Words by Jean-Pierre Mestanza.
Photos by Jeff Sainlar

After one of his first professional MMA fights, future Tiger Muay Thai & Mixed Martial Arts fight team member Ben Nguyen came home to his parents house in South Dakota and slipped into his bed.

The next morning, staring at his bruises, Nguyen’s parents finally found out that their son had not been at a party or the cinema – he was getting paid to fight in a cage.

“They were not happy with that. Especially after telling them I wasn’t going to back to school the next year,” Nguyen (pronounced “win”) says. “In their eyes, it was human cockfighting sort of stuff. It was hard to be proud of what I did at the time just because I didn’t have the support of my parents.”

As a freshman in South Dakota State University, Nguyen was suppose to study manufacturing engineering, get his degree, and join the 9-to-5 grind.

Instead, the now 24-year-old chose to follow something he had started since he was 12-years-old when he was regularly bullied at school.

“I started Tae Kwon Do and became a black belt. I was focused on that for a long time,” he says.

Nguyen eventually took up his first MMA fight at 18-years-old, with just his Tae Kwon Do training, and won a bout via perfectly timed strike. He wasn’t so lucky his next two fights, losing by submission.

All this while studying full time and learning the basics of Judo. Eventually, Nguyen began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai.

“It was an easy transition (to Muay Thai) for me, coming from a striking background. Just knowing body mechanics and how your body works,” he says.

It was a love affair in sweat and strikes with Nguyen slowly realizing his calling as a professional fighter. The hard part was to tell his parents, who expected him to graduate as an engineer.

So he didn’t tell them – until that day in 2008 when they found out and thought he went bonkers. They would come around, but it was a difficult time.

“My friends thought I was crazy too, but luckily I have awesome friends so they did not care so much,” he says.

After he quit school to continue fighting, Nguyen eventually took up a job as part of the Geek Squad – a glorified computer and elctronics technician.

“Yes I recognize the irony,” Nguyen says, stone faced.

When TMT announced their scholarship competition, Nguyen applied on the suggestion of his BJJ coach. To his surprise, he received a call from TMT MMA Head Coach Brian Ebersole, inviting him to Phuket.

“I didn’t want to look back on this moment and think ‘what if’,” Nguyen says, “I thought about how my life would change if I did get in.”

Nguyen participated in the grueling two-day competition. At the conclusion, the fighters were invited into the MMA room for the announcements – Nguyen described the feeling of that night.

“As I walk in there, I think in my head ‘no way I made the team, no way I performed as good as the other guys, why would they pick me?’” he says, “ So when they announced my name, I was out of breath, felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I thought it was a mistake at first. Felt like I was in a dream.”