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Nguyen, hot off accomplishing dream of winning world title, eager for more

Baldwin grad seeks to fight other champions, including heavyweight

Dat Nguyen punches Johnny Bedford during their 135-pound title fight during Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship’s KnuckleMania on Friday in Tampa, Fla. Nguyen won by unanimous decision. Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship photos

Now that he has checked off a major career-long goal at 38 years old, Dat Nguyen isn’t about to back off.

Nguyen, a 2001 Baldwin High School graduate, beat Johnny Bedford by unanimous decision to claim the 135-pound title in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship on Friday night in Tampa, Fla.

“Oh man, it just feels amazing, amazing, the best feeling ever,” Nguyen said Monday. “Everybody has been congratulating me and I’m overwhelmed with love and support messages.”

He ran his professional record to 23-3 with his third straight win in BKFC in the co-main event on a card dubbed KnuckleMania. Bedford had won all five of his BKFC bouts before running into Nguyen.

“It’s been a long journey and I’m finally called a world champion, so it’s my dream come true,” Nguyen said. “I think God just finally gave me the opportunity and the timing.”

Dat Nguyen is interviewed after his win Friday. Nguyen ran his professional record to 23-3 with his third straight win in the BKFC.

At the age of 8, he moved to Maui from Vietnam with his mother and five siblings. He had a stellar amateur career that took him to medal showings in the national Golden Gloves and U.S. national championships and a scholarship at Northern Michigan University, one of three U.S. Olympic training centers for the sport.

“I knew if I want to be a world champion I would have to leave Maui, but Maui will always be deep in my heart, my home, you know, because I love that place and my family is still there,” he said. “For me to be world champion I had to come to where there was opportunity, so I come to Florida and I settled here.

“I always think of Hawaii because that’s where I grew up, that’s where all my family, friends are. Sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to accomplish your dreams. Finally, I accomplished my dream of becoming a world champion.”

With that mantle, he thinks even more of his home island.

“To the fullest because I know that Maui’s such a small-knit community, everybody knows everybody, so I want the whole world to know where I came from, where I grew up, what made me the person I am today,” Nguyen said. “I grew up being so determined as a young kid, growing up on Maui — I used to deliver newspaper for The Maui News.

“Most people didn’t even know that but I delivered newspaper for a couple years, from 12 to 15, 16 years old. I had two routes. I would ride my bike up the mountain in Wailuku Heights. It was hard work, but it taught me a lot.”

His amateur career ended with a loss to Mickey Bey in one of the final bouts to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. His professional career has included several long layoffs, including one of nearly three years from 2013 to 2016.

Nguyen has been a fight trainer since graduating from Baldwin 20 years ago.

“God saw my struggle and finally in my late 30s he made me a world champion,” Nguyen said. “My plan is to move up in weight class and fight champion vs. champion. So, I’m going to sit down with the promoter and — he just called me earlier and he’s very excited to just sit down and discuss our next move. My plan is to move up and fight bigger-name fighters.”

Nguyen said his plan is solid even with his 5-foot-6 frame.

“I think the weight class don’t really matter to me because the bigger they are, the better I fight,” Nguyen said. “They motivate me, those bigger guys motivate me because I know I have to be at my best.”

He has also learned to adapt to the bare-knuckle style with no protections on his hands.

“At the end of the third round (against Bedford) my hand was so swollen, I didn’t want to throw any more punches unless it was exact target,” Nguyen said. “Every time I threw, it hurt my hand just to land on his face. My hand was so swollen, both my hands were so swollen.

“I punch with my whole body. That’s the thing about bare knuckle, if MMA glove or boxing glove, I probably would have knocked him out because I had stamina to keep going, but I just couldn’t throw because every time I threw it hurt my hand, so I had to pick my shots.”

Nguyen is a fighter who analyzes all the elements of the sport.

“Your hand is like your weapon,” he said. “And your weapon depreciates every time you use it.”

He will use that mentality as he moves on as a champion for the first time in his lengthy career. His ultimate goal is to fight for the circuit’s heavyweight belt at 205 that is currently held by Joey Beltran.

“My goal is to fight the heavyweight world champion — that’s what I would like to shoot for, but I don’t think that’s what the promoter wants me to do yet, unless maybe I win two more belts,” Nguyen said. “My plan is to move up to 145 and win the belt at 145 vs. one of the big names. … Those lighter guys would be tougher to beat. If I fight Joey Beltran, it would be like a big monster trying to chase me down, so it’s a different strategy.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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