You don’t need to train at Elite, California Fitness or Star Fitness to be street savvy and pitching for some trouble. In Hanoi, where the streets of Au Co and Nghi Tam merge, the unassuming fitness facility Vietfighter (44 Au Co, Tay Ho) is home to three fighters whose skill, balance, strength and knowhow makes them ready to take on all challengers.
And where will those challengers come from? That upstart, nonchalant little metropolis in the jungle, Saigon. A welterweight boxer, a Vovinam specialist and a former MMA world champion are ready and waiting in the wings. Prepare yourself Hanoi, your match may well have been made.
So hold onto your hats and get yourself ringside for the biggest rumble Vietnam has ever known. We would love to tell you that it’s taking place in the urban jungle that is this country’s two biggest cities. But in fact we’ve gone one better. It’s taking place in this very magazine.
As the show prepares to start, ladies and gentleman, here are the contenders!
FIGHT No. 1
Long ‘The Doctor’ Nguyen (Hanoi) vs Dave ‘Multi-Disciplined’ Menne (HCMC)
FIGHT No. 2
Matt ‘Ice Cold’ Pavia (Hanoi) vs Cyril ‘The Uppercut’ Terrones (HCMC)
FIGHT No. 3
Ngan ‘The Dragon’ Nghiem (Hanoi) vs Trinh ‘The Dagger’ Thien (HCMC)
FIGHT No. 1
Long ‘The Doctor’ Nguyen (Hanoi)
Those searching for a new hobby should take notice. According to Vietfighter’s founder and head trainer, Long ‘The Doctor’ Nguyen, the most effective form of martial arts to learn is Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). “At the heart of every martial art,” he says, “are techniques designed to overcome a more powerful opponent. BJJ has refined and perfected that philosophy. It is like the genetic engineering of martial arts.”
Knowledgeable in many different styles, Long speaks on the subject with expertise. A decorated athlete from a young age, he has many BJJ, Muay Thai and MMA fights under his belt. And he is not an uncaring victor, having taken the Hippocratic Oath as a medical doctor in New South Wales, Australia.
“After seven years [of being a doctor], I felt burnt out,” Long says. “I came back to Vietnam for a long holiday in late 2008, and I noticed that there wasn’t a facility for real world-class training in Hanoi. [At that point,] I hadn’t been back to Vietnam for 20 years. I didn’t know much about the country then, but I had somewhat of a cultural awakening. I wanted to do something new that was in keeping with my passion, so I decided to open this gym.”
Opening in 2010, Vietfighter has already proven itself to be a worthy contender in the world of competitive fighting. “We are actually a training team,” says Long. “We have a team bond and we all improve together. We have people who come here with a goal to just lose weight, and they lose the weight. And we also have people who come here with the desire to be a medalist in their field of martial arts, and they win medals. We have a 31-year-old Swiss woman who was in finance full-time before training with us, and now she has had two professional Muay Thai fights in Thailand. Whatever your goal is, we try to fulfill it here.”
Dave ‘Multi-Disciplined’ Menne (HCMC)
Dave Menne is a big guy. Not big as in height. But big in terms of breadth and achievement — in the many martial arts he’s devoted himself to in life.
English boxing, Thai Boxing, wrestling, traditional jiu-jitsu, grappling and BJJ are just some of the disciplines in which he has trained. But the pinnacle, the year when he had his biggest success, was in 2001 when he won the UFC world title and was ranked number one in the world in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Having already fought some of the world’s best-known names in a wide variety of disciplines, the UFC title was the natural reward for his constant questing.
These days, Dave is focusing on spreading MMA to Asia. He’s doing this through training would-be fighters in Ho Chi Minh City, presently leading the line of martial arts specialists at District 7’s Saigon Sports Club (514B Huynh Tan Phat, Q7).
“For me [becoming a trainer] was a natural progression,” he explains. “Not everybody who is a good fighter is a good trainer. I think they have to have a unique perspective and the ability to convey it. There is a decent degree of patience needed — not every fighter has that patience.”
As a trainer, Dave knows that the student needs to understand that being a martial artist requires so much more than just being able to fight. “It is an integration of mind and body. It is about living, the betterment of your person. It is about concentration; it takes patience, it takes intelligence, it takes hard work. Everything that you need in life to become a better person.”
Yet as much as he is a martial artist and a trainer, he is also a warrior with perspective, having reached the top of his art. He quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither suffer nor enjoy much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
FiGHT No. 2
Matt ‘Ice Cold’ Pavia (Hanoi)
Like any good martial artist, US-born Matt Pavia knows how to teach. First working in Vietnam as an English teacher, he’s now passing on his fitness knowhow and high MMA IQ as Vietfighter’s lead instructor in strength and conditioning (S&C).
“I started teaching S&C classes a few times a week,” Matt says. “It kind of snowballed from there and, at the beginning of this school year, I decided not to go back [to teaching English] and take on training at the gym full-time.”
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist who has competed the length and ringside breadth of the US, Matt’s duty is to whip would-be fighters into top shape through grueling hour-long HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts. “The people that come and train regularly for the S&C classes have improved their fitness level greatly,” he says. “They’re able to do things they may not have had the confidence to do before joining the gym. There are some who have improved their fitness level enough that they are able to succeed in their goals, whether it be climbing Fansipan near Sapa or running a marathon. We recently had some people from the gym who completed the 21K half-marathon in Hanoi.”
