For ONE Championship featherweight king Martin Nguyen, holding a belt doesn’t validate his success. The former two-weight champion still feels that he has room to grow as a martial artist.
Nguyen returns to action on Friday, August 2 to defend his title against Koyomi Matsushima. The bout headlines ONE: Dawn of Heroes, which takes place in Manila, Philippines.
Nguyen will look to earn the third defense of his featherweight strap, but it will be hard to top his second.
In the main event of ONE’s Roots of Honor card in April, Nguyen scored a highlight-reel knockout over Narantungalag Jadambaa that gained international attention. His second-round flying knee finish earned the No. 2 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays.
“I didn’t even know what SportsCenter was. Like I know obviously ESPN, but I didn’t know that they did like somewhat of a countdown and best plays of the week,” Nguyen told John Hyon Ko. “One of my friends sent it over to me and said I was number two. And I was like, what the hell?”
Nguyen quickly became cognizant of the sheer amount of people that saw his emphatic knockout.
“When I’d first seen it I was like, oh yeah, it’s just another countdown,” Nguyen said. “But then when ONE Championship started sharing and everyone else started sharing it I realized how big it actually was.”
Martin Nguyen hasn’t reached his peak
The win came at a crucial time for Nguyen.
Prior to the bout with Jadambaa, Nguyen had moved down in weight to face Kevin Belingon for the interim bantamweight belt. The bout didn’t go his way as Nguyen found himself on the losing end of a unanimous decision.
On top of the loss, Nguyen battled injury. By the time he returned to defend his featherweight belt in April, “The Situ-Asian” had been away for eight months.
“Coming off an injury and coming off a loss at bantamweight, I really wanted to prove myself because I felt like I hadn’t reached the peak of my career yet,” Nguyen explained. “I hadn’t reached that level where everyone was putting me on a pedestal because I’d won the titles. I felt like I hadn’t reached that level to be owning those titles yet.”
Even with his most recent victory, Nguyen still believes he has plenty of room to grow.
“I feel that I haven’t reached the top of my game yet, and people are just seeing me scratch the surface of my peak,” Nguyen said. “For me, it’s more inside. It’s more mental. It’s more something that I have to prove. Not proving myself, but prove that I can be, and I will be, one of the top guys in this division.”
Training at Hard Knocks 365
In pursuit of his goal of fulfilling his potential, he made a change in his preparation prior to the Jadambaa fight. At the recommendation of his close friend, ONE middleweight and light heavyweight champion Aung La N Sang, Nguyen left Australia and headed to Florida to train at Hard Knocks 365 under Henri Hooft.
The move has already paid dividends for the featherweight champion. Without his time in Florida, Nguyen’s signature highlight knee probably wouldn’t have occurred.
“We’ve been practicing flying knees for like the last three years, and never had I ever had the confidence to throw a knee up until when I came into Hard Knocks camp,” Nguyen said. “Working with Henri Hooft, it’s all Dutch kickboxing. It’s all throwing your knees and using everything that you have. It’s not like a fist and feet game.”
At Hard Knocks 365, Nguyen trains with UFC veterans like Nik Lentz and Gilbert Burns as well as up-and-coming fighters such as Herbert Burns, Sean Soriano and Kenny Porter.
“I train with lions, and all these guys are hungry to make it to that next level, or they’re already at that next level,” Nguyen said. “Their success rubs off on you, and it’s a killer room, and I’m honestly blessed to be a part of the team.”
Training in Florida has been a huge adjustment for Nguyen. He has to leave his family for his camps, and he also has reprogrammed his approach to training.
“When I used to train in Australia, everything was whatever I wanted to do, catered to myself,” Nguyen said. “In a way, it worked for me. I won two titles out of it, but it wasn’t the training that I needed.”
What he needed was structure. Now, he has it. Nguyen follows a strict weekly plan, working on all different areas of his game for six days a week before getting one day of rest on Sunday, his favorite day of the week.
He has also put more emphasis on recovery since coming to the United States, with acupuncture being his go-to means of doing so.
Martin Nguyen returns
Already enjoying the fruits of his labor, Nguyen wanted to get back in the cage quickly after his title defense. He looked through his calendar following a short holiday and pinpointed August as the perfect time for a return.
ONE Championship’s Immortal Triumph event in Vietnam on September 6 originally caught Nguyen’s eye, but with MMA still being illegal in the country, the card will consist entirely of Muay Thai and kickboxing bouts, leaving no room for Nguyen to defend his title. He also contemplated fighting at the Masters of Destiny event which took place on July 12, but Hooft wanted to spend more time working on sharpening his skills.
While he waited, a contender emerged. Japan’s Koyomi Matsushima originally made a splash in ONE Championship by defeating former champion Marat Gafurov in his promotional debut.
Before the fight took place, Nguyen expected that ONE was trying to build Gafurov back up for a trilogy fight with Nguyen. Once the bout began, it was Matsushima that earned Nguyen’s full attention.
“While watching that fight, I was like, man, Gafurov is going to get knocked out,” Nguyen said. “He’s getting frustrated by this Japanese bloke. He keeps moving around and tagging him with leg kicks. He’s getting frustrated and he’s rushing in to try and get a leg kick back, but he’s leaving everything else exposed.”
“I mean, at that stage I thought like, man, anyone could knock this guy out. I mean, Garry Tonon can knock this guy out. And sure enough, Matsushima threw a right hook and TKO’d him, and I thought, you know what? This guy can actually be a contender. He’s pretty smart. He’s got footwork. He’s got champion qualities.”
Nguyen was fixated on Matsushima from then on. He watched him defeat Kwon Won Il by unanimous decision in June. By then, the champion expected to be standing across from the Japanese fighter in the near future.
For Matsushima, the title fight comes after just two wins under the ONE banner. Even so, Nguyen respects the skills Matsushima brings to the table and believes he is a worthy challenger for his belt.
“I wanted to get in there as soon as possible to keep defending as much as possible, and he was a guy on my radar that I wanted to fight as well,” Nguyen said of Matsushima. “So in a way, he earned the fight, and I’m honored to face him.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.