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Tyson Nam and his improbable road to the UFC

Tyson Nam

Tyson Nam finally made it.

After 13 years of competing professionally in MMA, the Hawaiian fighter can now say he’s a UFC fighter. Nam signed with the Las Vegas-based promotion in August and he makes his debut against flyweight contender Sergio Pettis at UFC Mexico City on Saturday.

The opportunity to compete in the UFC could have came much sooner and more than once in Nam’s career. But for many different reasons, the lights of the Octagon avoided Nam until now.

“I got the call from my manager waking me up, so I was kind of a little groggy, so when I heard the news, I wasn’t like jumping around ecstatically because I had just woken up,” Nam described to MMA Fighting the moment he got the news he was in the UFC.

“But even after I started coming to it, it was just that I’ve already been there, I should’ve always been in the UFC among the top flyweights in the world.”

The first time Nam caught the attention of the fight world was back in 2012.

Ridding a three-fight win streak, Nam put the lights out on Eduardo Dantas with a spectacular first-round knockout. Dantas was the Bellator bantamweight champion at the time and considered by many to be one of the best 135-pound fighters in the world. It was a huge upset that went down in front of Dantas’ home crowd in Brazil at a Shooto event.

“In 2012, when you and I talked, I believe Eduardo Dantas was ranked sixth at the time and that put me at number 10 in the world,” Nam recalled. “I was supposed to have been picked up by the UFC, but due to contract disputes—that Bjorn Rebney, what a f*cking assh*le, he held me from getting signed to the UFC.

“I was supposed to have fought, if I’m not mistaken, Urijah Faber on like a New Year’s event or something, and Bjorn Rebney kind of put a halt to that because I knocked out his champion.”

Nam had signed with Bellator earlier in 2012 but was then released by the promotion after removing him from his short-notice debut. With a knockout win over their champion, Rebney decided to exercise their contract “matching clause” in hopes to sign Nam back to the promotion. With no interest to join Bellator, Nam’s career was put on ice.

Nam went on sign with World Series of Fighting, as part of it’s inaugural launch. He was paired up with an unknown Marlon Moraes in the co-main event of WSOF 2. Nam was stopped by the Brazilian in the second round, a result that triggered a three-fight skid for Nam, thus killing his momentum from the Dantas knockout.

A high-and-low of that magnitude would define most fighter’s careers, but not for Nam. His road to the UFC was far from over.

Five years later, Nam reminded the world of his abilities once again. With two wins and one draw in his pocket and having dropped to 125 pounds, Nam took on one-time UFC title challenger Ali Bagautinov in the main event of Fight Nights Global 64 in Moscow, Russia.

It was Bagautinov’s homecoming, making it his first fight outside the UFC after choosing not to re-sign with the American promotion.

And again, Nam delivered another devastating knockout, stopping Bagautinov in the third round with a head-kick. It was another huge upset, but contract disputes once again kept Nam from signing with the UFC.

“In 2017 I knocked out the former No. 1 UFC contender Ali Bagautinov, even ‘Mighty Mouse’ (Demetrious Johnson) couldn't finish him,” Nam said. “And then again in 2017, I was stuck in an exclusive contract with Fight Nights Global.

“I knocked out their country’s hero, and of course, they don’t want me to do anything to better my career in any way. So it’s always been timing and a bad place, but now that I’ve been a free agent and been beating up people locally, the UFC sees that I still can compete at a very high level. So now is my chance.”

Nam went on to fight out his Fight Nights Global contract and compete in the regional circuit in Hawaii. He’s 3-1 since the Bagautinov knockout victory.

But contract issues weren’t the only things causing Nam’s chances of competing in the UFC to dwindle.

In late 2018, the UFC began to cut an alarming number of fighters in the flyweight division, and many fighters said they were informed by the promotion that the division was coming to an end.

“I was really bummed out when [the UFC] started cutting the flyweight division, so I was thinking, ‘Man, if I ever do have a chance in the UFC, I would have to fight at 135, which I’m always a bit undersized in that weight class by a few pounds.’ And I mean, any competitor or wrestler knows that a few pounds makes a huge difference when you actually grab onto somebody.

“I feel like the biggest thing with people, you know, we’re fast, we’re super technical, we’re super busy, and that should always be interesting to people, but I think the biggest thing is that people want to see people getting knocked out. And at the flyweight division, that’s what I do best. More than half of my wins come via one-strike knockouts. You don’t see that in any other flyweight’s resume, so I think me being on the UFC roster is going to bring a lot of excitement to the division because I have a lot of strength and power that a lot of flyweights don’t have.”

This summer the men’s UFC flyweight roster was looking thin, with a good chunk its fighters released. However, as of recently, it seems the UFC has had a change in mind with Olympic gold medalist and double UFC champion Henry Cejudo at charge. The company has begun to book more male 125-pound matchups and re-sign some of the fighters they had cut.

Nam believes this is the right moment for a UFC chapter in his career.

“Perfect moment in my eyes,” Nam said. “I want to say a couple of years ago my body started changing and started feeling stronger, better. I really do consider myself a late bloomer, I've always been a late bloomer in a lot of things, so I’m actually 35 years young.

“I’m still getting better with new techniques, getting stronger and everything is falling into place now. I was prepping for a local fight here on September 14 under X-1 promotions, so it couldn't have been a better time for me to get a call and switch over to the mind set that instead of fighting locally, I will be fighting in the big stage.

“I’ve always been there, I’ve always trained with the best, I’ve beaten some of the best in the world, but now I just get to showcase my skills in the UFC.”