Boxing - May 18, 2024 | 01:00 am PT

‘Vietnamese Floyd Mayweather’ never gives up

From a malnourished boy, Tran "The Trigger" Van Thao became Vietnam's first professional boxer, winning 17 of his 18 fights by holding true to one principle: "I'm ready to die in the ring."

Tran Van Thao was born on April 23, 1992, 1m68 tall. Nicknamed "The Trigger", he had a total of 18 professional fights, winning 17, including 10 by knockout.

A few days ago (May 5), you won the WBO global belt (53.5 kg) in Goheung, South Korea, after defeating Thailand’s Jakrawut Majungoen in 12 rounds. Can you tell us more about this title?

This was for the WBO global belt as part of the international event WBO Triple Title Match Goheung Rumble. Before the fight, I was at a disadvantage because I didn't have partners to practice a full eight or twelve rounds with. I asked many Vietnamese fighters to train with me, but they declined. I had to train with three fighters, each for three rounds to test my endurance.

Additionally, due to budget constraints, I didn’t have a coach with me, only an assistant. We flew to South Korea on a budget airline which was delayed and it took a long time to reach Goheung by bus. We barely managed to attend the weigh-in a day before the match. The cold weather and unfamiliar food even gave me diarrhea. Without a coach, I had no one to tape my hands and had to ask a Korean coach for help. But I had to wait until after that coach’s match ended, which took nearly an hour. I wasn’t fully ready until just five minutes before the fight.

How did you manage to win the fight by unanimous decision while faced with all these challenges?

Besides the difficulties mentioned, I also had a black eye and bruises on the back of my neck from my previous fight. Before leaving for Korea, I thought about the worst-case scenario: that I might die in the ring. Last year, five fighters died in the ring, including two from Japan. Deep down, I knew the risks but was determined not to give up. I can’t afford to die. I'm not rich yet, I have a wife and children and haven't left anything for them. So, I have to persevere and keep living.

In the match, although Jakrawut Majungoen was rated higher, I started strong and pressed him at times. But in the eighth round, I received a hard blow. By the ninth round, I was dizzy, and I couldn't see clearly. I just kept telling myself to hang on, knowing any mistake could lead to a loss. One more hit and I might have gone down. Thankfully, it was over. After that, I regained my composure and performed well in the remaining three rounds to win by unanimous decision.

Tran Van Thao in the WBO global 53.5kg title match against Thailand's Jakrawut Majungoen in Goheung, South Korea on May 5, 2024.

You mentioned the spirit of never giving up regardless of the circumstances. Why do you hold this belief?

In football, they often mention the spirit of "never give up." Similarly, in martial arts, we have the motto "tired but never give up." I adopt this as my principle to live my life as a fighter.

The recent match is an example. I fought as if my life depended on one else can fight my battles for me.

What brought you into boxing?

I was born in 1992 in District 4, Ho Chi Minh City, into a struggling family. Later we moved to Hoc Mon District. As a child, I wasn't very good at school. I was quiet in class and not disruptive. But whenever there were fights, I knew how to resolve them.

At 13, I was malnourished. I weighed less than 40 kg and my hands were crooked. My teacher thought I was using illegal substances, which made me cry a lot. Later, my brother advised me to take up martial arts to improve my physique, and for self-defense.

That’s how I got into boxing. At 17, I joined the Ho Chi Minh City youth boxing team. Then I won the national championship in the 45 kg category a year later. Then I moved up to the 46 kg category and won the national championship seven years in a row.

How did your journey to become Vietnam's first professional boxer unfold?

In 2014, I faced a shocking loss in the finals at the national games. At the same time, my beloved grandmother passed away while I was in the ring. I was devastated and cried for many nights.

When I returned home, I had a spinal disc herniation. Strangely, I was only 22, but my bones felt like they belonged to someone over 30. The doctors said if I didn't give up fighting and have surgery, I would become paralyzed. I had to take a six-month break for treatment, during which I considered quitting to pursue a career in the police force. That’s what my parents had always wanted me to do.

However, seeing my peers during training rekindled the fighting spirit in me. I asked my parents to let me continue with my passion, otherwise I would return to school. As my health gradually improved, I knew I had to find a new direction, something more progressive. I went to the Saigon Sports Club, and after months of persuasion, I convinced the coaches there to train me.

My first professional boxing match took place on Oct. 3, 2015, against the Korean fighter Yo Han-bea. I won after six rounds. After seeing my performance, people nicknamed me the "Vietnamese Floyd Mayweather" and that gave me more motivation. I had some conflicts with the coaches on the national team, but I managed to balance professional and amateur boxing. Fortunately, the coaches also supported me and I continued to win national championships for my team in HCMC.