To achieve a person’s peak physical performance, it is important to isolate certain parts of the body and not allow the muscles to grow accustomed to any given exercise. Matt combats this problem by creating new workout routines for each class. “If your body starts getting used to the same routine, it will start getting acclimated. You’ve got to throw in different exercises to shock your body, otherwise you will begin to plateau. Also, if you start getting bored with the exercises you’re doing, that just gives you a reason to start making excuses not to come to the gym. I like to keep all the people that come in on their toes — give them something to look forward to.”
Cyril ‘The Uppercut’ Terrones (HCMC)
Cyril Terrones is well-known in Saigon, not just for his fighting-style gym, Cyril and You, in District 2, but for his vivacious personality and his well-attended, morning conditioning classes by the river. But few know that this French-born trainer and boxer was once the welterweight champion of France.
The year that Cyril achieved his all-conquering prowess was 1998, a year that saw him rise to the top of his profession. But with 39 professional fights including 27 wins and one draw under his muscular belt, he decided that punching and getting punched for a living was no longer for him.
“I was an educator at a French school during my first year in Vietnam,” he recalls. “[Then] I was a manager at Nutrifort. Eventually I opened my business and met my wife. After that my life changed.”
Rather than getting members to pay a monthly or annual payment for their membership, Cyril gets his cohorts to pay for a package of 10 classes at a time. Whether it’s conditioning, yoga, Zumba, boxing or general fitness classes, these can be used at any time.
“I don’t want to take anyone’s money for nothing,” he explains. “So, your first class is free and then you just pay for 10 classes and take them when your time allows. Around 70 percent of my clients are foreigners and it fits with their schedules. They are busy with their families, kids and schools, so I can’t expect them to always be focused on fitness.”
For Cyril, the first thing you need to become a martial artist or a boxer is motivation. “Life is a disease you’re fighting against,” he explains. “But outside [the gym] is different. Fighting is fighting. You have to follow the rules, but it lets you get out your bad energy, your frustration.”
He adds: “Fighting is 70 percent in the mind — it’s like a game of chess. The beauty is in the movement and combining it with the power of fighting. Even though I have been boxing since 1987, it still fascinates and enthuses me.”
FiGHT No. 3
Ngan ‘The Dragon’ Nghiem (Hanoi)
Few women compete in sport fighting, but fewer still have two jiu-jitsu silver medals to show for it. One of a short list of female Vietnamese MMA and jiu-jitsu artists in the world, Ngan Nghiem won her medals recently at the 2012 Kalasagan BJJ Open in Manila, Phillippines.
Her path to a professional fighting career began at Vietfighter, but not from where you’d expect. It started from behind the counter.
Ngan was the gym’s receptionist before she started dipping into the gym’s kickboxing classes on her days off. Fast forward three years and she now teaches her own kickboxing class, specifically tailored for women. “At university I studied tourism,” she laughs.
For Ngan, there is no temptation to rest on the laurels of the two silver medals around her neck. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the two jiu-jitsu medals came through happenstance.
“I really wanted to do an MMA fight,” she says, “but the organisers said they could not find me any girls [to fight] because of my size. I was really sad, because you train really hard for three years and then have nothing to do with your hard work. But we found a jiu-jitsu competition in the Philippines. I trained jiu-jitsu for three months. So two silver medals was just an experience, not the one I really expected.”
Ngan’s training in BJJ will pay off when she does land that MMA fight. In MMA, fighters must be equipped to handle any situation — be it on foot, on the ground or with their backs to the cage.
“I train in kickboxing, Muay Thai, boxing and jiu-jitsu,” she says. “So when I stand, I use Muay Thai and boxing techniques. When someone takes me down, I will know what to do — like submission arm bar or triangle.
“If you want to do MMA, you need to know at least three different things. If you only know tae kwon do, you can do a spinning back kick. It looks very beautiful, but if someone takes you down, you will not know what to do next.”
Trinh ‘The Dagger’ Thien (HCMC)
Quang Ngai-born Trinh Thi Thien bears the distinction of single-handedly whipping the famed Minetti brothers, a feat that not even the most daring and hardened martial artist can claim. Fair enough, the accolade took place on camera as part of a short film — My Cyclo. But nonetheless, the Minetti brothers — founders of K1 Fitness in Saigon — still left the stage with their tails between their legs. Thien, on the other hand, was voted best actress in the 48-Hour Film Project in which the film was entered.
Now 30, Thien moved to Ho Chi Minh City when she was five. Under the watchful eye of an aunt, well-known martial artist Ho Hoa Hue, Thien began learning the traditional arts of tai chi and Vovinam. By the age of eight she was on the national team.
With 20 years in the national team under her belt — she quit two years ago — the Sports and Physical Gymnastics graduate is now focusing on training others. At her aunt’s gym in Saigon’s District 7 (129 Lam Van Ben, Q7), Thien runs a number of the classes and, when her aunt’s abroad, takes care of the centre. For this firecracker of a martial arts specialist, who prefers fighting with sticks, swords and double daggers, martial arts is not about harming others, but self-protection.
“When you reach a high level,” she explains, “you feel calm inside, undisturbed. You don’t want to harm anyone, even if there is someone trying to attack you. You just want to protect yourself.”
The Judge and The Jury
So, ladies and gentlemen, we are preparing to let the fights begin. Six contenders, with only three winners. Now’s the time to place your bets — who’s going to truly rumble our paper jungle?
As the betting opens, we ask you to jot down your thoughts, send us your opinions and scream out your judgements. We need you. And even more importantly, we want to hear from you.
Thank you for watching, ladies and gentlemen! It has been an experience.