ONE Championship star Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen may cut a swaggering, confident figure as a history-making two-weight World Champion, but earlier in his career, the Vietnamese-Australian had to overcome crippling nerves.
Looking back on his maiden outing under the ONE banner, Nguyen admits he struggled with anxiety ahead of his contest against the late Rocky “The Outlaw” Batolbatol.
“As a mixed martial artist starting out in a professional league, or even an amateur league, you get that sense of fear,” he explains.
“I’d put my first fight with Rocky as an example.”
“I came in for my first fight [in ONE] against an undefeated fighter. I might have masked it with a poker face, but I was scared.
“It was my first big fight, in a big league, on the world stage, a sold-out Singapore stadium, and I thought – am I going to mess this up? Am I just going to be another dud fighter? I had so many mixed emotions.”
It was a new sensation for “The Situ-Asian,” who had built a reputation on the domestic scene in Australia, but the jump to the big stage saw him move into uncharted waters, against unfamiliar opposition, in a much more highly-pressurised environment.
“The way I felt in Australia was nothing compared to overseas on the international stage. [In Australia], I was confident, I knew what I was doing, and I was focused. I had family and friends around me, and I was basically normal,” he recalls.
“Everyone pretty much knows everyone. If I was to search for an opponent in Australia, I would find all of his fights in 10 minutes.
“Rocky was 5-0 and there was no trace of his fights anywhere. ‘What if he’s a wushu world champion, and he’s knocked out his first five opponents, or he’s won by submission as well?’ I didn’t know what to think. My head was running around in circles.
“Throughout fight week, I was travelling around and finding peace, but on the day, when we jumped onto the bus and walked into the changing rooms with the other fighters, I was sweating. I didn’t know what to think.”
But, thanks to his team, and KMA Top Team Head Coach Fari Salievski in particular, Nguyen was able to step into action in a relatively calm state.
“My coach is like a father figure to me,” Nguyen explains.
“He was like, ‘This is what you came for, this is what we worked hard for.’ It was the pep talk about how I got there and what I needed to succeed.
“He was keeping me humble, and not overhyping me by saying I was going to smash this guy. He was keeping me nice and level.”
While Salievski’s pep talk undoubtedly helped him, Nguyen reveals there was another presence at cageside who inspired him even more – his wife.
“I’m thankful for my coach who was able to talk me up and give me a bit of a pep talk, but the main person that was there who gave me the courage to step up was my wife,” he admits.
“I looked at her and I saw the fear in her eyes, so I had to be a man. She was nervous for me, so I thought of my family – all the reasons why I was doing this – and they gave me extra motivation, and the courage to step up and actually be the best Martin I could be and perform at the best I can.
“As soon as I got in the cage and touched gloves with Rocky, I had that mentality where it was either him or me. I had to step up right there.
“After the first few exchanges, I got confident. The crowd was getting on my side and after the first takedown or two I could feel the momentum, and everything I trained for was working.”
Those early nerves are now a thing of the past. Nguyen has since built up his bulletproof self-confidence through a series of remarkable performances and outstanding victories, and he now stands as the ONE Lightweight and Featherweight World Champion.
Nguyen is now armed with all the experience and confidence he needs as he looks to add to his already impressive list of career achievements.
“When you’re in there by yourself, the cage is locked, and the fight starts, it’s up to you to pull everything together and get that confidence to step up,” he says.
“You have to take a step back from all the hype, all the press, and all the training – all the stuff that builds up the tension and emotion. Think to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Where do I see myself in a few years time? Who’s supporting me?’
“Your heart and your brain will come up with the answers you never even knew you had. You start picking up confidence, ‘This is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to do it, that’s my goal, that’s my plan.’”
That plan will see him step back into action in Manila against Kevin Belingon on July 27 at ONE: REIGN OF KINGS.
And with the ONE Interim Bantamweight World Title up for grabs at the Mall Of Asia Arena, Nguyen could be celebrating the capture of his third ONE World Title in the space of a year.