If you never heard of Ben Nguyen before March 8, 2014, you probably didn’t think that his fight against Julian Rabaud was going to go too well for him.
Now tattoos never won a fight, but you figure that anyone who sat through getting his entire face inked up like Rabaud did was sort of a tough guy. And on weigh-in day in Queensland, Australia, Rabaud did everything in his power to intimidate the soft-spoken Nguyen, even going forehead to forehead with the South Dakota native and putting his fist on his chin.
“First I thought it was a joke,” Nguyen recalled, “but he kept getting into my face and then I knew it was serious. In my head, I was like ‘oh man, I can’t do anything; I’m just going to laugh at him and just wait until tomorrow; tomorrow I’ll unleash the beast.’”
Nguyen did just that, needing just 25 seconds to put Rabaud to sleep. It was Nguyen’s 12th pro MMA victory and sixth in a row. And while a 12-5 record that contains a long winning streak is enough reason to keep an eye on the flyweight prospect, soon people far beyond the fight world found out who Ben Nguyen was, as video of the weigh-in and fight against Rabaud went viral.
“It came out of the blue and took the world by surprise and took me by surprise,” he laughs. “I woke up and I was like ‘holy crap, over a million views.’”
At the moment, one of the many versions of this video, titled “Tattooed bully acts tough and gets knocked out in 20 seconds” has nearly nine million views on YouTube. On Saturday (Sunday in Australia), Nguyen makes his UFC debut against Alptekin Ozkilic.
Call that the perfect storm.
“After that (the Rabaud fight) happened, I definitely knew I was going to get in,” he said. “But before all the viral video stuff happened, we were in talks with the UFC, so I think it was a combination of having the good winning record, and my connections, and now the video. It all worked together.”
The funny thing is, Nguyen didn’t put it in his head that Rabaud was going to pay for his disrespect as soon as the bell rang that night. He was thinking of a more prolonged outing.
“The game plan was actually to wrestle him and beat him up on the ground,” he said. “But I got in there and he stood so close to me that I knew I could hit him, that I could just reach out and touch him. So I did. I got my rhythm going and he threw that big overhand right and I countered it.”
Lights out in Queensland. Since then, the 26-year-old Nguyen picked up a five-round decision victory over Reece McLaren last October, and on Saturday, he will be the crowd favorite against Ozkilic. How does a Sioux Falls native manage that? Well, because he’s been living Down Under for the last couple years.
“I’m pretty much Australian, so everyone’s on my side,” the Brisbane resident laughs, though he does admit that he misses home, which he left on what could only be described as a whim.
“I grew up in South Dakota, and there wasn’t much going on there,” Nguyen said. “I was doing some fighting, I had some big fights here and there, but I got caught up into a full-time job in the States and I stopped training and stopped fighting for a couple years, and I just realized I was miserable. Why am I doing this?”
A pro since 2006, Nguyen was 7-5 on the local circuit in the States, and the big shows weren’t beating down his door, leading him into the 9 to 5 world. He never lost his love for the sport though, and when he heard that the Tiger Muay Thai gym in Thailand was holding a team tryout, he packed his bags and left South Dakota.
“I just dropped everything,” he said. “I quit my job, flew out there, and it was a leap of faith to try out for the team. But I made the team, I was in Thailand training and I met my future wife, who was doing the same thing. She was training Muay Thai at the time, we hit it off and the rest is history. I came over to Australia, followed her, and now I’m living and training here and I’m loving it.”
So this is all about a girl, then?
“Yeah, pretty much,” he laughs.
Nguyen can fight though, and he gets his chance to do it on MMA’s biggest stage this weekend. It’s a moment he’s been thinking about for years, and with his new home country behind him and the people back in South Dakota making him the talk of the town, he’s eager to get on with the next chapter of his career.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “To be honest, I’m a bit nervous because it’s taken me eight years or training and fighting MMA and now it’s all come to this point in my life where I’ve got to make a good impression. It’s all about making that first statement and after that I think I’ll get a little bit more comfortable.”