Martin Nguyen’s change from grappler to knockout artist is probably a familiar story: he found confidence in his right hand the moment that his right hand began finding chins. Nguyen found out he could belt pretty well and quickly became more comfortable under fire, allowing his opponents to lead so that he could crack them over the top with the overhand. You won’t catch Nguyen throwing straight blows, he has one setting and it reads “arcing bombs”, yet he has flat-lined some of the best fighters that ONE has to offer and looked good across three weight classes.
A note before we continue: ONE Championship has made the rather commendable decision to upload all of Nguyen’s important bouts to Youtube in their entirety. Timestamped links will be given where necessary.
The fight which cemented Nguyen’s reputation as a thudding counter puncher was his first meeting with Christian Lee. While Lee was a teenager (something the ONE commentary team never allowed to stray far from the viewer’s mind) they had a similar level of experience in professional bouts and both were considered up-and-comers. Nguyen surprised out of the gate with a quick shuffle up into the overhand which cracked Lee over the head. It is interesting that stepping in and being the aggressor has remained a problem for Nguyen and yet in this early instance he did it perfectly. Rather than the left foot with left hand, right foot with right hand footwork of traditional combination punching, Nguyen’s footwork in this instance was for distance—the left foot goes forward with the jab, then the right contracts in behind it immediately, and then the stance is extended again for the overhand.
The other interesting look which jumped out during that fight was Nguyen’s switch into southpaw stance. Most often this will happen as he circles off to his left. Similar to Junior dos Santos, Nguyen will retreat towards the fence in an orthodox stance—with his left foot leading—then step his left foot out to the left side, point his right shoulder at his opponent, and get his chin down behind it to establish a southpaw stance. And just like Dos Santos, Nguyen’s plan seems to be to load up the left hand and pitch it at the opponent’s head if they follow him. Rebounding off the left foot with a left swing in this manner was the punch that signaled the beginning of the end for Lee, dropping him and allowing Nguyen to finish with a guillotine choke.
But Nguyen will also switch stances out in the open to score longer counter left hands. Against Lee—who was very much in the habit of lunging in with powerful one-twos and then attempting to back straight out—Nguyen was even able to perform a stance switch in place (basically jumping to do so) and slip Lee’s right hand before coming back with his own left and dropping Lee. Switch steps in place are very, very seldom used to perform defensive movements and counter strikes and are almost exclusively reserved for offensive actions such as switch kicks and shifting into combination striking on the opposite stance. The reason being that it is a cumbersome way to go about slipping punches, but apparently no one told Nguyen because it was one of the prettiest counters you will see in MMA.
Similarly against Marat Gafurov, Nguyen was able to shift in off his right hand, hit the body with his left, then drop away from Marat’s return and score a good counter punch off his southpaw stance.
Over the three fights following his guillotine over Christian Lee, Nguyen’s right hand took on legendary status in ONE and it is worth studying because with slight adjustments Nguyen has slotted it in against all kinds of different fighters. Against Kazunori Yokota and Christian Lee (in their rematch), Nguyen found the overhand right as a cross counter—slipping to the inside of his man’s jab and crossing it with the overhand.
Similarly, Nguyen will wait on low kicks and immediately fling the right hand in retaliation. Christian Lee ate a few of these but it was the ONE featherweight champion, Marat Gafurov who tasted the canvas off this counter variation.
Nguyen’s most beautiful counter came against Eduard Folayang in a bout where Nguyen went up in weight to challenge for the ONE lightweight title. When they stood across the cage from each other the size disparity was a stark one. In addition to Folayang’s naturally bigger build and considerable power, Nguyen also had to contend with the sheer variety of looks that Folayang showed on the feet. A member of Team Lakay—ONE’s wushu based powerhouse—Folayang brought the spins and leg dexterity that can so easily scare a counter fighter into passivity.
