for the Western Suburbs Magpies, played school footy, played Oz Tag. I just loved any type of footy. I played with some guys you’ve seen in the NRL: Chris Lawrence, Tony Williams, Simon Dwyer, Chase Stanley, lots of others.
While mum and dad didn’t want to see their child get hurt, they didn’t mind rugby league as it kept me out of trouble. They followed the sport, took me to training and games, every grand final they were there.
Eventually, as guys kept getting bigger, I had to stop playing due to injury. For two years straight from age 16, I kept on dislocating my shoulder. The pain is horrible. Your whole arm goes numb.
I lived and breathed rugby league but it was over after the time that I woke up during the night and yet again, my shoulder was dislocated.
I went to a specialist, who recommended a shoulder reconstruction. I was scared about how my parents would react to the news I needed surgery.
So, I committed to self-rehab but that meant hanging up the boots, giving up what I loved. I was just 18. But now, it’s been over a decade since my shoulder popped out, with no surgery.
No one knows me here in my own country. I’m just another bloke on the street, while going about my business of being a world champion.
In keeping with their protective parenting mentality, mum and dad didn’t really support me going into mixed martial arts a few years later.
I began training with the gym I’m still at, KMA Top Team in Liverpool, first focusing on Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling, then adding striking. Less than two years after my amateur MMA debut, at age 24, I became Australian pro featherweight champion in the BRACE promotion.
I showed my parents the belt and my dad, Francisco, was proud, happy and excited.
But he was telling me, ‘Now that you’ve become the Australian champion, you can quit!’
I was like, ‘Nah – I’ve got a contract to fight out of Asia now with ONE Championship! I want to take this as far as I can.’
Just a few weeks later, dad passed away at age 55. I was heartbroken.
He had been unwell; a bone marrow transplant, then a flu that became pneumonia. He was in Melbourne trying to recover and I flew to see him when things began to happen quickly.
I did not get to speak to him again. There is so much more that I wish I could have said to him. He was not just my father but my inspiration.
Sharing that belt was the last thing we did together. When I won the ONE featherweight title last year, the only thing I wanted to do when I got home was take it to him.
Before I enter the cage, I bend down, say my prayers … and talk to dad. I know he’s watching over me.
The only thing I wanted to do once I got home. I hope your proud dad. Now that the dust is settling there are a heap of people I want to thank. First and foremost my wife @brooke_nguyen for always having my back and being the backbone to this small family we have. The fight camp coaches and KMA TOP TEAM – coach and mentor Master Fari @kmamartialarts , striking coach @chryslerdecastro and ground coach Bernardo @ribeirojiujitsusydney without you guys this mind and body would never be as prepared and ready for war. All my sponsors @faca_aus fighters against child abuse Australia, century martial art supplies, @flexalliedhealth , @badboybrands , @pwrmeals and @saigonsportsclub – thank you all for the support. Thank you to @onechampionship and the staff there. Absolutely professional every single time and it such an honour to be fighting for this company and finally my opponent Marat Gafurov who was the main inspiration to making me work twice as hard during training session to get me to this level. Who knows there might possibly be a rubber match in the future. Also thank you everyone who has sent me message and have called to congratulate me, you guys rock!! Best fans ever #teamsituasian !!! @onechampionship #onefc #onechampionship #kmatopteam #teamaustralia #teamvietnam #andnew #featherweight #champion #worldchampion
MY FAMILY, MY LIFE
My parents were farmers, then normal city people living in Vietnam. They escaped the country when a lot of Vietnamese people did, after the war ended.
The journey was to Malaysia by boat, then to Indonesia. They were held in relocation camps in both countries. Finally, they were accepted into Australia, settling in western Sydney in 1984.
We grew up in a big Vietnamese community at Liverpool. There were a lot of people I called uncles and aunties, even though they weren’t actual relatives. That’s an Asian thing. We respected and supported each other.
For mum and dad, life in Australia was all about working hard and supporting the family, which grew to four kids. We got by, not the richest or poorest, but my parents didn’t get to enjoy life. Dad laboured with tilers and carpenters to put food on the table.
Dad was my inspiration to work hard, having watched how he struggled without complaint to provide for his family. That inspiration only grew when I visited his homeland just before turning 18, seeing where and what we had come from.
Before I enter the cage, I bend down, say my prayers … and talk to dad. I know he’s watching over me.
I only went full-time into martial arts training at the start of this year. Before that, I was still working full-time supporting my family, first as a mechanic, then in the office as an advisor and workshop manager.
It’s only been this year that I’ve been comfortable enough to train full-time. It’s been such a relief to have more time to commit to my passion – plus the extra time for rest.