Tran Van Thao is emotional when he wins the WBO global 53.5kg belt in South Korea on May 5, 2024. Previously, he was the domestic boxing champion from 2009 to 2016, won the WBC Asia belt in 2017 (super flyweight, 52kg) and the IBA world title (bantamweight, 54kg) in 2022.

What are your most memorable and forgettable fights from your 18 professional bouts?

For a professional fighter, every match is equally important. However, the fight for the WBO belt against Jakrawut was perhaps the most memorable. Not just because of the prestigious belt, but because it was the first time I fought 12 rounds and had to overcome near-death moments to win.

The most forgettable fight would definitely be my loss to Australian fighter Billy Dib on Dec. 21, 2019, in his home country. I had to move up four weight classes to meet the requirements, which put me at a physical disadvantage against Dib. He was very strong, having fought over 40 matches. Despite my fair fighting with quick, decisive strikes, my opponent refused to fight properly and kept hugging and wrestling me to the ground. The referee then ruled that I lost, a result that I disagreed with.

On the flight back from Australia to Vietnam, I felt incredibly lonely. Frustrated and dejected, I was also affected by criticism from the media and on social media, which left me feeling empty.

In the face of such adversities, have you ever thought about quitting?

Of course, I’ve thought about it many times. I thought about it at each of the milestones I mentioned: the loss in 2014, when my grandmother died, when I was ill, the loss in 2019 and when I had a ligament tear.

But after a few days of rest, seeing my coaches and fellow boxers practice, the fire within me would light up again. I couldn't quit. Boxing has given me so much and I don’t know what I would do if I quit.

My hardships have also given me time to reflect, to understand where I stand and what my position is. They’ve helped me become stronger than before.

I’m a martial artist, but I look up to football star Cristiano Ronaldo. I learn from his diligence, professionalism and respect for his profession. Therefore, I want to fight and dedicate myself to this sport until I’m 40.

How do you maintain your physical fitness and ability to fight?

To maintain good physical condition and a clear mind, I adhere to strict rules.

I train seven days a week. Each morning, I wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. in the quiet and fresh atmosphere to do stretching and run about 5 km. After breakfast, I rest and then dive into strength training exercises. After lunch, I take a short 15-30 minute break. In the afternoon, I usually practice specific techniques, hit the punching bag, swim or do water resistance training.

After dinner, I spend time with my wife and kids, then read and relax. I go to bed early, at 9 p.m. or at the latest by 10. This helps me be fully energized for the next day.

In terms of diet, I don't eat too much because I'm afraid of gaining weight, but to ensure my muscles, my daily meals must include protein-rich foods, vegetables, fruits, vitamins, supplements and electrolyte drinks. Most especially, I avoid stimulants like drugs and alcohol.

Tran Van Thao and his son at his gym in Ho Chi Minh City.

You often mention your wife and children. What do they mean to you?

As I said, I'm ready to die for boxing, but my wife and kids are my will to live. In 2013, I trained with the Ho Chi Minh City boxing team in Da Nang. During my free time I went online to make friends and connect with people. By fate, I befriended a woman from Vung Tau who was traveling in Da Nang. Initially, we met as friends. Over time, we fell in love and got married.

But after the wedding, my wife had to move to the U.S. with her family. At that time, she was pregnant with our first son. Then Covid-19 hit and we were apart. I couldn't be there when my son was born. Only at the end of the pandemic in early 2023 did our family have the chance to reunite, which is the only time we've met in person to date. Later this year, I will visit my wife and child in the U.S. Despite the distance, my wife understands, empathizes with and respects me. We talk online every day, so the distance seems to shrink. My wife says if I ever decide to give up boxing, she would move back to Vietnam to be with me. But for now, my heart is still with boxing and I can't give that up yet.

What are your future plans?

I want to go further with my career in boxing. To make that a reality, I need to defend the WBO belt and fight more to upgrade my title. I also have a boxing gym in Tan Phu District, HCMC. It welcomes children from difficult circumstances who are passionate about martial arts. Currently, there are about 20-30 students living and training together there and 10 of them are competing in various martial arts competitions. Additionally, I nurture talented children in Dong Nai, Da Nang and Quang Ngai. I also plan to open a gym in Florida, U.S., where my wife and child live, to help female fighters there.

Above all, I want to contribute to Vietnamese boxing, ensuring our place internationally. Vietnamese people may be small and light, but we are intelligent. We have great potential for development. The important thing is to have skilled people to mentor and ignite the passion so that talent can flourish.

Duc Dong