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ONE of a kind: Martin Nguyen’s startling rise leads to one of MMA’s most dominant champions

One Nation - Pride Of Lions Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Seven months ago, Martin Nguyen was just another name on the ONE Championship roster. Just another fighter trying to carve out a path in the leading Asian mixed martial arts promotion’s 155-pound division.

Last August, Nguyen had a chance to unseat ONE 155-pound champion Marat Gafurov. With four straight victories and already under weight, Nguyen was perhaps prematurely thinking about who he was going to call out next even before the title fight with Gafurov.

Bibiano Fernandes was the man he wanted.

“I didn’t want to disrespect him, but Bibiano is a legend in this sport and he’s like one of the top fighters in MMA, in general,” Nguyen told MMA Fighting. “He’s fighting for ONE Championship, he’s been dominant, he’s been taking out guys left, right and center. I wanted to jump the gun a bit.”

Fernandes is ONE’s 145-pound champion — and one of the most unappreciated-yet-excellent titleholders in all of MMA. The Braziilian has not lost since 2010, a string of 13 straight victories. Fernandes (21-3) was a star in Dream and now he’s one of the best fighters in the world not in the UFC.

There’s no doubt that Fernandes, 37, is ONE Championship’s pound-for-pound best fighter — like his teammate Demetrious Johnson is in the UFC.

Nguyen, the upstart Australian, ended up beating Gafurov by second-round knockout to win the 155-pound title. In the post-fight press conference, Nguyen did what he told his coaches and teammates what he did beforehand. He called out Fernandes.

“I just planted the seed,” Nguyen said.

Well, that seed has blossomed. Nguyen will challenge for Fernandes’ 145-pound title at ONE Championship: Iron Will on March 24 in Bangkok, Thailand. It’ll be one of the biggest fights in the promotion history.

That path there, though, was not direct. ONE had another obstacle for Nguyen, its budding superstar: Eduard Folayang for the 170-pound belt. Nguyen would be giving up up about 15 pounds to the Filipino fighter.

Nguyen ended up winning by knockout — one punch — in the second round back in November. That made two belts for Nguyen. This weekend, he’ll go for three against Fernandes.

It has been one heck of a seven months. Nguyen, 29, was able to quit his full-time job as a salesman in a mechanic’s auto workshop. A huge motorcycle nut, he was able to buy a fancy Ducati bike. If he beats Fernandes, who knows? The sky will be the limit for the slugger whose family left Vietnam as refugees.

“I’m still realizing that,” Nguyen said. “I’m just getting started in Asia, let alone the whole world. I’m just treating Bibiano like any opponent that I’ve faced, with respect, with honor, with integrity. I’m gonna treat him like I treat everyone else. I’m gonna do my thing and whatever comes with the fight, after the fight, the fame, anything like that, it is what it is.

“But if it all pays off to what I assume it would be, then my main goal is set to where I become the first three-[belt] world champion.”

Nguyen’s story starts well before August 2017. It begins around 2010 when he begins training mixed martial arts in earnest at KMA near his home in Sydney. At the time, Nguyen was a retired rugby player, who went from lifting weights to training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Even when the UFC came to Australia for the first time ever — that same year — Nguyen remembers watching the fights at a pub with friends and never imagining doing that himself. It wasn’t until he started to notice the fighters at the back of his KMA gym working hard with all they had on a daily basis that piqued his interest.

“Just watching them train,” Nguyen said, “I was like, ‘Man, these guys are so intense. I want to be like that one day. One day, I want to fight.’ One thing led to another and that’s where we’re at today.”

In 2011, already with some BJJ tournament wins under his belt, Nguyen vowed to enter the cage the following year. He won his first three career fights and the Brace FC 145-pound title. ONE Championship snatched him up thereafter.

Nguyen debuted with the promotion in 2014. Before that, he never even thought of gaining notoriety outside of Australia. Brace, he thought at the time, was the pinnacle.

After winning his first fight, Nguyen fell to Gafurov in his sophomore outing. He told himself and those around him that he would one day get back to Gafurov and avenge that loss. Four straight wins later — all by finish — he got the chance and made good on the promise.

Nguyen is grateful to ONE for giving him the opportunity and sticking with him despite going 1-1 in his first two fights.

“I’m a very loyal guy, so ONE Championship have helped me obviously in my career, offering me fights, looking out for me outside the cage,” Nguyen said. “I’m always loyal. I put my family first and when it comes to mixed martial arts, I’m all about martial arts. Obviously, we’re doing this for money. Money is an incentive when it comes to our fights. But initially, it’s all about the journey and leaving a legacy. And ONE Championship exemplifies what martial arts is about.

“This is why I’m loyal. They’re on the right track, they’re doing everything right. And we’re still growing.”

Nguyen is reluctantly accepting his role as one of the faces of the promotion. He’s still the humble guy from the Sydney area who works for a decade as a car mechanic before getting his big break.

If he beats Fernandes, Nguyen says he’ll defend all three belts — before the end of 2018. That will be music to the fans of MMA fans, who have taken issue with Conor McGregor for winning belts in two different divisions, but not defending them.

“The difference is I’ll be defending the belts for sure this year,” Nguyen said. “He’s won the belts, he’s went in the right direction, he’s said what he’s had to say to get where he is at the moment. Why he hasn’t defended, you never know. Circumstances, you never know what happens.”

Indeed, you don’t. But sometimes, you can will it. Before even winning his first ONE title, Nguyen was already thinking about Fernandes. Now, a victory will mean something incredibly rare — winning three titles in three separate weight classes. In addition, he’ll gain a “W” over one of the most well-known non-UFC fighters in the world.

For the 20-something guy who never thought about being famous outside Sydney not too long ago, Nguyen has come a very long way in the last seven months. And yet, this was always kind of the plan, wasn’t it?

“He’s a champion, now that I’m the champion, why not make it champion vs. champion?” Nguyen said he thought after beating Gafurov. “It’s a good seed to plant with the media and it just went from there.”