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Three days before the biggest test of his career, 25-year old Tai Tuivasa has his tongue firmly in cheek. Arriving 40 minutes late to the UFC Fight Night 142 media day -- an oversight he immediately acknowledges and apologizes for -- he is negotiating with his Ultimate Fighting Championship handlers, insisting that he give his Sherdog.com interview outside of the designated media space. He’s told that “there’s no security,” which makes it a no-go zone, and scoffs at the proposition. “I don’t need security,” he insists with a chuckle, genuinely entertained by the suggestion that he, the promotion’s 11th-ranked heavyweight, needs protecting, before eventually agreeing to talk to me within their line of sight.
Though his rebellions seem motivated more by his boundary-pushing sense of humor than genuine disaffection, it’s not hard to see where Tuivasa is coming from. Prizefighting represents an infinitely less hazardous road than the one he was traveling on as a young man. The idea that he would be less safe in the lobby of the Hilton than the unforgiving suburbs in Western Sydney where he grew up is, in a word, laughable.
Those who’ve followed the career of the self-proclaimed “foboroginal” -- half indigenous Australian and half Samoan -- know that his upbringing was punctuated by violence and alienation. In a self-authored Player’s Voice article published earlier this year, Tuivasa admits his decision to pursue professional face punching was just as much about escaping the fate of his peers as it was a genuine interest in and aptitude for combat. The choice came down to which walls he wanted to be surrounded by -- those that make up an MMA cage or a prison cell. Tuivasa chose the former, and, after a brief stint playing professional rugby for the Sydney Roosters, he never looked back. Five fights into his career and a regional title later, he signed with the UFC in November 2017 and by June had gone 3-0 with a gutsy three-round unanimous decision over former champion Andre Arlovski.
As we settle in for the interview, what he tells me is equal parts fascinating and gleefully irreverent. On the trilogy between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz that happened the preceding weekend, Tuivasa is frank. “I watched the highlights,” he said. “It was disgusting. Them old c---- should have a rest.” On his contract with the UFC, he is slightly more restrained. “Like anything, it can get better. I’ve been with the company for one year; this is my fourth fight this year,” Tuivasa said. “If I secure a good win on the weekend, I think my next contract will be sick. We’ll go from there.”
When asked about the state of the heavyweight division, including the resurgence of Cameroonian juggernaut Francis Ngannou and the impending departure of incumbent champion Daniel Cormier, Tuivasa looks at me like he has been asked that question one too many times. “I don’t watch it bruh, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t really follow all that s---. I honestly really don’t care. My job is to fight, you know? If I get called to fight, I’m going to fight. I’m just trying to earn that money, man.”
The politics of fighting do not interest him, but moving up the ladder and cashing checks gets his attention. “This is how I feed my son,” he said, the smile leaving his boyish face for perhaps the first time. “Punching heads what’s I gotta do. The bigger the fights, the bigger the money. I’m down for all the big fights. You’re paying me money, I’ll fight.”
The impending departure of his mentor and training partner Mark Hunt prompts some introspection. “This is one for the books,” Tuivasa said. “For one, it’s always been about [fighting] on the same card. We did that once. It’s a passing of the torch. Pressure’s off [him]. He doesn’t have to worry about this anymore; this is his last fight. The pressure’s on me, which I’m fine with. I think someday we can make history, not just for Australia but for Samoans, as well. Three Samoans: [two] brothers-in-law (Tyson Pedro’s sister is Tuivasa’s partner) and the lead horse [in Hunt]. We’re doing s--- that’s never been done before.”
Tuivasa isn’t just interested in representing one clan mind you, as his walkout in the UFC Fight Night 142 headliner a few days later demonstrated. Before Shannon Noll’s cult classic “What About Me” blared from the Adelaide Entertainment Centre’s speakers, Tuivasa was introduced by a traditional aboriginal ritual; and in his downtime, he volunteers for the Sydney Regional Aboriginal Corporation, where he runs a men’s group.
“I think blackfullas are some of the most talented people on the face of the earth” he said. “We can achieve greatness in anything. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to change everyone’s lives, you know? I’m just opening doors. I think we’re going to see [that] once indigenous people get in, it’s going to be just like in any other sport. Once we get a hold of something, you just get good at it. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m showing the world that we’re here. We’re still going. We’re still pumping.
“Right now, I’m heading [up] my area,” he added. “I’m trying to lead positively in that way. Like I said, this is my first year. I’m just getting used to all this s---, the cameras and that. Other than that, you can catch me in the area, doing the same s---, the same old chap.”
“I’m not afraid to lose.” That’s last thing Tuivasa tells me, after he squares off opposite Junior dos Santos and flashes his teeth for the camera while raising the West-side sign with both hands. He says it a couple times, looking me right in my eyes. Three days later, that conviction’s put to the test.
After his epic walkout and a successful round on the scorecards, courtesy of his forward pressure and a particularly tenderizing leg kick, Tuivasa finds himself in a firefight with one of the most lethal strikers in UFC history. Dos Santos tags the Australian hard, and Tuivasa chases his losses, only to get put down with a short right. The Brazilian gets the full mount and pours on the ground-and-pound, and though Tuivasa is still firing shots from his back, referee Herb Dean has no choice but the call the fight. Over the furor of the hometown crowd, Tuivasa slowly cuts laps in the Octagon, screaming “F---!” at the top of his lungs.
By the time Dan Hardy puts the microphone in Tuivasa’s hands, his happy-go-lucky demeanor has returned. He laughs, admits he felt like a turtle on his back while pinned underneath dos Santos and assures the crowd it only goes up from here. He’s self-deprecating and in the moment, back to normal. Then he calls out Justin Willis, a fellow surging heavyweight who took out Hunt in a lackluster decision earlier in the night; and his joviality disappears.
His sudden intensity follows him to the post-fight press conference, where he alternates between somber self-reflection, pride in a relatively good showing and palpable disdain for “Big Pretty.” He repeats that he’s bummed close to a dozen times and that it was a “s--- night for the boys,” on account of teammates Pedro and Hunt also tasting defeat. Then he hears Willis’ is telling people “Australia is [his]” after his victory, and he doubles down on his scorn.
“If he wants to fight me like he fought tonight … He’s going to have something else coming for him,” Tuivasa said. “I ain’t no walk-off. I’ll punch his teeth in.”
Tuivasa ends his night in much the same way I first made his acquaintance, giving the UFC staff a hard time. As the post-fight interview comes to a close, he asks “Where’s my 50K [bonus]?” and laughs wickedly as he makes his exit.
Tuivasa is a work in progress, but his boundless energy, proud heritage and a looming showdown with Willis suggests his future is bright. When you consider how young he is in the sport and how close he came to taking out a legend in just his ninth MMA fight, it’s not hard to get excited for his next trip to the Octagon.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.