We live out of the city now, at Camden. That’s me, my wife Brooke, my kids Kai, Tiarna and Madison, plus our dog Harley. I travel back to Liverpool for training. I don’t mind.
I get to be private, low-key at home. I love that. I hate to say it but so many people judge. People start talking. Especially in Australia and the Vietnamese community. Tall poppy syndrome is a real thing.
The fame doesn’t get to me overseas. And the lack of recognition in Australia so far, I’m OK with it.
I was speaking to former UFC fighter Richie Vaculik the other day and he was angry that I’m not one of those MMA guys that people talk up. But I don’t care, man.
I want to build my legacy and when people say my name, they know what I’ve done. It’s about marking my place in mixed martial arts, so that what I have achieved is always there.
UFC & ONE: MY VIEW
A lot of UFC fighters have moved towards kind of a WWE-style promotion of their fights. That’s fine – unless they can’t back up their trash-talk.
ONE Championship is different.
Asia has a deep, ancient history with martial arts and ONE Championship has stayed true to those roots. It’s about exemplifying what martial arts are truly about: discipline, honour and respect.
Yes, people want to see a fight. But it’s how we represent ourselves outside the cage as well that makes us true martial artists.
In ONE Championship, fighters are taking pictures with each other, shaking each other’s hands. They’re hanging out with each other. It’s like, come fight day, this guy’s going to be the one punching me in the head but outside of that, we’re friendly.
I hang out with my opponents, I don’t care. I ask them about life, how they’re going. It’s not a martial arts thing to hate somebody because you’re fighting them. Hate is a big word for me. You don’t know the bloke – how can you hate someone you don’t know?
I get to be private, low-key at home. I love that. I hate to say it but so many people judge.
And the audience numbers on TV and social media don’t lie. In Asia, ONE Championship is enormous – the largest sports media property on the continent. From where ONE Championship started back in 2011 to where it is now, it’s absolutely crazy how far we’ve come.
Having said that, a lot of fighters dream of fighting in the UFC, though I am thankful to be a part of ONE. The standard of the two promotions is drawing closer. And one of our own has reached the top in the UFC, doing it the right way.
Robert Whittaker is a legend, man. A role model, an inspiration with how he goes about himself and his business.
He doesn’t talk shit. He fights with incredible heart. His family comes first. In the gym, no one treats him any different because he’s a world champion. That’s how I feel things should be done.
I still do all my fight camps in Western Sydney, with KMA Top Team. We have the best fight preparation resources in Australia, minus the egos you get overseas. Plus, I don’t get homesick. I prepare best when I’m happy.
NOTHING LIKE CONOR MCGREGOR
I still respect Conor McGregor as a fighter but I’ve lost respect for him as a man.
Two things he’s done have disgusted me.
Conor first lost my respect when he attacked fellow UFC champion Rafael dos Anjos’ wife and family in a press conference. I’m not a fan of that. Kids and family have got nothing to do with it. Attacking them was disgraceful. Attack your opponent – you’re promoting a fight.
And he crossed the line by attacking a bus filled with other martial artists at UFC 223. He injured fellow fighters by throwing that metal trolley at the window. He could have ended someone’s career.
The fame and everything is getting to Conor. Before he had all this money and all this fame, he was a true martial artist. He was putting people out in devastating fashion and being humble about it.
But his recent actions, it’s not the right way of going about things. It gives our sport a bad name. This is what critics of MMA thrive on. When they see that type of thuggery from Conor McGregor, who a lot of people look up to, they get to be judgmental and claim they were right.
It’s how we represent ourselves outside the cage as well that makes us true martial artists.
Conor has always talked it up but he’s backed it up, too. In Australian terms, he was like another Anthony Mundine; talked trash but could really fight, always put his money where his mouth was, put his fists behind his words.
It’s like McGregor is all about making headlines now and it’s just the wrong way of doing it.
Conor and I have both held featherweight and lightweight belts at the same time. But he never held three, as I could. And I actually defended my featherweight title. I plan to defend my lightweight strap at the end of this year.
If I do eventually cross paths with Conor, it would only be an honour to fight him. Inside that cage, he’s still an absolute beast.
But as a martial artist outside the cage, he’s not someone I look up to.
A true martial artist has discipline. Honour. Respect. Humility.
I have strived to follow these principles every day. They have been the foundation of martial arts since long before I was here and will remain long after I am gone.
To have the discipline to master my craft every day in the gym and to provide for my family.
To fight with honour and in doing so, to honour my father’s name.
To respect my opponents in and out of the cage and to respect the fans of our sport.
To be humble in victory or defeat and to always aspire to be better.
I look forward to seeing where this path leads next.