It was a right hand 14 years in the making for Tyson Nam, but after getting his first UFC win in his third try by knocking out Zarrukh Adashev in 32 seconds in June, he didn’t look at it as the culmination of his MMA journey, just the completion of another goal.
“It wasn't the biggest win of my career, but it was definitely big in that I finally got to do it on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts,” said Nam. “A lot has been lifted off my shoulders just knowing that even before the fight it was running through my mind that maybe I'll never be able to show the UFC or the U.S. what I actually do overseas. So I'm very happy, very relieved, but I still got a lot of work to do to keep putting on these performances for you guys.”
A fighter can’t get humbler than that, but all humility aside, inquiring minds want to know what could have been bigger than his blistering knockout of the highly-touted Adashev?
“It's either gonna be Eduardo Dantas or Ali Bagautinov,” said Nam. “A Brazilian in Brazil, a Russian in Russia, both top ten contenders at the time that I fought them, and I was definitely a huge underdog. I thought I read somewhere after I knocked out Eduardo Dantas that it was one of the top 100 greatest upsets in sports history. He was number six in the world at the time, I was just fighting in local shows and here comes this boy from Hawaii over to Brazil fighting the current Bellator bantamweight champion who had been running through guys.”
Nam’s knockout of Dantas in 2012 was a big deal. So was beating former UFC flyweight title challenger Ali Bagautinov in 2017. In between, Nam had his ups and downs, not only on fight night, but outside of competition as well, as he came perilously close to joining the UFC roster, only to have those hopes dashed by contractual issues with his former promoter.
Eventually, Nam would get the call to the Octagon, only to lose decisions to Sergio Pettis and Kai Kara-France. As he entered his fight with Adashev, many wondered if the UFC call came too late for the 36-year-old. That thought crossed his mind, but he let go of it just as fast.
“To me, fighting is just fighting,” he said. “It's competition at its finest, and nothing excites me more than competition. Even before I started fighting, whether it was basketball, baseball or football, competition in general excited me and that's why I actually went to school and got good grades, just so I could go and play and compete. So coming into the UFC, I never wanted an easy match; I wanted those top ten guys just because I'd beaten those top ten guys, just not in the UFC. But everything happens for a reason; I'm just happy and overjoyed that I get to fight in the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts. Probably less than one percent will ever step into a cage or ring and fight; probably less than one percent of that one percent get to do it on the biggest stage, the UFC. So you gotta stay positive for something of that magnitude. There's nothing to be sad about.”
In June, the Waipahu product fought like he always does, hunting for the knockout. It took him a little over half a minute to get it, and while it was an emotional victory, he didn’t let it sit with him for too long.
“The day I landed back in Hawaii, which was on Sunday, I chilled out, but on Monday I was working out again. With a 32-second knockout, I was thinking they might be giving me a fight anytime soon, so I might as well stay in shape, stay healthy and stay ready.”
Wow, no celebrations for the big win and a Performance of the Night bonus?
“I am 36 years young, so when you do a little bit of celebrating, a little bit of partying, it definitely takes a little bit more to get back to it after having one of those nights out,” Nam laughs. “But I don't think people realize the amount that I had to get through in this mixed martial arts career to get that. If I'm thinking off the top of my head, I must have gone through a series of at least three very low lows and staying mentally strong enough to keep training, keep hoping, keep praying to when I got there, which was a couple months ago. And I'm here and I definitely want to stay, so there isn't any time to mess around.”
On Saturday, Nam returns to face Matt Schnell in a clear Fight of the Night candidate at the Apex in Las Vegas. Regardless of what he might think, it’s where he earned the biggest win of his MMA career, but whether it’s Adashev, Dantas or Bagautinov, Nam believes there are even more important victories ahead of him.
“When you set goals for anything, you have the end goal,” he said. “The end goal in mixed martial arts is to be the UFC champion, but you always gotta have little steps. You have to do this to get to that and do that to get to beyond that. So getting the first win was the first goal. It took three chances, but the third time's the charm, like almost everything else. (Laughs) And I'm still getting better and stronger at this point in my career. It's weird, it's kind of scary, but it's still really good if I'm still getting better at this point.”