The Ultimate Fighter’s Nam Phan

Phan was born and raised right here in Orange County and has never been to Vietnam, but hopes he’ll be able to make time to visit the motherland one day. If he can only visit one place in Vietnam, where would it be? “Long Xuyen—when I have time. It’s where my mom’s from.”

Nam teaching his students how to use leverage to lock the opponent in place when grappling.

Phan worked hard, followed through with his dreams and now he’s a success, so I wondered—what advice did he have for others who dream of, but may be hesitant, of breaking out of stereotypical Vietnamese careers of doctors, pharmacists and accountants? He says that whatever you want to do, make sure you’ve planned it out for the next ten years and that you really want it. If you really want it, it’ll be worth it. …and if they want to train MMA? “Dropping out of college is scary,” he tells me. “You have to be willing to go through persecution? Ask yourself—how badly do you want it?” And if you want it bad enough, he says it’s worth it.

Think back five years, knowing what he knows now, Phan would give his 22-year-old self one advice—“If you’re going to fight at 22, don’t do it for the fans, because fans are idiots.” My eyes widened in shock and I gave an uneasy chuckle, so he clarified that there’s a difference between fans and supporters, “Fans are cheering for you when you’re at the top; supporters are who you really want. I’m not above you as a celebrity to call you a fan.” The great thing about supporters is that they support him no matter what. Whether he’s winning or not, up or down, they’re still there for him, and that’s different from just being a fanatic.

I had to know if he had gotten into any fights at school. Let’s estimate that 50% of little boys get into fights at school (boys will be boys, right?)—I wanted to know about Phan’s fights from his tyke days. Yes, he got into mini rumbles, too. Living in a small ethnic community, there were issues that did come up, and these fights were an outlet. He never provoked a fight, he was always coerced, but he tells me, “I could’ve just as easily walked away,” and that’s what he teaches his young students now.

What’s great about that is what he’s doing now with that experience. His MMA gym is a place for kids to work together, learn to control aggressiveness they may feel and learn to find a proper outlet for such frustrations. I told Phan, I see it all the time. I can look at an adult male trying to start a fight in public, making a scene and I know there’s insecurity there. All the guys I know who religiously train MMA—they know what it takes to fight, and the hard work it takes to train, and when and if they are confronted with physical conflict, they can just say, “I know what I’m capable of—so, I’m just going to walk away.” And Phan tells me, “Exactly.” This is the message he’s teaching to his kids. “I can teach them not to make the same mistakes I made.”

I had to know what that specific moment was that had triggered a conscious and clear thought in his mind—when he thought, “I’m going to train MMA and I’m going to succeed. I’m going to make it.”

“I had my whole life planned out when I was eight,” Phan told me, “I decided I wanted to be a fighter. It was a little different back in the 90s, because when you said ‘I want to be a fighter,’ it meant that you wanted to be a gangster.” Of course, Phan didn’t want to be a gangster, but an actual mixed martial artist. Even though it was his dream and he worked hard trying to get to the top, he always had a back-up plan with school. He tells his students, you can dream, and if you work hard, you’ll get there, but make sure you always have a back-up plan.

When he wrote out his plans as a kid, he took out construction paper and crayons, and right in the middle of the page he wrote “FIGHTER” and put a box around it. That was the goal—and seeing it in writing helps you get there. He started out training jiu jitsu but “my hands sucked, so that’s how I got into boxing.” …and from there, you know the rest of the story, right?

Again, he stresses, if you want to be a success—think, how badly do you want it? In high school, he took the bus from Garden Grove to Orange everyday to train. It was one hour one way and he went to train twice a day. That’s four hours a day sitting on the bus just to train. I’m sure you can see how dedicated he was and he says, “It was worth it, because I liked it.” How does a kid have all this time to dedicate to his passion—he did his homework and studied on the bus. That’s an awesome image, isn’t it? Phan really shows that it’s not just a rare talent you’re born with that’ll get you to the top—it’s your own determination for success.

Of course, Phan has a large number of supporters from the young Vietnamese generation, but despite how conservative and traditional older Vietnamese are notoriously known for—he’s got them on his side, too. I told him, “Come on, older, traditional Vietnamese must stop you on the streets and at least have something to say to you,” and they do. He actually gets mixed responses. He’s never been seriously berated for his career choice, but he has been approached and told to quit now while he’s ahead. “Retire now before you lose face,” he’s been told, because he is one of the big faces of the Vietnamese community. There are more who come up to him with admiration for getting out there and representing the Vietnamese people in a good light.

There’s no advantage or disadvantage with being Vietnamese when it comes to being an athlete. Athleticism is an individual quality, but he says, “Vietnamese do have hard work ethics. We go the extra mile. On TUF, I’m not the biggest, I’m not the fastest but I work harder. I run and it helps.”

Student mopping the mats:

I wanted to know the meaning behind his academy’s name, Ma Du Academy. It’s been tweaked from a Vietnamese profanity. Phan’s promoting change—the change from bad to good. “I take a negative and turn it into something positive—there’s no meaning to it. I give it meaning.”

Phan trains, teaches and runs his own business. You have to wonder how this affects his personal relationships—especial with girls. He says he’s married to his career and girls want connection and communication. I wanted to know about the girls, but he tells me, “I’m a socially boring guy.” Personally, I find that extremely hard to believe. As I have mentioned before, what I thought would be a 45-minute interview, turned into a 6-hour conversation between friends.

