Winning fights is the first and foremost consideration for any mixed martial artist but to attract the attention of the world’s biggest MMA promotion sometimes you need a bit of luck. Ben Nguyen had run up more than his fair share of victories inside the cage but it wasn’t until a weigh in video went viral that the American flyweight started to hit the headlines.
In March, 2014 the American knocked out Julian Rabaud in 25 seconds at Nitro MMA 11 in Queensland. It was a significant fight in that it had the organization’s bantamweight title on the line and pitted together two fighters well respected on the local scene but the win was largely unnoticed outside of Australia.
That all changed 12 months later when a video of the heavily tattooed Rabaud pushing Nguyen around at the weigh in and getting knocked out in brutal fashion the following night became an internet sensation. It was suddenly all over social media, there are numerous versions around but this one alone did 10 million hits:
It’s a scene which is played out at weigh ins all over the world every weekend but this incident just happened to tick all the right boxes. By thrusting his heavily tattooed face in his opponent’s direction Rabaud was unwittingly playing the role of ‘tough guy about to get his comeuppance’. Meanwhile Nguyen’s smiling demeanour him perfect for the part of ‘normal looking guy about to do something amazing’.
Nguyen was far more experienced than Rabaud at the time and to date that there has been no proven correlation between the quantity of tattoos a person has and their ability to fight. But these two facts would have been lost on the millions of people clicking the link to see the latter fighter getting blown away in a barrage of punches.
Nearly three million people tuned in to see Conor McGregor beat Dennis Siver on Fox Sports 1 earlier this year. Contrasting numbers for a single televised event with hits of an online video is like comparing apples and oranges. However Nguyen is within his rights to believe that his knock out of Rabauid has already had more eyes on it than many of MMA’s biggest fights,
“I was very surprised when the video went viral but it felt cool and crazy that all of a sudden more people had seen me knock someone out than had seen Chuck Liddel do it!”
It’s difficult to get exact numbers because versions of the video have been uploaded over and over again. The World Hip Hop Star version alone has had over a million hits and in excess of 2,000 comments but Nguyen is quick to reject accusations that the UFC only signed him because he had become an overnight internet sensation,
“It wasn’t completely out of the blue. We were actually communicating with UFC match maker Sean Shelby months before that video went viral but I’m sure it helped because when Richie Vaculik pulled out of UFC Fight Night 65 due to injury they brought me in as a replacement.”
A glance at Nguyen’s record shows that he was already a strong candidate for the UFC roster when the video went viral. His tally at the time was 12-5 but crucially he had won six straight fights and had ten stoppage wins to his name including seven KOs. Sean Shelby is always on the lookout for fighters who know how to finish fights so it’s hardly surprising that the 26 year old was already on his radar.
While the internet attention certainly raised Nguyen’s profile it also gave him plenty to prove when he made his UFC debut in Adelaide last month. If he had lost people would have been quick to point to the video, question his credentials and potentially accuse him of being a gimmick who didn’t deserve to be rubbing shoulders with the division’s elite.
Fortunately for Nguyen he did what he has been doing for the majority of his nine year professional career; he finished the fight. In this case it was a KO of Alptekin Ozkilic which came at exactly 4:59 of round one and the debutant was delighted to demonstrate that he deserved to be in the UFC,
“It was a big relief. I knew I knew I had to live up to that viral video and make a good impression on my debut and I did both those. It couldn't have gone better.”
It would be ironic if anyone was to accuse Nguyen of being an overnight sensation because nothing could be further from the truth. He first began training back in 2001 after being subjected to some unpleasant taunts in the playground and deciding to do something about it,
“I started Taekwondo when I was 12 after being bullied in middle school which led me to start training MMA when I turned 18. I love martial arts and competing so MMA was just a natural progression for me.”
Nguyen had only just turned 18 when made his pro debut in 2005. He lost that fight
but went on to win the next five and establish himself as a serious contender on the Dakota scene. Then came a bad patch of form which saw Nugyen lose three out of four, culminating in stoppage loss at the hands of a Thai debutant.
At the time he record stood at 6-5 and anyone glancing at that would have been more likely to think ‘journeyman’ than ‘future UFC star’. It was a tough period for Nguyen who admits he thought about walking away from the sport altogether,
“I almost did quit but it wasn't because of the losses. I had a win after the fight with the Thai but I got caught up working a full time job which stopped me from training and fighting for almost two years. I went into state of depression where I decided enough was enough, dropped everything and moved to Thailand to train full time at Tiger Muay Thai.”
Nguyen would put together a run of six straight wins, the best streak of his career. A successful UFC debut extended the run to seven and he believes that going through that run of bad form helped make him the fighter he is today,
“After the losing streak I started looking at ways to train smarter and more efficiently so I feel it made me better.”
Nguyen moved to Australia to be with a girlfriend who he had met while training in Phuket and his career there went from strength to strength. He says the call to replace Vaculik at UFC Fight Night 65 was a payoff he was patiently waiting for after years of perseverance,
“I was getting frustrated seeing fighters with a lot lesser of records getting in but it didn’t prevent me from working hard and being persistent. When it did happen it was a very emotional period for me. It took me eight long years to get into the UFC but I'm happy I got in with hard work and dedication.”
Nguyen had a couple of strokes of fortune; first with the weigh in video going viral and secondly with injury to Vaculik creating a suitable vacancy on a local UFC card. But as the old sporting adage goes ‘you make your own luck’ and it is through his performances inside the cage that the flyweight effectively earned the right to be a part of the biggest promotion in the world.
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