Dat Nguyen has an old-school vehicle and an ambitious roadmap.
All he needs now is the right mix of stops to get him where he’s going.
The Vietnam-born super featherweight, last seen TKO’ing imminent title challenger Miguel Flores in Houston, will return to competition this weekend for the first time in better than two years.
But it won’t look quite the same as the last time around.
Now 37 years old, Nguyen is renewing his quest for world title status as part of the Philadelphia-based Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship promotion, which began putting on legal, sanctioned and regulated bare-knuckle events in June 2018 for the first time in nearly 130 years.
It promoted three shows by the end of calendar 2018, got back to business in February of this year and has since run the show count to seven with repeat stops in Biloxi, Mississippi and Tampa, Florida. The latest pay-per-view extravaganza – BKFC 8 – is set for Saturday night at the Florida State Fairgrounds entertainment hall in Tampa, and Nguyen will face Matt Murphy over five two-minute rounds at 135 pounds.
The PPV show, topped by ex-UFC combatants Antonio Silva and Gabriel Gonzaga, goes for $29.99.
Nguyen’s involvement, however, isn’t solely about the money.
At least not right away.
Instead, the winner in 20 of 23 pro fights is hoping an impressive debut sans gloves will propel him toward a BKFC title shot, which he’d parlay into a champion vs. champion challenge of a reigning boxing kingpin – and ultimately court the attention of Dana White for yet another cross-sport dare.
Then, he said, the alliance with BKFC boss David Feldman will really start to pay off.
“I was excited when David gave me the opportunity to be on his card and I knew it was the next big thing,” Nguyen said. “This is going to be the next billion-dollar company. It’s how the UFC became a $6 or $7 billion company. He’s the first one to do it. He’s got the market share. It’s like the UFC.
“They were the first one to do it. Everybody’s doing MMA now but nobody has heard of them – the UFC is the biggest brand out there because it was first.”
Nguyen won his first 11 gloved fights between 2004 and 2007, then reeled off six more W’s following a split-decision loss to Gregorio Torres. He said recurring issues with managers and promoters preceded consecutive decision losses to unbeaten foes Luis Del Valle and Jayson Velez in 2011 and 2013, respectively, leading to prolonged bouts of inactivity.
Short-notice calls from promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy became the norm, he said, but the phone stopped ringing following the sixth-round stoppage of a then-unbeaten Flores – who’s reportedly lined up to face Leo Santa Cruz for a title belt at 130 pounds next month.
“Everyone was expecting me to come in to lose and I had a different mindset,” Nguyen said. “I had a different mindset – ‘I cannot come in to lose. I have to win this fight’ – so I was very focused and I trained very hard and everything changed up. After that fight I just couldn’t get another fight.
“You’ve got to have the right people behind you to push you. There are some fighters who aren’t even that good and they’re fighting for world championship titles just because of the people behind them. They’re powerful people. Me, I didn’t have anybody powerful. I have no connections and no management. Plus, I live in Vero Beach, (Florida), the middle of nowhere.”
As it turned out, the link to Feldman came about when the promoter attempted – and ultimately failed – to put on a show at a casino in nearby Hollywood, Florida. The two men stayed in contact, though, and Nguyen said Feldman offered him a one-fight BKFC deal that could turn into more if the start goes well.
He’s been preparing for the bare-knuckle experience for several weeks now, and said the biggest concern isn’t the concussive nature of punches without gloves – in fact, he suggested being hit with a wrapped hand inside a glove is far more devastating – but rather the frenetic, 100-miles-per-hour nature of a 10-minute fight as opposed to a traditional 10-rounder.
Nevertheless, it’s a challenge he relishes.
“I grew up in Hawaii and I did a lot of bare-knuckle fighting,” he said.
“You have the mentality of a tough man out there. If you have a problem with each other you just fight, bare knuckles, like a street fight. That’s how I grew up, in a tough neighborhood, and I had a few of them. So it’s something familiar to me and it’s more of a natural thing to me. I learned how to be a boxer. I was a brawler before I learned how to be a boxer.”
He’ll try to blend brains with that brawn as he climbs the ladder with the organization, which stages fights in a circular, four-rope ring, requires fighters to toe a line and start each round just inches apart, and does not permit hand wraps within one inch of the knuckles. Additionally, only athletes with established professional resumes from boxing, MMA, kick boxing or Muay Thai are allowed to compete.
“Look at the UFC in the early days. You’d think it was cockfighting,” Nguyen said. “But as guys get more educated they become more skillful. Now it’s more of an art. It’s more of an art now rather than just a cockfight where two guys beat the sh*t out of each other with no skills. This is so new. The competition is not up to par yet. But for me to be coming in as an elite boxer, I get to bring more skills to it.
“It’s gonna look more like a boxing match. As the competition gets better and better you’re going to see guys in there boxing it out like the guys with the gloves on. But it’s gonna be more intense.”
And more rewarding, in terms of national pride, too.
“I hope this is gonna get me more exposure,” he said.
“There’s a huge fan base and a lot of people never heard of me. For me to come to Bare Knuckle it’s gonna give me more of a fan base and it’ll open more doors and opportunities for me to go back into boxing. If I got the world championship title in Bare Knuckle, I’d be the first in the history of Vietnam. There’s never been any world champion in boxing or MMA or Bare Knuckle. I’ll be the first one.”
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This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBF/WBC light heavyweight titles – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Artur Beterbiev (IBF champ/No. 8 IWBR) vs. Oleksandr Gvozdyk (WBC champ/No. 2 IWBR)
Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KO): Third title defense; Twenty-eight rounds in four U.S. fights (average: 7 rounds)
Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KO): Second title defense; Two KO/TKO wins in two title fights (average: 8 rounds)
Fitzbitz says: Hard to discern between an unbeaten Russian and an unbeaten Ukrainian. The best foe between them was Stevenson, whom Gvozdyk handled. Tie broken. Gvozdyk by decision (51/49)
Last week's picks: 2-0 (WIN: Warrington, Bivol)
2019 picks record: 80-14 (85.1 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,091-357 (75.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.