For a professional MMA fighter who competed on season 37 of Survivor and has over 56,000 Instagram followers and a book deal, Bi Nguyen is remarkably humble.
The 29-year-old atomweight expressed credulity over the number of news outlets asking for interviews and joked that we should include her relationship status in this story as we sat in Savarese Fight Fit, the West U boxing gym where she coaches.
“I’m single, put that in the story,” Nguyen said, laughing.
But Nguyen, known as “Killer Bee” in the ring, is as fierce as she is humble. She signed a contract with One Championship last December and will fight for the first time under the organization on April 12 in Manila, Philippines.
Her background leading up to this point is anything but typical, but it explains her determination to succeed and her passion for empowering other women.
Nguyen’s family emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1995. Settling in Oakland, California, she and her siblings helped her parents deliver newspapers overnight. At 15, Nguyen left her family and moved to Houston, where she would go on to graduate from Eisenhower High School.
For five years, she was involved in an abusive relationship and found herself in the emergency room at least once a month.
“When that relationship ended, I felt like I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t feel like I was present,” Nguyen said, adding that her abuser went to jail for domestic abuse.
It was then, in 2012, that she took her first self-defense class and began to regain control over her life. The class was Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing using fists, elbows, knees, and shins.
“It’s funny—it’s not the physical part of Muay Thai that makes me so strong, it’s the empowerment of it,” Nguyen said. “As I started training and fighting, I started to see myself clearly, and I started to figure out who I was.”
Still, she had to fight for others to see her as a serious competitor. When she headlined fights, many said it was just because she was pretty. That encouraged her to work harder to force the public—and other martial artists—to credit her success to her skills, not her looks.
“It’s a long road to change people’s minds when they’ve already made them up about you,” Nguyen said. “And that’s a constant struggle with female athletes.”
Nguyen later switched to mixed martial arts (MMA), which is full-contact kickboxing. Since turning pro in 2016, her record is 4-3.
Now, she's a coach at heavyweight champ Lou Savarese's gym, where she trains boxers from 14 to 76 years old. Though initially hesitant to become a coach—she thought she could better use her platform to appeal to the masses—Nguyen is gratified by the immediate changes she sees in her clients.
“They don’t come in here with expectations to be empowered, but they sure leave with it,” Nguyen said. “It’s like this look of, ‘Oh shit, did I do that?’ That’s my favorite look.”
Nguyen understands that some view her sport as violent, but she says it’s really a science—a chain of actions and reactions. And there’s art to it, too.
“I call myself an artist. I don’t have a canvas or brush, but my body is my art,” she said. “But like everything, education is everything. Don’t be afraid to expose yourself to MMA.”
Aside from training and coaching, Nguyen is working on her motivational book titled Unbreakable, due out later this year. She's also creating a self-defense program for Savarese Fight Fit. After all, empowerment is at the root of everything for Nguyen.
“I want to do something that makes a difference,” she said. “To see these women come in here super shy and not knowing what to expect, and then after our session just smashing the bags and feeling so empowered, it’s really gratifying.”