With almost every inch of skin, including much of his menacing face, tattooed, the fighter strides forward, self-assured, championship belt draped across one sinewy shoulder. He raises a threatening fist and rests it, unflinching, against the chin of Ben Nguyen, who by comparison looks like the boy next door. For a moment, the audience watching this pre-match photo opportunity may feel a pang of sympathy for the baby-faced Asian American about to face off against this intimidating fighter.
But, as the now viral video continues, that sympathy is clearly misplaced. Seconds after the fight begins, it’s over. The tattooed man lays slumped in the corner, laid low by a rain of punches from a triumphant Nguyen. It’s David versus Goliath, for the YouTube generation.
One year and millions of video views later, Nguyen finds himself in the UFC, a rising MMA star in a sport lacking in Asian Americans. How did a kid from South Dakota, born to Vietnamese immigrants, find himself in the octagon?
Ben Nguyen (no relation to this reporter) started training after being bullied in middle school. Nguyen’s parents had immigrated in the early 1980s, settling in South Dakota, where Nguyen was born. He trained initially in Taekwondo but soon, as a young man, sought to test himself and his skills in a more brutal fashion. The traditional Korean martial art proved less than effective in a mixed martial art format, and Nguyen lost his first fight. But he realized then, he wanted to be a fighter.
“I just fell in love with all the other martial arts, that just really sparked my interest for MMA, and it just took off from there,” Nguyen told NBC News in a video call from Australia.
Nguyen describes years of toiling through the fight circuit, racking up matches, earning wins along with a string of bitter losses.
“I started losing for a bit there and I kind of lost my confidence,” he recalled. “I stopped training, I got a full time job at Best Buy, as a computer technician. And I just stopped training and stopped fighting and I just got really miserable for a minute. I just felt really average, you know, like I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do in life.”
For years, Nguyen put his fight dreams on hold.
Things changed when Nguyen got an invitation to try out for a fight team based out of the storied Tiger Muay Thai group in Thailand. Nguyen saved up, sold most of his worldly belongings, and set off. After passing his try out, he set up camp, and began training hard.
Thailand reconnected him with his first love of fighting, and also introduced him to his next — a Filipina-Australian boxer who would become his future fiancee. The chance meeting convinced Nguyen to move to Australia to try his hand at the budding MMA scene down under.
Soon he was claiming “w’s” all over Australia. That’s when his path crossed with the tattooed fighter — Julian “Julz the Jackal” Rabaud.
“I didn’t know what to expect at first. I went in there, weighed in, and [Rabaud] just got in my face, and I was just like ‘Are you serious’?” recalled Nguyen. “I was actually wondering like if he was being serious.”
The fight was decidedly one sided: Nguyen defeated Rabaud in 26 seconds. It was a resounding victory, but the story wasn’t over.