Dat Nguyen is living his American Dream
Dat Nguyen has long gone by the nickname ‘Dat be Dat.’ And for six rounds, Dat was all that he had hoped to be in the ring.
It didn’t bother him that he had to double back the morning after to return the rental car at Hobby Airport before taking an early flight across town out of Bush International back home to Florida.
There were no regrets as he left Houston sleepless, other than that he didn’t get a chance to thank his mother on TV for the sacrifices she made to bring him and his siblings from Vietnam to give them a better life.
He was still relishing in the moment of his biggest win to date, a technical knockout of previously unbeaten featherweight Miguel Flores, whom he dropped and battered to a sixth-round stoppage on Feb. 21 in the televised main event of a PBC on FS1 show.
As he reflected on the night before, he remembered the words that his promoter Marshall Kauffman had told him when he first agreed to take the fight in December: “You win this fight, your life’s gonna change.”
That’s all Nguyen had ever been after. The 34-year-old had chased the American dream since he first arrived in the country at age 8. Nguyen was born in Bien Hoa, a countryside far from the city life in Saigon. His dad passed away when he was young, leaving Nguyen’s mother to raise six children by herself.
“I remember all the struggles we went through,” Nguyen (20-3, 7 knockouts) told RingTV.com. “My mom had to work so hard selling things in the market to provide us food. Me and my sister are so small, my oldest sister had to watch us, sometimes we didn’t have enough food to eat. Sometimes when I look back at that it makes me cry and think I got to work hard. I got to be somebody. I got to make it in America.”
Nguyen’s family got the chance to relocate to America after being sponsored by a family member living in Portland, Oregon. They spent six months in the Philippines while their paperwork was processed.
“We had a Filipino teacher that was teaching us English and it was like my first teacher ever, she taught me A-B-C and all that. In Vietnam, school was optional and you gotta pay to go to school,” said Nguyen.
After a short stay in Oregon, the family relocated to Maui, Hawaii. It’s there that Nguyen followed his older brother into the boxing gym. His brother was more interested in kickboxing, and even had fights on the local TV channel, but Nguyen took to traditional boxing, and by the eighth grade won a Junior Olympic title, and earned a scholarship to Northern Michigan University to box and study at the United States Olympic Training Center.
Nguyen finished runner-up in the 2002 and 2003 National Golden Gloves and accrued about 40 or so credits towards a Computer Information Systems degree, he estimates, before leaving with his then-roommate and future heavyweight contender Travis Kauffman to Reading, Pennsylvania to train under Kauffman’s dad Marshall and turn pro.
But by 2009, Nguyen’s career had lost direction. After fighting his first three fights on Kauffman’s shows, he signed with new management and moved down to Vero Beach, Florida to train with Buddy McGirt. When McGirt’s Gym closed, he no longer had a steady trainer.
He fell out with his manager over a dispute about training and living expenses, and found himself without a promoter when TKO Promotions, which had signed him, closed shop. To stay in the sport, he opened up Miracle Boxing Gym, which kept him around boxing but also became a source of arguments.
“It was really tough because so many times me and my wife were arguing saying maybe we need to close the gym because we weren’t making money,” said Nguyen. “We were training people to pay the rent, it was a struggle.”
His next two ring appearances would end in disappointment. A 2011 fight against Luis Del Valle ended in a one-sided decision loss, with Nguyen unable to muster the strength to offer resistance. In what must have been a first, Nguyen called up the New York Commission and asked if they’d found anything in his urinalysis, wondering aloud if he had been drugged.
More than two years later he’d get his next fight, and lose a more competitive decision to Jayson Velez. After a pair of losses, his phone wasn’t ringing off the hook from promoters wanting to build him back up.
“They didn’t want to sign me, they don’t want to sign a Vietnamese fighter,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen’s career got a kickstart in late 2015, when he called up Travis Kauffman to congratulate him on a good performance against Chris Arreola, a split decision loss turned no decision after Arreola failed a drug test. Kauffman told him that his dad was promoting shows in Florida now, and to call him to see if he could get on a show.
In 2016, Kauffman arranged two fights for Nguyen, in May and June, a pair of six-round decisions to get his career back up and running. Without a full-time trainer, Nguyen picked up boxing utility man Nelson Lopez Jr. to work his corner on fight night.
He’d need something more permanent to make real progress in his career, but with a newborn baby and a business to run in an isolated part of central Florida, it wasn’t always practical. So when he began training for the Flores fight, he used the resources he had around him at his gym.
“I didn’t have a trainer or anyone to hold pads for me, so I asked one of my students, he’s the kid who worked my corner,” Nguyen says of Derrick Ferguson, or DJ, whom he taught to hold the pads for the specific combinations he wanted to throw.
To devise a strategy, Nguyen played Flores’ fight videos and crowdsourced reactions in the gym.
“I got every fighter, every one in my gym is trying to help me out, watching video, saying ‘Oh this kid’s been knocking everybody out to the body so you’ve gotta watch his left hook to the body.’ So I’m like OK, he’s a body puncher, I’m a body puncher. I gotta find a counter to that, I was working on some of the combinations we throw in the flurry,” said Nguyen.
And for sparring, he turned to Samuel Kotey Neequaye, a Ghanaian lightweight with a 22-2 (15 KOs) record who is handled by Lopez Jr., and whom Nguyen opened his gym doors to. Neequaye pushed Nguyen to spar harder and build his endurance
“I started sparring with Samuel, only able to go five rounds, but Samuel is so strong, he’s like ‘Nah, keep going, I want you to go six. I’m like ‘Man, I’m gassed out, wait ’til the next time we spar, we’ll go another round.’ But he’s like ‘No, I want you to be in shape for this fight,’” remembered Nguyen.
For the flight to Houston he was given just three tickets, meaning he’d bring his wife and DJ, and would have to instruct DJ beforehand what to remind him of in the corner. As fate would have it, another phone call with a roommate from his days at Northern Michigan would play a pivotal role.
Chad Aquino, who roomed with Nguyen in his first year, was the 2001 National Golden Gloves champ at light welterweight and made it to 7-0-1 in his pro career before retiring unbeaten after two hand surgeries and the withdrawal of his financial backer.
He lives in Houston, and wanted to watch his friend in action but couldn’t afford the high price of the ticket. Nguyen had an idea.
“I said, ‘You think you can work my corner?,’” Nguyen asked. Aquino, who had left the sport behind to take a regular job, agreed. He took two days off from work and they discussed a fight plan together.
“Me and him had the same exact game plan for this fight,” said Nguyen. “Everything was working so perfectly. God was watching over me, providing Samuel for the sparring and providing Chad Aquino to work my corner and my student to work my pads. Everything came out perfectly for me.”
Aquino has agreed to train Nguyen for his next fight. He says watching his friend get a big win rekindled his own love for the sport, and brought him to hit the punching bag for the first time in ten years shortly after.
“It brought back feeling in me that haven’t had in a long time,” said Aquino. “To see him go against all odds, come into an undefeated prospect’s hometown and pull off an upset the way he did was awesome. Dat’s a warrior, man.”
Now, 13 years after he left school to turn pro and with a valuable win on his record, Nguyen’s hard work has him closer than ever to fulfilling his goal of being somebody, of making it big in America, of being someone special.
“My promoter said ‘big things are coming for you,’” said Nguyen. “Hopefully I can fight Leo Santa Cruz, or Frampton, those guys are making a million dollars a fight at least. I hope to fight one of those guys and get a decent payday.
“I know I can beat those guys, I just got to be in shape and get the right training.”
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.