Martin Nguyen already holds a special place in the ONE Championship record books.
Until 2017, the Singapore-based promotion had never had a two-division champion, but in November of that year Nguyen accomplished the feat by knocking out Eduard Folayang. Nguyen already sat atop the featherweight (155 pounds under ONE classification) ladder and he added the 170-pound title to his collection with that triumph.
In his next fight, Nguyen went hunting for a third title, dropping down to 145 pounds to face Bibiano Fernandes for ONE’s bantamweight title. He lost a split decision, returned to 155 pounds for a successful title defense against Christian Lee, and then again fell short of his goal of becoming a three-division champion when he lost an interim bantamweight title bout to Kevin Belingon.
Enough was enough. Nguyen took two fights in 2019, both at 155 pounds—a weight he’s never lost at—and recorded two more defenses of his featherweight title in spectacular fashion against Narantungalag Jadambaa and Koyomi Matsushima.
RIGHT ON TARGET— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) April 12, 2019
Martin Nguyen clinches a scintillating flying knee knockout victory to retain the ONE Featherweight World Title! @MartinNguyenMMA #WeAreONE #RootsOfHonor #Manila #MartialArts pic.twitter.com/EF2ShIBQmm
ONE featherweight king Martin Nguyen called his shot and came through with a stunning second-round knockout of Koyomi Matsushima! @MartinNguyenMMA #WeAreONE #DawnOfHeroes #Manila #MartialArts pic.twitter.com/K2ZGd1RCrZ— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) August 2, 2019
According to Nguyen, the strength of his performances is directly tied to him no longer bouncing between divisions.
“Definitely. It narrowed my focus more,” Nguyen recently told MMA Fighting. “Just the stress of different weight divisions, it got to me mentally, and physically at a point as well. Speaking to what my body knows and where I’m best, I’m still undefeated once I feel like that. When it comes to featherweight, that’s my division, that’s where I perform the best and where I’m mentally strong and my body’s performing to a tee, 100 percent.
“I thought I’d keep it simple and just go back to what I know. 2019 it worked out for me. … 2020 I have the same goal, just stick to what I know. Once I fulfill my goals at featherweight, then I’ll start thinking about jumping divisions. I’ve still got a whole five years at least in front of me.”
Nguyen, 31, was planning to fight three times in 2019, but one of his bookings fell through last year. Then an upcoming bout that was yet to be announced stayed that way when the coronavirus outbreak put a full stop to the sporting world. Nguyen joked that he’s not worried about anything happening to his next fight since this is the second time he’s had a fight cancelled since working with Sanford MMA in Florida and “the third one’s a charm, right?”
The good news for Nguyen is that he was able to travel back to his native Australia to be with his wife and three kids before COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented that from happening. He’d given ONE a deadline to confirm if a fight was still happening and once that passed, he made the decision to go home.
“My next bout was signed, contract was signed, ready to go,” Nguyen said. “Date was set. Opponent was set. I was training hard, I was ready to put this guy away, and unfortunately the coronavirus took over and the world came to a stop so we couldn’t do anything about that, it’s out of our control. It’s just all about staying in shape now and still being prepared for this guy.”
Though Nguyen declined to name who was lined up to challenge him next, he was open to discussing the recent callout by Brazilian jiu-jitsu star and top MMA prospect Garry Tonon.
The callout took place on social media and Nguyen responded in kind, recording a quick Instagram story to make it clear that he welcomed an encounter with the unbeaten American. An injury forced Tonon to the sidelines, but Nguyen says that as far as he knows the matchup had fizzled before that.
“It is what it is if he didn’t sign it or they didn’t accept it, I don’t know,” Nguyen said. “If ONE Championship pulled back, I don’t know. On my end, I was willing to fight anyone and I spoke to ONE Championship staff and the owner, I was like, man, put me in and I’ll fight anyone. This is my division, so whoever steps up to the plate, it’s my duty to defend this title.
“Good on him for calling me out, I know a lot of people wouldn’t fight him. They wouldn’t take the risk of fighting him because of his special skill set of some sort and it could be a potential risk of them losing a title shot. Everyone wants to fight bums until they get title shots. I had to fight six people before I got my rematch, so I’m always a believer in people earning their shots and you know what, Garry Tonon, I feel like he deserves a shot because of his jiu-jitsu credentials. In terms of his MMA credentials, that’s questionable, like who has he fought? But in terms of his his jiu-jitsu credentials, throw this guy in.”
Part of Tonon’s challenge involved him presenting himself as an “easy” defense for Nguyen, given his inexperience in MMA. However, Nguyen refused to take that bait, and should he and Tonon be paired up in the future, he’s not about to lose the mental battle before they face off in the cage.
“Of course everyone’s gonna say that,” Nguyen said. “Why would the champion not take the risk of someone who’s inexperienced? It’s more of a percentage of a chance that they’ll win, but obviously they would want to say that. It’s like mind games, you know?
“It’s like saying that to the point that, ‘He’s got nothing to lose? Why not take it?’ That’s what I was saying about Marat (Gafurov). ‘He’s got nothing to lose, he’s already beaten me once. What’s he gonna lose if he accepts the fight again?’ And you know what, I knocked him out. I think it’s more of the mind over matter and more of mind games on his side.”