Survivor: How Bi Nguyen Has Achieved Personal Triumph Through MMA

Tom TaylorContributor IFebruary 3, 2020

ONE Championship

The car rolled six times before it settled on the roadside. Strapped into the passenger seat amid a mess of broken glass and mangled metal, Bi Nguyen had reached a turning point, although she didn't know it then.

Nguyen, who now competes in muay thai and MMA in ONE Championship's 115-pound atomweight division, had already been through a lot.

At seven years old, she emigrated with her parents and seven siblings from Vietnam to Oakland, California. By the time she was 10, she was working in newspaper delivery, often as late as 3 a.m. Then, at 15, she moved, by herself, to live with a friend in Houston.

"I had a lot of misplaced anger," Nguyen, now 30, said of her decision to leave home at such a young age. "I just needed to leave, so I left—I thought—to find myself."

Despite her youth, Nguyen rose to the challenges of life in a new city. She was fearless and learned a lot at a young age.

"I learned all of the lessons of life before I was 17," she said. "I learned how to drive by myself. I paid my bills by myself, got an apartment by myself, went to school by myself."

While Nguyen was able to survive on her own, things eventually took a dangerous turn. The trouble, she says, began like most relationships do: with excitement, with butterflies in the stomach.

She met him at a bar she was waitressing at. She was 16, he was 20. 

"I was in love," she recounted. "He was everything I wanted at the time."

Unfortunately, about a year in, that love turned into what she describes as a nightmarish "blur."

"He gained my trust, he gained my love; then, one day, he smacked me. I was really shocked, and I wanted to leave, but then I forgave him, and little by little, a smack became a hit, a hit became a kick, and it got really bad.

"He would try to drown me sometimes. He stabbed me multiple times."

Those who have never been in an abusive relationship might question Nguyen's decision to stay. Yet as she explains, it's not easy to leave.

"There is no vision, there is no path to leave," she said. "This person has made your entire life about them. The only thing I knew was him, and the only thing he was telling me was, if I left, he'd kill me."

Nguyen saw no escape and believes she would have been killed had fate not intervened.

"Everybody sees me as this brave professional fighter, but if it wasn't for God, if it wasn't for that car accident, I would be dead for sure," she said.

ONE Championship

That brings us back to that turning point on the roadside in Houston, with the red and blue lights illuminating the darkness.

There was a car chase, with Nguyen in the passenger seat and her ex-boyfriend at the wheel. He was speeding and didn't pull over when police pursued. He lost control. The car flipped. The police closed in.

Nguyen was taken to the hospital, where staff identified older injuries on her body—injuries that did not match the signature of a car crash.

"The officers pulled me aside because they saw scars and bruises on me," she said. "They talked to me about it, and that was the first time I came out and reported all of the abuse."

Her ex was arrested for a parole violation and later imprisoned. 

It was a pivotal moment for Nguyen. It didn't mark the end of her struggles, but it did spark a period of immense personal growth—and the beginnings of her fighting career.

"When I gained my freedom, I was lost," she said, adding that her apartment was robbed at around the same time. "They took everything. I had no money, nothing, nobody, no family, no contacts in my phone. It was really hard for me to pick myself up.

"When I finally did, I decided to take a self-defense class," she added, looking back on her first brushes with the martial arts, at 21. "It was a muay thai class, and the coaches saw something in me. They trained me for my first fight [against Ashley Meza], and I won with terrible technique and a lot of heart."

Nguyen trained hard, narrowing the gulf between her technique and her heart, and ultimately branched out into MMA. She worked and lived at the gym, handling cleaning and front desk duties in exchange for a membership and a place to sleep. She won some fights. She competed for the King of the Cage atomweight title. Her popularity grew. Thanks to an overpowering but unsatisfied desire to make it to the UFC, she admits she started to burn out, but then, in 2018, fate intervened again, this time in a most unexpected place: Fiji.

Nguyen ventured to this isolated patch of paradise as part of a little reality show called Survivor. Maybe you've heard of it. The invitation to join Survivor—for a special season called David vs. Goliath, which pitted contestants "who come from a place of privilege" against "those who have scratched and clawed their way through life to prove themselves"—came at another strenuous juncture in her life. Not only was her passion for fighting waning, but her father died just as she was reconnecting with him.

"That same day that my dad passed away, I got a call asking me to be on Survivor," she recounted. "I was hesitant, but then I thought about it. My dad was this crazy dreamer. He would've said yes, so I said yes. [I] went to my dad's funeral a week later, fought and won a week after that; then packed my bags and went to Fiji."

Nguyen arrived in paradise with a heavy heart. Her time there was difficult, but she learned a lot, and the show gave her a platform to share her story with a massive audience.

"We had two cyclones, so it was wet and we couldn't make a fire," she recounted. "You can't make rice with no fire. You can't cook fish. So we didn't eat for 10 days, and the social game was even harder. Just being isolated with people you don't know who are playing a rigorous mind game 24/7. … It was intense.

"It taught me so much about myself."

Nguyen dropped out of Survivor early on after suffering a knee injury that she worried would jeopardize her fighting career. When her time on the show concluded, she signed a contract with ONE, an organization that promotes MMA, muay thai and kickboxing.

For a muay thai fighter branching out into MMA, it was the perfect fit.

"The whole idea of the UFC—I'm glad it didn't work out because ONE is perfect at this point," she said. "I'm taking all the fights. I'm saying yes to everyone—all the hardest fights, the ones that people don't want [to accept]. I'm performing my ass off, and I'm having a great time."

Since joining ONE Championship, Nguyen has won some and lost some, battled two-sport champ Stamp Fairtex in a 2019 thriller and expanded her already thriving fanbase. She was expected to return against undefeated Japanese prospect Itsuki Hirata on February 7 but was unfortunately forced out of this fight with an arm injury and will have to wait for her first contest of 2020.

Currently 5-5 in MMA, she's used her ever-widening platform to help abuse survivors and empower women, giving free self-defense seminars, sharing her story at schools and shelters and lots more.

Nguyen has triumphed over a lot of adversity. She's made it her mission to help others do the same. 

"I think that a lot of people would have broken under a lot of things that I've been through," she said. "Now, I'm so confident and secure in myself in dealing with any situation. I feel so strong and unbreakable.

"For years I fought for the young me who felt powerless. Now, I'm fighting for others who may feel that way."

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