As Tyler Nguyen entered the “BattleBots” arena in California last fall with his 206-pound combat robot, Perfect Phoenix, he kept waiting for his alarm clock to shake him out of his slumber.

“I’d been dreaming about going to ‘BattleBots’ since I was 5, but my dreams always ended before I had to fight,” says Tyler, who is 11. “I kept waiting for myself to wake up at home.”

But Tyler wasn’t asleep. In 2020, the Herndon, Virginia, sixth-grader became the youngest team captain on “BattleBots,” competing against more than 500 entries worldwide to win a spot on the TV show that features robot fighting. He and 11-year-old teammate Sawyer Hellen of Carson City, Nevada, then beat two adult teams (and lost to a third), qualifying for the 32-team championship.

Tyler can’t say what happens next, but his team’s first tournament match is scheduled to air Thursday on Discovery ( The team that wins five rounds will take home $10,000.

Hammer and saw-blade weapons

The experience was Tyler’s latest adventure in the world of robot fighting, which pits remote-controlled robots — which can cost thousands of dollars — against each other in timed matches. The matches last only a few minutes, but they can be full of destruction as the armored robots attack their rivals with weapons.

The weapons can include hammers, spinning saw blades, flames and more. Like boxing, a robot can be “knocked out” and lose if it becomes unable to move. In other fights, judges decide the winner, based on which robot caused more damage, how well a robot was controlled and other factors.

Since discovering the sport at age 5, he and his mom, Juli Johnson, have traveled throughout the East Coast and even to Britain for robot events. Before moving to the heavyweight robots of “BattleBots,” Tyler competed in “insectweight” categories, where the robots typically weigh a few pounds. In 2018, he won gold medals in the “ant” and “beetle” categories at the International RoboGames in California.

“Tyler’s unique in that he has been competing for a long time in a smaller category, so he has a lot of the experience you need,” says Ray Billings, a friend and the builder behind veteran “BattleBots” contender Tombstone. “That’s why he’s a good driver. He’s also lucky in the fact that he has two previous “BattleBots” champions willing to help him, because stepping from insectweight robots to heavyweights is not an easy step.”

One of those champions is Paul Ventimiglia, who sold Tyler the robot that would become Perfect Phoenix, named after a popular Beyblade toy. The other is Billings, who worked with Tyler to fix up the battered robot.

“It was basically like a new car that had been driven in five demolition derbies,” says Billings, who lives in California. “But we were able to get it up and running enough to compete at ‘BattleBots.’ ”

Competing during a pandemic

Like everything, the “BattleBots” event was different during the coronavirus pandemic. Virtual school and the three-hour time difference between Virginia and the California arena made keeping up with his classes at Forestville Elementary in Great Falls unexpectedly easy.

“We had to be at ‘BattleBots’ by 1 p.m., so I could actually do school, [ride] to ‘BattleBots,’ and do my homework there,” Tyler says.

What wasn’t fun? Daily coronavirus tests, masks and social distancing.

But the hassles were minor compared with the excitement of realizing his “BattleBots” dream.

“It really was a feeling of ‘this is too good to be happening,’ ” says Tyler, who will also be on Discovery Plus’s “BattleBots: Bounty Hunter” show this year. “It was surreal.”

Tyler's tips for robot fighting

First try an event for smaller robots. Known as “insectweight” competitions, these have categories for “ant” and “beetle” robots, which weigh a few pounds.

Learn about your competition. Once Tyler knows whom he’s fighting, he watches live matches and videos of past fights so he knows the other robot’s strengths and weaknesses.

Be ready for damage. While it’s hard to see your robot get beaten, Tyler says that’s part of the sport — so always bring spare parts.