The Rise of MMA in Vietnam: Insights from Movie Star and MMA Pioneer Johnny Tri Nguyen

 

Mixed martial arts (MMA) has exploded in popularity worldwide over the last two decades. But the sport has taken a unique path in Vietnam, as I learned in a fascinating discussion with Johnny Tri Nguyen, a key figure in developing Vietnamese MMA. Johnny is not only a pioneer of the sport in his home country, but also a major movie star, famous for his leading roles in martial arts films like “Warrior King” (aka “The Protector”) and the colonial Vietnamese kung fu movie “The Rebel.” He has also worked as a stuntman and martial arts choreographer alongside legends like Jet Li, and recently appeared in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods.”

Johnny’s martial arts journey is deeply rooted in his family’s lineage. He practices a style of Vietnamese Kung Fu that traces its origins back to the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 19th century. The Liên Phong style combines fluid, powerful strikes with grappling techniques, embodying the Vietnamese martial arts philosophy of adaptability and efficiency. This martial art has been passed down through generations in Johnny’s family, with his grandfather and father both revered masters.

 


‘The Rebel’ is a Vietnamese-made Kung Fu movie set in Colonial Times

 

When Johnny first opened Liên Phong MMA gym in Vietnam 12 years ago, only a tiny fraction of people even knew what the sport was. His gym has produced champions across various weight classes. Johnny and his team worked tirelessly to raise awareness in those early days, putting on small competitions that drew curious spectators. “As soon as they see it, they say this is fun,” Johnny told me, recalling the excitement that grew as people discovered the dynamic variety of techniques – striking, wrestling, groundfighting – that make MMA so captivating.

However, the path to establishing MMA in Vietnam was fraught with challenges. Without an official sanctioning body, Johnny and other pioneers struggled to secure permits, sometimes facing fines and last-minute event cancellations from wary authorities unsure how to regulate this unfamiliar sport. Undeterred, promotors like him got creative, hosting “friendly” inter-club exhibitions to keep the momentum going. Step by step, MMA began to attract a devoted following.

While the UFC in America turned MMA into a global phenomenon with a brash, confrontational promotional style, Johnny believes that approach wouldn’t resonate in Vietnam. “There’s no way the culture is going to accept the same thing the UFC is doing,” he explained. In Vietnam, martial arts are deeply intertwined with traditional values of honor, humility, and self-improvement. Trash-talking might fly for some rebellious young fighters, but respected figures are expected to represent the “righteous way,” upholding their lineage and the philosophy behind their fighting style.


Johnny and his student Quang Lộc – The Lion Championship 70kg Champion

 

Johnny pointed out that in the past, Vietnamese martial artists didn’t compete with rules and weight classes. Challenges were issued between schools, and fighters battled it out on the spot, using any techniques necessary to win. There was no point system or time limit – bouts simply continued until one side yielded or was incapacitated. While MMA has brought structure and safety measures to combat sports, Johnny sees the sport as a modern expression of that same fearless warrior spirit.

Now, with homegrown promotions like Lion Championship holding major stadium events in cities like Hanoi, MMA is poised for huge growth in Vietnam. These events showcase the nation’s top talent while celebrating the warrior spirit woven into Vietnamese culture. For Johnny, the rise of MMA presents a perfect opportunity to share that culture with the world. “MMA is the way to go for Vietnamese fighters,” he told me. “There are a lot of smart fighters who use logic and game plans. Vietnamese are known for being tricky.”

As Vietnamese MMA gains global attention, it’s not just local fighters making waves. Top international talents are starting to see Vietnam as an exciting destination to train and compete. So far this year, I have already had the chance to train alongside Beneil Dariush, the #7 ranked UFC lightweight. Watching him share techniques with Vietnamese fighters, I saw firsthand how the country’s rapidly evolving MMA scene is attracting world-class athletes eager to be part of this unique movement.

 Augustus presenting Beniel Dariush with a copy of “The Martial Arts of Vietnam”

 

As Vietnam’s economy continues to develop, Johnny predicts MMA is primed to become the nation’s next big professional sport alongside soccer. The passionate pioneers of today are laying the foundation for mainstream success tomorrow. Johnny’s own role in this journey reflects the grit and ingenuity that have brought Vietnamese MMA to the cusp of a breakthrough. From scrappy early competitions to the huge Lion Championship spectacles, there has been an unwavering belief in the potential of Vietnamese fighters, which continues today.

In my own experience documenting the MMA scene in Vietnam, I’ve witnessed the same astonishing growth and resilient spirit that Johnny describes. At grassroots events and glitzy fight nights alike, there’s a palpable sense of a community united by shared passion. As Johnny put it, “We’re laying stepping stones right now for something that’s going to go really big.” If the progress so far is any indication, Vietnamese MMA is indeed building a bright future – one brutal knockout and slick submission at a time.

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