Martin Nguyen might not be a Filipino by birth, but the Philippines holds a special a place in his heart. Tomorrow, the Vietnamese-Australian mixed martial arts (MMA) sensation will star at ONE: Dawn of Heroes, the promotion's 18th live event in the country. Up against Japanese knockout artist Koyomi Matsushima at the Mall of Asia Arena, the dynamite puncher from Sydney will put his featherweight title on the line.
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Nguyen feels at home here, the same venue where he made history nearly two years ago. He became the first man to ever hold two world titles in different weight classes simultaneously under the organization’s banner.
“I love the Philippines and its people. In general, the Filipino crowd is one of the most educated crowds in the world. They know the sport so well," the 30-year-old says. "Even if you are the visiting foreigner taking on their champion, they still respect your craft.”
Nguyen's deep appreciation for our nation and culture started when his sister met and dated a Filipino gentleman, who then became his brother-in-law. “I’ve always got a sweet spot for the Philippines. I feel like we already have Filipino blood in our family,” he shares.
The blockbuster card on Friday features prominent members of Team Lakay like Eduard Folayang, Danny Kingad, Geje Eustaquio, Honorio Banario, and Edward Kelly. Although he does not compete under the same flag as the La Trinidad, Benguet-based stable, he expects an enthusiastic reception from those in attendance. “I've had four bouts here already, and I'm going into my fifth. I feel that I’m an adopted Filipino. There’s no better way to perform than to do it in front of 20,000 people,” he says. “The crowd is ecstatic. As soon as you start throwing punches and start putting on a show, it’s deafening in there. You just got to try and shut it out and not let the emotions and noise get to you."
Nguyen describes the Philippines as the launchpad of his meteoric rise in the sport. He still remembers vividly when he first strutted his wares in front of a passionate Manila crowd, defeating China’s Li Kai Wen via first-round technical knockout in April 2016. “Ever since that fight, I started to climb the ranks and win match after match. It brought me luck,” the five-foot-seven fighter explains.
After his cage meeting with Li, he went on to win four more fights, including shocking knockout victories over the likes of Marat Gafurov (for the featherweight title in August 2017) and Folayang (for the lightweight strap three months later). Nguyen tasted his first defeat on Philippine soil in July 2018 when he bowed to Folayang’s teammate Kevin Belingon by unanimous decision in their battle for the interim bantamweight championship.
The man known as “The Situ-Asian” made up for that loss this past April, successfully defending his featherweight crown against Mongolian hard-hitter Narantungalag Jadambaa with a flying knee finish in the second round.
Nguyen has watched his Japanese opponent’s rapid ascent up the ranks with interest, and he does not expect to have an easy night when he takes him on. “Both our styles are similar. We have great movement and power to counter," he says. "Fans should expect a great tactical battle full of fireworks and action."
His primary focus is to defeat Matsushima in style, but he is also keen to keep his momentum rolling and the wins coming. “Knowing that I am now injury-free, I want to try and push out at least one more fight after this one to end the year on a high,” he reveals. “I am open to fight anywhere in the world. I heard there would be a fourth and final Manila event later this year. You know I am ready to suit up.”
ONE: Dawn of Heroes will be on August 2, 2019 at the Mall of Asia Arena. For more information, visit ONEFC.com.