Folayang is a fascinating character in his own right and his style is well worth dissection at a later date, but one thing you will notice in his bouts is that he doesn’t always stand side on and so he must get himself to side on before he executes his turning techniques. He does this by doing a lot of stepping across himself—and he applies this in his lateral movement two, pretty much striding across his own stance to circle the cage. Folayang’s lead leg kicking game serves to set up his turning kick game and you will often see him use that classic lead leg side kick into the turning side kick with the rear leg.
Here’s a nice example of Folayang hiding his back kick in motion. Nguyen is pressuring him and looking to counter so he can’t just go for it. Instead he circles a bit then, from his orthodox stance, performs that hopping L-step we discussed Joanna Champion using the other week. After doing this he strides back towards his right with his left foot, placing his feet on a line—where they are not in his ordinary stance—and spins straight into the kick while Nguyen is adjusting to face him.
Nguyen was largely ineffective through the first round. He applied pressure to Folayang and kept him along the fence, but didn’t lead to much effect. The one action of note that Nguyen took was to attempt a back kick—something he hadn’t shown before or since—and this immediately drew a spin kick from Folayang in return. It is an odd thing that the best fighters in the world become predictable children trying to one-up their opponent the moment they are shown a spinning kick, yet it seems to be one of the few consistent laws in the fight game.
In the second round, it became clear what Nguyen was waiting on and what he had been training for. Ahead of T.J. Dillashaw versus Renan Barao, we discussed countering the back kick in Killing the King: Renan Barao, because Barao reliably threw it if he was running out of ideas. A good rule with wheel kicks, back kicks and turning side kicks is that you must stick to the lead hip. As the opponent begins to turn, think of the space between their lead hip and butt crack as the space in a revolving door and follow it around. Dillashaw glided past Barao beautifully in this way.
And Nguyen did the same thing against Folayang. This was when it became clear that Nguyen was using the pressure to draw Folayang’s lead and, cycling through Folayang’s usual looks, he had begun to pick up on the tells for the back kick. The two men milled a little longer and the next time Folayang spun into a back kick, Nguyen had him. He slid down the side of Folayang’s lead hip and scored one of the most beautiful counter right hands you will ever see, immediately knocking Folayang unconscious from almost behind the Team Lakay champion.
But Martin Nguyen has begun running into problems. After taking the featherweight and lightweight titles, he dropped down to bantamweight to challenge Bibiano Fernandes (somewhat making a mockery of ONE’s proposed solution to the weight cutting problem). Against Fernandes and then Kevin Belingon, Nguyen found little success and ultimately came up short. If he is not presented the opportunities to score his counter right hand he often doesn’t feel comfortable pushing the pace in order to draw out those opportunities.
Similarly his counter right hand is an all consuming effort—often after he has thrown it and missed he will simply walk through with the force of the blow before turning to face the opponent again.
After he has thrown it he will often get himself out of position and leave himself open to a return, as a result he has been cracked and even dropped by several of his ONE opponents.
One trick that Nguyen has begun going to more frequently is the low-low kick. He had success with this against Bibiano Fernandes but only occasionally and ultimately abandoned it—had he stuck with the kick he could have ended up on the winning side of that rather tepid decision, or at least could have created openings for himself later on in the fight. In his most recent fight, against Jadambaa, Nguyen leaned far more heavily on the kick—battering Jadambaa’s lead leg until the Mongolian was forced to hop. At that point Nguyen flew up the centre with a flying knee. It was somewhat reminiscent of Tai Tuivasa’s first fight in the UFC: hobbling the opponent with low kicks and then jumping in for a knee as they stumbled.
While this low-low kick could well be enough to break the plateau that Nguyen seems to have hit, the man could really use some more offensive options. Whether that is learning to commit to his jab and combination boxing, or adding some body shots to apply some pressure to the opponent’s gas tank (a la Jacare Souza), or even just mixing in the inside low kick to set up the overhand on offense as Dan Henderson did for his entire career. Complacency could be the killer of Nguyen’s potential—the right hand is more than enough when his opponents come to him and give him the opportunities. The mark of a great counter fighter is being able to get to work and put it on the opponent to force those chances out.