By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nam Phan grew up wanting to be a fighter.
The 28-year-old Vietnamese American remembers watching and being mesmerized by Hong Kong movies as a youth.
“In the Hong Kong movies, the good guys always beat up the bad guys and got the girl,” said Phan.
Fighting turned out to be his calling.
Today, Phan is one of the few Asian Americans competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), an elite organization for mixed martial arts.
Phan was born and raised in Garden Grove, Calif. His parents came from Vietnam after the war.
The area of Orange County in Southern California where Phan grew up holds the largest population of Vietnamese in the United States. Phan has two older brothers, Tan and Khan, both of whom were involved in martial arts.
Phan began training in martial arts when he was 8 years old. He began learning quyen dao, a form of Vietnamese martial arts that Phan says is similar to karate. He earned a black belt at the age of 17. Phan was also an accomplished wrestler at his high school.
His aspirations to become a fighter became clear after watching UFC fights on video.
“One day, my brother brought home a UFC tape,” said Phan, “At the time, there were no weight classes, and I thought that was too crazy. Once the UFC instituted weight classes, I [seriously] thought about doing it.”
Weight classes are designed to keep fights fair, so a fighter who weighs 140 pounds will not have to go up against one who is 200 pounds.
In 2000, Phan began training in Brazilian jiu jitsu, a form of grappling involving submission moves used by many in the sport of mixed martial arts. Now, after several years of intense training, Phan holds a black belt in this form of martial arts.
Phan’s first professional fight was at the age of 18. He was offered a fight through connections at his martial arts academy. Even though he was a white belt (the lowest rank and held by the least experienced), Phan wanted to compete. He won his first match with an opening round knockout when he struck his opponent with elbows to the head.
“I cracked his skull,” Phan recalled. For his win, Phan received only $300. Still, Phan was hooked on the sport and wanted to continue to fight.
However, he faced an obstacle because he was in school when he won his first fight. Phan attended Golden West College, a two-year college in Huntington Beach, Calif. After Phan received his associate’s degree at Golden West, he found himself not wanting to continue with his education.
“I really hated school,” Phan said. “As an Asian American, education was heavily pressed [ever] since I was a child. If you aren’t in school, you are an outcast.”
Phan decided to apply to only one college after graduating Golden West and that if he did not get in, to focus on fighting full time. Contrary to most students, he was not excited about transferring to another school.
When Phan was accepted to Cal State University, Fullerton, he exclaimed, “Dang it!”
With Phan still longing to fight professionally, he left school lacking only 40 credits toward a degree in business and marketing. Despite not liking school, Phan did enjoy Asian American studies and thinks he would have changed majors if he had stayed in school. Phan’s parents were not happy about his decision to leave school.
“At the beginning, they thought it [martial arts] was just a hobby and were not supportive,” said Phan. His father first learned of Phan’s decision through a local Vietnamese newspaper, which had a picture of him after one of his fights. “[Being] an engineer, doctor, or lawyer is an acceptable career [choice]. Becoming a fighter, singer, musician, or something out of the ordinary is not,” stated Phan. “For my parents, coming from the home country, it’s very poor, money and resources are scarce,” Phan added. “The formula is education plus degree equals success. It’s not always the case in America.”
Phan explained that his career choice made him feel exiled. “People judge you. Friends do not support your choice. And people ask, ‘Are you ready to face reality [yet]?’ ”
Venturing away from the norm, Phan had no role models to look to in pursuing a career in martial arts. This is why he seeks to be someone others can look up to.
“Being first generation means no one [came] before us. Because we’re the first, there are no Asian American role models, no one to look up to, no one to tell you right from wrong. No leader. We do not have that,” Phan said. “I’m not the best fighter out there, but I want the next generation out there to know if you want it bad enough, things can happen.”
“The Ultimate Fighter”
Phan’s big break came when he was chosen to be on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a Spike TV reality show featuring aspiring mixed martial artists living in a house and competing against each other for a contract to fight in the UFC. While Phan did not win the competition, he was impressive enough to earn a contract with the UFC anyway. His first UFC fight ended in controversy, as it appeared that he beat his opponent Leonard Garcia, but the judges decided against Phan.
Proud of the flag
Phan has received criticism for carrying the South Vietnamese flag, not the American flag, to the octagon before his fights. He has a patch of the flag on his ring attire.
Phan believes that the South Vietnamese flag is symbolic.
“For me, it’s political,” said Phan, “From my experience, in this business, there will be people to support you and those that won’t support you. If you stand by what you believe in, everyone will respect you.”
“I’m not going to change,” explained Phan. “The South Vietnamese do not belong to a nation.
Vietnamese are scattered across America. I’ve come across other Vietnamese in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Africa. [All these] Vietnamese can relate to the South Vietnamese flag.”
Phan’s career has helped him fulfill another dream of his, to own a martial arts academy. After one fight, he was able to take the earnings and start up the Nam Phan Academy in Garden Grove. He’s able to balance business and fighting.
As part of being a UFC star, Phan receives hate mail that he finds amusing and annoying at the same time. Phan gets e-mails stating that if he loses a match, he will embarrass the Vietnamese race. He also receives criticism for some of his strategy during matches, which he finds outrageous since most fans have never fought professionally.
Phan’s next match — a long awaited rematch with Leonard Garcia in Houston — is Oct. 8. The match will be on the night’s pay-per-view main card.
Phan is excited for it because Houston has the second highest Vietnamese population in the United States.
“I’m going to be giving a lot of love for the people in Houston.” (end)
For more information, visit www.iamnamphan.com or follow Phan on Twitter at @NamPhanmma.
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.