An Amazing Teenager’s MMA Goals

Nainoa Dung | Photo courtesy Rosalie Cummings

Whatever your personal feelings are about MMA and at what age young enthusiasts of the mixed martial arts fighting sport should be allowed to show off their skills in the cage, you’ve got to raise your eyebrows when considering the incredible record of Makaha teenager Nainoa Dung.

A kickboxer since the age of 6, a kickboxing champion by the age of 7, an MMA fighter by the age of 9 and a youth national champion by the age of 13, he has been described by some in the sport to be a prodigy. Although age restrictions now ban his youthful participation in MMA shows nearly everywhere, the 14-year-old eighth-grader at Waianae Intermediate can lay claim to the fact that he is the youngest person to ever win a youth MMA title (in the cage, using full MMA rules) and youngest ever to successfully defend that title.

“I was only 13 when I fought in Seattle (last year),” he says, “the youngest ever.” He took home the belt at 125 pounds with an impressive first-round victory.

But now he must wait to fight in his chosen sport again. “People say the sport is brutal, but they don’t understand,” he says. “Fighting is one of the safest sports, if you understand it. My dad trained me to think. Others see the cage, the lights, the money – but if you train hard and make sure you are ready, you can succeed.”

He says he will be patient until he’s of the age when he can fight legal bouts again. In most states, that is 16 years old with parental permission; in others, it is 18. “It’s hard, because I love fighting,” he says. “BJ Penn is my idol. I want to be like him, to represent Hawaii like he has. I know I’ll be ready when the time comes.”

Nainoa says he first became interested in MMA when he was just 4 or 5 years old. “My dad taught me in the backyard when we lived in Wahiawa. A gym found out that I was training when I was about 6, and they invited me to train there. I tried kickboxing at first and fought an exhibition fight in an undercard at the Blaisdell. It was a big show with a couple of thousand people. It was crazy!”

That was when enthusiasts first started using the term “prodigy” to describe his ability. Before long, he even had a nickname, “The Baby-faced Assassin,” a moniker that might make some critics of the sport cringe.

“I tried boxing and won a state championship, but I really loved MMA. I was the youngest ever to win a belt and then defend it, (and then) the sport was banned for young people.”

Nainoa turned 14 in February, and he’s fairly tall and lean for his age, approximately 5-foot-11 and 135 pounds. He works out two to three hours a day to stay in top shape.

While he waits to fight MMA bouts again, he trains hard and considers playing other sports. “I’m thinking of playing football,” he says. “I’ll see what happens.”

He thanks the people who have been supportive of his efforts, especially his family.

“My uncle is Makua Rothman, who surfs the big waves. He’s surfed a 66-foot wave before. He inspires me,” Nainoa says.

Nainoa doesn’t just key in on athletics. He’s doing his best in the classroom, too.

“I try to do good in school. That’s one of my goals,” he says. He sets all of his goals high, but then knows he must be patient. “I want to be the best fighter in the world. I want that chance.”

In the meantime, Nainoa Dung works hard and waits.