MMA: ONE Championship star Bi Nguyen's unique journey from reality TV to professional fighter

Bi Ngueyn - star of reality TV and the fighting ring
Bi Ngueyn - star of reality TV and the fighting ring. Photo credit: ONE Championship

ONE Championship women's atomweight Bi Nguyen still grimaces, as she reflects on the predicament she faced during her stint as a contestant on the hit reality-TV show Survivor.

Nguyen was diagnosed with a sprained knee ligamanet, after injuring herself during an immunity challenges on the 'David v Goliath' season of the cult series and was suddenly confronted by a decision loaded with potentially life-changing consequences.

Would the shot at the $US1 million prize be worth compounding her injury and risking her burgeoning pro-fighting career?

"I told them, 'This is it, I know my knee'," Nguyen told Newshub. "And I knew it could be a career-ending injury, if I stayed."

She may have missed out on the grand prize, but Nguyen definitely didn’t walk away empty-handed, when she left on day 10.

As it turned out, living with a bunch of strangers on a deserted island provided a priceless brand of school-of-hard-knocks education, one that's had clear benefits on both a professional and personal level.

"There's so much mental toughness involved. The show is 100 percent real and it's a lot tougher than it looks.

"I've been alone a lot of my life and sometimes fighting can be a solitary sport. Being stranded on an island with 10 other individuals has exposed a lot of what I need to work on and what my strengths are.

"It's amazing what you learn about yourself when you take away your phone and connect directly with people.

"The biggest lesson I've learned from Survivor is to have a little more self compassion and that's gone a long way in transferring into my career, because now I no longer put emotional value in certain things.

"I have expectations, but most importantly I just want to have a good time."

When you look at Nguyen's past and the obstacles she's already overcome, it's easy to see where that inner strength was born and how impactful that awakening has been.

After her father uprooted his family from Vietnam, fearing retribution for his involvement with the South Vietnamese army during the war, Nguyen was the proverbial fish out of water in her new home of Oakland, California, where she had to juggle high school studies with working until the early morning to help keep her family afloat.

A rift with her family forced her out of home at just 15 years old. She then became involved in an abusive relationship that she only escaped when her partner was sent to prison.

Martial arts soon became her refuge. What began as a simple means of learning self-defence soon turned into a passion, and a pathway to an enriching and fulfilling new life.

She'll look to take the next step of that journey against Bozhena Antoniyar at ONE: Masters of Destiny in Kuala Lumpur on Friday night, where she hopes to carry the momentum from her emphatic first-round knockout of Dwi Ani Retno Wulan in her promotional debut in April.

"My goal is to finish girls and show them that there's a reason I have the record I have. I'll earn my keep, but I deserve to be at the top."

'Killer Bee' brings the slick stand-up skills you'd expect from a product of the world-renowned Tiger Muay Thai Camp in Phuket, Thailand, combined with a rapidly developing grappling game, and lethal ground and pound.

"I know for a fact she is down to brawl," Nguyen says of her opponent, a former Myanmar national boxing champion. "She's gonna run forward with her boxing and she can take a punch." 

"But she has to worry about so much more with me. I also have a striking background, doing Muay Thai and competing for a long time, and I have my wrestling and my jiu jitsu.

Nguyen is also determined to make use of her platform and significant social-media reach to empower her fellow females, particularly those shackled by cultural stereotypes.

"A lot of countries in Asia don't have a lot of women in sports, so I think it's very important that we stand here and show these young girls in all of these countries - in these small villages, wherever they may be - that they can be an athlete, and not just a wife or whatever else their culture puts on them."

Freed from the doubt and lack of self-esteem that once plagued her, Nguyen's fighting with a newfound sense of self-belief that spells danger for any opponent.

"The beginning of my record was all decisions, because I was playing it safe. I was too scared to lose.

"Now, I no longer have any of that fear. I'm going to in there and I'm going to get it."

'The Tribe' - and Nguyen - have spoken.