With so few professional athletes of Vietnamese descent, it should make it that much easier for such talent to immediately grab the spotlight.
Considering that Vietnam doesn’t even sanction pro boxing, the name Dat Nguyen should immediately jump off the page when mentioned in sports circles.
For a while it did. Only not in the way the fighter preferred.
“Whenever I first meet someone and they learn my name, they always say that I look so much smaller than I do on TV,” says Nguyen, the Vietnam-born featherweight who has the misfortune of sharing the same name with former All-Pro linebacker Dat Nguyen. “Then, they say how much weight I’ve lost.”
The good news is that boxing’s Dat “Dat Be Dat” Nguyen is the only active athlete of that name these days. Football’s version retired three years ago, giving the boxer room to make a name for himself.
Then came the next hurdle.
“For me to be Vietnamese, it was hard for the promoters over here to take me seriously,” admits Nguyen, presently 16-1 (6KO) in five years as a pro. “If I was from the Philippines, it might’ve been different. I had a hard time getting fights for a long time.”
What wasn’t as challenging was getting him to become a boxer in the first place.
The son of a Vietnam POW, Nguyen was born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam but relocated with his family to the United States when he was eight years old. They first lived in Oregon before moving to Hawaii, where one of his brothers served as a standout kick boxer.
Nguyen believed he would follow in his brother’s footsteps, but never truly took the sport.
“I followed my brother to the gym and trained in kickboxing and karate before going to boxing. Those other sports didn’t keep me busy enough, so I went strictly to boxing.”
Success soon followed, including a Junior Olympic title in 1996 and consecutive second-place finishes in the 2002 and 2003 National Golden Gloves.
Missing in between the notable achievements was a steady rate of activity - “I made it to 10-0 as an amateur in Hawaii, then couldn’t get any more fights.”
Still, he was able to parlay his talent into a scholarship, attending Northern Michigan University after graduating from high school in 2000.
All told, only 45 or so fights graced his amateur record before turning pro in 2004. Once again, winning fights proved to be much easier than actually lining then up. Most new fighters spend the early years fighting often and building up their records.
Not the case for Nguyen, who was a mere 3-0 (1KO) after more than two years as a pro before meeting the first promoter that would help shape his career.
“My manager (Jack Luce) signed me with Capiello Promotions, out of Boston. It was a journey, fighting in other people’s hometowns. It wasn’t easy, but I needed to fight.”
Richie Capiello still remains on board as Nguyen’s co-promoter. He shared such honors for a while with Lou DiBella, but things didn’t exactly turn out for the best.
“Lou DiBella is a great guy, but he never had any opportunities for me. My career didn’t really go anywhere, not in the direction I hoped.”
To DiBella’s credit, he too recognized the dilemma. Unlike most promoters, who would willingly kill a fighter’s career rather than allow him to flourish elsewhere, DiBella began working the phones to see where Nguyen would be the best fight.
Enter Chet Koerner, a Houston-based businessman whose TKO Boxing promotional company boasts more date than any other in the United States. Koerner’s latest project is “Hometown Heroes,” a series dedicated towards allowing fighters to become regional stars BEFORE they’re ready for prime time, thus making them more alluring to the major boxing networks.
From the moment Nguyen’s name was mentioned, Koerner immediately began envisioning the potential scenarios.
“Lou realized we could provide the market for Dat, and wasn’t hesitant in allowing the kid to have that opportunity. We bought out his contract and have very big plans for Dat.”
They include tapping the market in cities boasting heavy Vietnamese/Vietnamese-American populations – including Koerner’s home base of Houston.
Nguyen’s first fight under the TKO Boxing banner came in Houston this past May, and he returns on October 10 – his 27h birthday - in his first main event. Barring an unforeseen postponement, the bout will be the third for Nguyen in a span of less than five months, a rate of activity that has been a long time coming for the all-action featherweight.
“I prefer fighting every 2-3 months, so this is perfect for me,” says Nguyen, who for the first time in his career truly feels like he’s part of a team. “The way it used to be, I would just train and would be given a fight date out of the blue.
“With TKO Boxing, there is more stability. I don’t have to worry about the business side; just about the easy part – fighting.”
If there’s any thing Nguyen enjoys more than fighting, it’s putting on a show for the fans – before, during and after the bout. Koerner was given an up close and personal view of what comes with the full Dat Nguyen fight experience.
“I swear, it must take 15 minutes for Dat to make it to the ring,” says Koerner of Nguyen’s theatrical ring entrances.
Included on his stroll from the locker room is the “Mua Lan,” a custom Vietnamese lion dance to symbolize the exorcism of evil spirits. As fans go wild, Nguyen then has to stop, talk, pose for pictures – all on his way TO the ring.
It was the combination of his fighting style and personality that drew him to TKO Boxing.
“He’e everything you could ask for in a young fighter. Outside the ring, he’s very personable with the fans and the media. Between the ropes, he boxes, he trades on the inside – he gives the fans a show. As a boxing fan myself, I love watching his fights, although as a promoter he sometimes gives me a heart attack.”
But that’s just where Dat Be Dat – his way of enjoying his moment in the sun.
“I’m just happy to be fighting. Of course I’d love to be on TV more often when it’s available, but staying active is the most important thing. TV dates don’t guarantee that I move up the rankings; winning fights does.”
Dat’s thoughts underline the reputation on which Koerner prides himself.
“With so many other fighters and promoters today, it’s all about the TV dates. It’s great if you can get on, but look at how many guys go cold waiting for a date to come up.
“The reason fighters sign with us is because we have the most dates. It’s not about the network dates, but guaranteed fight dates on our terms. Any fighter likes exposure, but first and foremost they WANT to stay busy.”
Nguyen will be the first to agree, having only once appeared on ESPN2, and with none of his past three fights carried on live television. But so long as he’s in the ring, his fans will follow. Eventually, a video will pop up online, which allows his former countrymen to stay in touch with the man whom has already become Vietnam’s most celebrated boxer.
It’s a status he’s longed for, and already enjoys even though his career is just getting started. It’s also all the more reason why needs to stay active, and not just a rumor.
“I feel like I represent Vietnam every time I step in the ring, or even when I’m asked about the sport. Whatever I do, millions of people are following over there. They watch me on YouTube and reading everything about me.
“I’m the only fighter to get well-known that is Vietnamese-American. When I succeed, they succeed. I cannot fail. I have to succeed. It strives me to push harder to break that barrier.”
The notoriety has always existed back home. The next step is to enjoy the same status in the United States, which he believes will come as his level of competition steadily increases.
“I hope to fight for a title, or as a top contender by this time next year. I want to stay busy, get busy, and move into the top ten. Mario Santiago, Rocky Juarez – I’ve been sparring those guys and know that I can fight them and beat the top featherweights.
Though just turning 27 and time seemingly on his side, he would prefer for success to come sooner rather than later.
“I love boxing, but I don’t want to be in this sport for too long. I don’t want to be around long enough to be an opponent.”
Just long enough for everyone to distinguish that Dat be all dat.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact Jake at [email protected]