He may be married to his career, but Phan always has time for his family. He’s always been close to his family and they have definitely played a huge role in his success. They’ve always been living proof to him that “hard work pays off.” It’s a lesson he passes on to his students, himself: if you want it bad enough, plan it out thoroughly and it’ll happen. “If they can do it, I can do it. They came to this country with no money, no land, no English, little support and they made it.” With the privilege of being born in “the land of opportunity,” Phan is definitely utilizing that to his advantage.

Though Phan was born in The United States, he still is proud of his roots and observes Vietnamese holidays and traditions. “I have an Americanized niece and I try to keep as much Vietnamese values in her as possible—to be respectful and disciplined, and I teach her to keep Vietnamese traditions such as Buddhist memorials [for those who have passed within the family.] I also introduce different Vietnamese foods to her, and teach her to train jiu jitsu.”

Nam demonstrating to his students proper striking techniques.

Ladies… I’m finally going to be addressing the issue you’re all just dying to know about. He’s single—so what does he look for in girls? What girl is going to catch his eye? “Well, there’s this coffee shop down the street…” he begins, “…just kidding,” Phan jokingly laughs. He doesn’t exclusively date Vietnamese girls, there are no color lines, “…but we would have more in common. A white girl trying to be into and learn about my culture is much better than a Vietnamese girl completely disconnected from her own culture.” She has to be fit—not too tall. He only stands 5’6”, and the girl being just a bit taller is okay. When he told me that, I was saddened learning my chances with him were slim, since I’m already 5’6” and I was 5’10” in heels that day, but he’s okay with that, too—high heels are okay. Why does she have to be fit?—she doesn’t have to be the incredible hulk; in fact, I’m sure that he prefers that she isn’t, but it shows that she has the same interests and values he does regarding physical fitness and health. “Where we live, there are so many options! The criteria for what you want in a girl will change. I don’t mind boobs, but I like petite girls.” The only no-no is “no big butt,” and he adds, “Internal beauty matters.” He prefers that she be able to cook different types of food—but especially Vietnamese food. She must be educated with a strong sense of security and confidence. A big criterion for his dream girl is that she can’t be a jealous girl. He likes athletic tom-boyish girls, “I like a girl who’s not afraid to get dirty,” he adds, “I like it dirty.”

“Let’s fast forward,” I told him, “You’re married, it’s 2 a.m., and your eight-month baby’s crying…” “I’ll get out of bed for her because I love her; I’ll go the extra mile.” That’s sweet of him—even if he isn’t exactly equipped for a 2 a.m. feeding cry.

Besides training, he likes to drink tea with his friends—shout out to Mr. Paz and Kei— and just sit and have philosophical conversations. He also surfs and loves to watch movies. His favorite genre?—action comedy.

He has a strictly clean diet Monday through Friday, but on the weekends, it’s okay to splurge a little. His favorite foods include New York style pizza, fried chicken, mini burgers, com tam, dim sum, and Peking duck. The best place to eat is at Pho 79 in Westminster, “on Brookhurst and Hazard behind the liquor store,” he informs me. The best thing to eat of all, of course, is his own mom’s cooking which include Vietnamese style fried chicken and chopped ribs. When he’s hours away from Vietnamese food, he misses pho tai chin the most.

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16 Responses

  1. Brian Luong says:

    This is such a great article! Thanks Kimberly!!!

    GO NAM!!!!!!!!!!!! You make us so proud!

  2. Pham Tuan says:

    Nice article….Nam says there are no Viet astronauts…

    the first Asian in space was Viet.

  3. Lac Su says:

    I would enroll in the Ma Du Academy if I lived a bit closer. Jiu Jitsu is awesome!

  4. Jules says:

    Great article Kim! Nam is da MAN!

  5. Son Dam says:

    Awesome article! I hope he wins the whole thing on this seasons The Ultimate Fighter!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Good fighter. Good writer. Go Vietnam!

  7. andrew says:

    haha turns out im in the youth bjj picture

  8. Robert says:

    What coach said about supporters and fans are really true. I really appreciate the accessibility that he is willing to offer for the community as well.

  9. Jason says:

    good article. Nam Phan is an inspiration.

  10. kieu my duyen says:

    I met him, he is very nice, very polite, I am proud of him, I thought that I have to interview for my talk show on radio someday.
    Good luck to him.
    Kieu My Duyen

  11. Hoang-Chau Nguyen says:

    Awesome job on the article! Very interesting insight into MMA that I didn’t know before, really enjoyed this.

  12. Dung says:

    Kimberly Truong,

    First of all, Cung Le was on the MMA radar before Nam Phan, he even got some roles in American movies (which is a shame, he should have put his focus into fighting…).

    As for your comment about “no Vietnamese astronaut”, Pham Tuan was the first Vietnamese AND first Asian cosmonaut in space…
    The only reason why you didn’t know about him is because he was a North Vietnamese pilot… Sorry to pop your bubble.

    There’s no doubt Nam Phan is a role model for the young Vietnamese community, but please do some research before you write your opinions on the internet.

    • Dung– that was Nam Phan’s comment– not my own. I was simply reporting it. Yes, I did know about Cung Le and the first Vietnamese astronaut. Also, beyond casual fans, in the MMA circle, Phan gained notoriety in 2003 after his fight with Razor Rob, Cung Le didn’t even debut until 2006!

  13. jess busto says:

    Very nice article kimberly, Nam is a good mma fighter and good at jiu jitsu but did you know he was an accomplished high school wrestler too. As one of his wrestling coaches you could see good things were going to happen with him in mma. Just would like to see him use a little more of his wrestling skills in his fights they’re there.

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