Former UFC champion Dave Menne talks about his journey from the Octagon to Saigon, where he hopes to help introduce mixed martial arts to the country. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.

It’s been a long road for Dave Menne since taking a win at his first official mixed martial arts fight in April 1997. It also hasn’t always been an easy one.

Over his 16-year career, the now 38-year-old American from Minnesota has garnered an impressive official record of 45 wins and 17 losses. And in 2001, he brought his career to new heights when he became the first middleweight champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship — the largest and most popular MMA promoter in the world.

Now Menne has come to Vietnam, where the new Saigon Sports Club has hired him as a full-time trainer as he prepares for his next fight in South Korea. The sprawling club off of Huynh Tan Phat Street in District 7 opened last month and is an ambitious endeavour to bring a number of martial arts to Vietnam. The 7,000-square-metre facility has an open-air training area with wrestling mats and punching bags, as well as two boxing rings and a fully-equipped gym and CrossFit training area. There is also a swimming pool, football pitch and several yoga studios.

UFC champion Dave Menne at Saigon Sports ClubThe club isn’t only focused on MMA, though. In addition to Menne, they also have on staff Andy Thrasher, a Muay Thai world champion from the UK, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor David Phillips, as well as two of Vietnam’s champion fighters, one for boxing and the other Muay Thai.

Jonathan Haucourt, the co-founder and managing director, says he hopes that bringing in world-class fighters like these will not only attract and introduce martial arts to Vietnamese, but will also bring in people from around the region.

Despite an impressive roster of trainers, Menne still stands out. He may not be the most well-known MMA fighter, but he very well could be one of the most underrated.

Menne held the UFC title for a mere four months before losing it to Murilo Bustamante in a second round technical knockout. Bustamante clearly won, knocking Menne to the ground and delivering a barrage of punches that caused the referee to stop the fight. But what wasn’t so apparent to most, at least not until a Sports Illustrated article came out 10 years later, was that Menne was severely ill during the bout.

On the day before the Friday evening fight in September 2001, a virus took hold of the fighters set to compete. Some suspected food poisoning, others thought it could have been contaminated water, but no one ever figured out exactly what it was. Luckily for most of the fighters, the virus hit them quickly and early. That gave them enough time to get plugged into IVs at a nearby hospital, allowing them to recover at least some of their strength.

But Menne wasn’t so lucky. He didn’t start showing symptoms until the day of the fight, and when the time came to get in the ring, he was weak. In a fuzzy YouTube video of the fight, he looks visibly worn out before the first round.

“I remember my hearing was off,” Menne told Sports Illustrated in the 2012 article. “I felt like I was picking up on people talking on the side of the ring, when usually you’re concentrating on the fight. I was watching and hearing stuff around me. I wasn’t focused. It was a surreal experience.”

Surprisingly, though, he put up a strong fight for the first round before succumbing in the second. The fact that Menne was willing to step into the ring at all in this condition is not only a testament to his will, but also emblematic of his whole career.

“I’ve always fought no matter what,” he tells me after a training session at the Saigon Sports Club. “It wasn’t the first time I fought sick or injured and it wouldn’t be the last time. I never looked at it as a choice of not fighting, I was going to fight.”

That choice may have cost Menne the belt, but it didn’t end his career. Two fights later, he was brutally knocked out by Phil Baroni after only 18 seconds in the first round. Baroni was later suspended for six months after he tested positive for steroids.

But those two crushing losses didn’t slow Menne down. He went on to have 20 more official fights in the US, England, Brazil and Japan, winning 13. His last fight was a rematch against Bustamante. Menne narrowly lost by decision.

Although Vietnam already has a long history of martial arts, from the more recent founding of Vovinam to the ancient forms that came from China, none have really become widely popular here. And while MMA is the fastest growing sport in most of the world, Vietnamese seem to be ambivalent towards it, or flat out don’t like it, finding it too violent.

But whether the sport catches on in Vietnam or not, Menne will compete until he no longer can. “I’ll fight until my body falls apart,” he says.