After going through three chemotherapy sessions, he is back working at his boxing school to follow his dream.

“I have to live and be healthy. I’ll be a professional boxer and take care of my father,” the boy said.

“I’m the only person he has left.”

A considerate child

Dung hardly ever cries in front of his father, even on days when he was wracked with agony in bed.

His first chemotherapy session took place six months ago. The boy was in great pain and he threw up every single day due to the side effects.

Now Dung has taken his spirit and shape back. On March 13, he was the youngest boxer to enter an admission test to become a member of the selective boxer team in Ho Chi Minh City.

He boasted two knock-out victories. Interestingly, Dung was fighting with only his left arm as his right arm was in recovery from ligament injury.

The boy’s love for boxing and Muay Thai, a type of martial arts originating in Thailand, began when was a first grader.

“I had no idea my father was a fighter when I was a kid. I was watching TV fights only,” he said.

“The fighters’ knee and elbow moves were amazing. I was hooked.”

“I cut my father’s pants and had my mom turn it into a punching bag with only cloth inside.”

“I loved Muay Thai instead of kids’ toys. When I turned six, my father signed me up for martial arts lessons.”

After that, the boy practiced Muay Thai, boxing and Vietnamese traditional martial arts.

Nguyen Phu Cuong, his father, was an independent boxer.

Nguyen Tri Dung and his father, Nguyen Phu Cuong, practice boxing in their private martial arts center. Photo: Hoang Tung / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Tri Dung and his father, Nguyen Phu Cuong, practice boxing in their private martial arts center. Photo: Hoang Tung / Tuoi Tre

The boy, following in his father’s path, singled out boxing as his passion three years ago when he turned nine.

At 11 years old, he was one of the youngest members in the list of talented boxers in Binh Duong Province, around 60 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City.

A few months later, he was diagnosed with cancer in the left leg. His practicing days halted to make room for chemotherapy sessions in the Oncology Hospital of Ho Chi Minh City.

The 12-year-old speaks passionately about his father, also his first teacher of martial arts.

“When I was little, he told me about his ring fights in Cambodia. He took his skills from my grandfather.”

“My great grandfather was a boxer, too. So, I am the fourth-generation successor of this career.”

He believes that the path of boxing will lead him to a better life. His early days of difficulty motivated him.

“When Dung was six, my wife and I divorced. I took him from Binh Duong Province to Ho Chi Minh City. I was making a living out of boxing,” his father said.

“I became a teacher at a few martial arts clubs. During my free hours, I worked as a motorbike taxi driver and this shift ended at around 5:00 pm when I left to pick up my son.”

“There was a time when I worked at the Muay Thai center located inside his school campus so that it would be easy for his pick-up and drop-off.”

For the last six years, they have rented a place in Ho Chi Minh City. When news of his ailment came about, his friends and students raised a fund for his medical expenses.

“Everybody helped me to set up this small martial arts center so that we could fight his disease and earn a living,” he added.

Dung hopes to step on a professional ring to combat experienced opponents.

“I once fought this guy. He was bigger and more experienced. I got a nosebleed, but it was awesome,” he said.

“I learnt so much from that fight. I could dedicate my whole self to martial arts.”

“I want to live happily with the boxing ring”

Nguyen Tri Dung’s father helps to deal with ligament pain in his right arm. Photo: Hoang Tung / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Tri Dung’s father helps to deal with ligament pain in his right arm. Photo: Hoang Tung / Tuoi Tre

Dung is a considerate son. He understood how challenging it was for his single-dad father.

Every month, his father had to cover a school tuition fee of almost VND4 million (US$173) and a house rent of VND2 million ($86).

The boy was saddened every time his teacher sent home the monthly tuition bill.

“That is not to mention the VND7 million ($303) rent for the center and my medications. My dad looked really terrified a few times,” Dung said.

For this reason, he sought his father’s permission to enter the selective team of the city.

“If I make it, I will have my salary to help pay for all these expenses, and more importantly, I want to live happily in the boxing ring.”

Unfortunately, Dung was not eligible due to the age restriction of the municipal selective boxing team.

According to the regulations, team members must be between 13 and 18 years old, while Dung is only 12 at the moment.

“He came home shattered by the news. He didn’t talk. He just wanted to practice with me though his arm was in pain,” his father said.

“But choosing to be a boxer means he has to stand tall.”

The malignant tumor that caused his leg to swell has completely disappeared. It left a dent in his left thigh but this by no means could deter the boy’s will.

“During the time when I couldn’t move around, I was really scared that I might end up being lame forever. If so, it would be very tough for my dad,” he said.

Despite their daily efforts, their lives are full of obstacles.

“Lots of people help us. My friends, my students. I want to pay off this debt through my job as a martial arts teacher,” his father said.

“If this class can run well, we will make it through our difficulty. I hope we can have a monthly headcount of 50 members so that financially, we will be able to cope with our living and medical expenditure.”

The Nguyen Tri Dung Muay Thai Center is located on Nguyen Tu Gian Street, Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City.

It measures around 100 square meters. There is no fighting ring and no fancy equipment.

“Hello Tri Dung. I wish you health. Keep up the good work and be the champion you’ve always wanted to be,” wrote boxing champion Truong Dinh Hoang in his letter to Nguyen Tri Dung.

“I believe you will be a champion, too.”

By regulations, a member of the city’s selective boxing team is required to have some accomplishment after two years of membership, according to Co Tan Anh Linh, vice president of the Ho Chi Minh City Boxing Federation.

“We had a talk over his case, but we believe he needs more time for recovery and practice. Personally, I think he has a powerful passion for boxing and he has his family there with him.”

“Dung is a talented boy. He is fearless in the ring. I think a good way to help is a long-term fund so that there is enough material and mental support for Dung and similar people.”

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