The other side of MMA fighter Bi Nguyen

Mike Jackson

Bi Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, left home at 14 and worked at a local gym in order to train. She fights for an atomweight world title on July 21.

In 2012, Bi Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American MMA fighter was about to step into her first amateur fight and could hear the crowd vibrating around her.

"I was walking out. I don't even know where these fans came from or where they knew me from, but they were chanting, 'Kill her, Bi,'" said Nguyen, 28, who took up the moniker soon after, sometimes styling it "Kill-her-bee."

At 5-feet and 105 pounds, it's a fitting nickname for the up-and-coming atomweight fighter, known for her ability to wear opponents down in the cage and for one lethal sting in particular -- a finishing move she calls the "Muay Thai sweep."

"There's nothing more exhilarating than being the smaller, shorter fighter and flipping somebody upside down," she said.

Since turning pro in 2016, Nguyen has a 4-2 record and will be fighting for the King of the Cage Women's World atomweight title on July 21, facing off against defending title holder Jayme Hinshaw.

Before she started her MMA career, she has considered herself a fighter. Nguyen and her family immigrated to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam when she was 8 years old, settling in Oakland, California. One of her most vivid memories from that time, she said, was learning the value of hard work. She recalled piling into her family's van every night, with her parents and seven siblings, to bundle up newspapers and deliver them to local businesses.

"My parents never let anyone stay behind. I was only in elementary school. They always made us go, so, we did it from 9 p.m. until 2 in the morning and then I would go to school after that," she said.

Nguyen dropped out of high school at age 15 and moved to Houston with a friend, citing ongoing fights with her parents as the motivation. Two years later, she became involved in what she said was an abusive relationship that would last five years.

According to Nguyen, the relationship culminated in her now ex-boyfriend getting sent to prison -- and leaving her homeless at 22. Nguyen started to find solace at a local gym in Houston, 4oz Fight Club, taking up kickboxing and Muay Thai.

After only six months of training, she entered her first amateur Muay Thai fight in 2012 -- and won.

"It was kind of like a high," said Nguyen of winning. "I just kept chasing that [feeling of winning] and have been ever since."

The gym also became her new home: She took up residence in a converted office space in exchange for overseeing the facility and selling memberships. After nabbing several amateur titles, Nguyen turned pro in 2016.

It's the physical and mental toughness wrapped up in the marketable package of an Instagram-ready model that Nguyen's coach Jeremy Mahon said has grown her presence in the Atomweight world.

"Her greatest strength as a fighter is she has amazing cardio conditioning," said Mahon, a competitive MMA fighter. "She's able to push a pace of a fight that eventually the other girl just can't keep up with."

Mahon has worked with Nguyen for six years and noted that her dedication inside and outside of the cage sets her apart from other fighters he has trained. Nguyen balances up to three workouts a day with various coaches. He added that it's an asset that will serve her well on the pro circuit, where fight rounds tend to be longer; for the world title, Nguyen will fight five rounds of five minutes each.

After lackluster matches at the end of 2017 (she lost back-to-back fights, Nguyen took a personal sabbatical, returning to Oakland to reconnect with her mother -- whom she hadn't spoken to in a decade -- and do what she calls re-discover her "why."

"I went back to all the places I had been to when I was in that abusive relationship to remind myself of why do I do this in the first place and how far I still have to go," she said. In the four months she took off, she scaled back on her training and opted to spend time with her family.

Her downtime worked. In February, Nguyen won her match against fellow atomweight fighter Cassie Robb; tragically, though, she lost her father to liver cancer just one week prior.

"His loss really reminded me of why I fight. I did it in honor of him," she said.

Ahead of the world title fight, Nguyen said she is ready to not only take on her opponent -- whom she has beaten in the past -- but also approach the match with a newfound maturity and awareness of herself, something aided by consistent journaling and therapy.

She'll also be competing in another arena, reality TV, when she appears on season 37 of CBS's long-running show, "Survivor," this fall. The theme? David versus Goliath, with Nguyen competing with the "Davids," naturally.

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