At the beginning of our interview, I asked Tyson Nam what it’s like to finally be able to call himself a UFC fighter. His answer was surprisingly brief.
“About damn time,” he said. “Not a second too soon.”
Nam has been a professional fighter since 2006. He’s fought 28 times, and has walked out the winner in 18 of those. He’s fought for well over a dozen different promotions, from WSOF and Fight Nights Global to EliteXC and Shooto Brazil. He has several big wins, two of which stand out from the rest: upset knockouts over Eduardo Dantas and Ali Bagautinov.
But for various reasons — most of which relate to contract disputes, according to Nam — the Hawaiian-born flyweight has never made it to the UFC.
Nam, who meets Sergio Pettis on Saturday at UFC Mexico City, woke up one early morning about three weeks ago to “a bunch of missed calls, messages, and missed FaceTimes.”
“When I woke up and I gave my manager a call, it was either going to be something good or something upsetting,” Nam said. “When he told me that I was going to come to Mexico City and fight in my UFC debut, I was overjoyed. I was overjoyed.
“It was definitely the highlight phone call of my 13-year career. If I wasn’t so damn groggy, I would’ve been jumping up all over the house.”
Nam was nearly in this spot years ago. The UFC was interested in him back in 2012 after the Dantas win, but a contract dispute with Bellator prevented him from taking that opportunity.
Nam found himself in a similar situation in 2017 after his win over former UFC title challenger Bagautinov. Fight Nights Global didn’t let him out of his contract to pursue bigger opportunities, Nam said.
“I’ve always been held hostage in some sort by just paper,” Nam said. “It’s always been something that was just always out of my reach, and there’s nothing I could do. But I guess third time’s the charm.”
In recent years, Nam said he has opted against signing a long-term, multi-fight deal with a promotion besides the UFC due to these past issues. He didn’t want to miss out on another UFC opportunity like he did in 2012, so he stuck to mostly fighting on the local circuit in Hawaii.
But Nam may be lucky the UFC came calling when it did, because he said he was “about a hair away” from choosing to sign a multi-fight deal with some other promotion — which could have shut down his UFC hopes forever.
“Everyone overseas wanted me, because they knew that I brought excitement and I was one of the best in the world,” Nam said. “So, every single time something like that came up, it was like, ‘Well, do I or don’t I, because I feel like it might just be my destiny that I may never fight in the UFC, and this is the best that this career has to offer me.’ But I’m very thankful and grateful that I held off.”
It’s not every day that the UFC signs a fighter in their mid 30s. The promotion typically sticks to signing younger fighters who have more upside and time left in the sport.
Nam’s age is no cause for concern for him, though. He may be 35, but he doesn’t feel it.
“I’m 35 years young,” Nam assured. “The number on there says it, but I’ve always taken care of my body. I’ve really taken seriously eating healthy, eating clean, never ever getting out of shape. ... If you look at some of the pictures, you would never know that I’m 35. I’ve always considered myself a late bloomer. Only up until two or three years ago, I finally hit that man strength.”
Nam sees no reason to rush his UFC career, despite being 35. He doesn’t feel the need to make up for lost time. He’s willing to take things slowly, but also realizes that a win over Pettis would likely dump him into the deep end of the 125-pound division right away.
“Sergio Pettis is a No. 5 fighter in the world,” Nam said. “With a big win over him, I can call out whoever I want to. If I beat No. 5, that makes me No. 5, right?
“Everybody needs to take out their phones and follow me on Instagram and Twitter and follow me on my rise to the top, because it’s coming hard and it’s coming fast.”