Friday, May 27, 2022

Tai Tuivasa: The UFC’s Joker, Or A Serious Title Contender?

It wasn’t long ago, on the night of 6 October 2019, that Tai Tuivasa looked to be on his way out of the UFC. Stretched out flat on the canvas, with his face bloodied to a pulp and the arm-triangle of Sergey Spivac pressing into his neck, ‘Bam Bam’ was at a low point of his fledgling MMA career. 

Losing consciousness seconds later, it was the third straight loss for the Australian and a glaring example of what happens when a self-styled street brawler like Tuivasa enters the cage with a submission specialist like Spivac. Repeatedly taken down to the canvas with ease, and once there, not knowing what to do, Tai looked gravely out of his depth. Making it all the worse, the drubbing came in front of a home crowd in Melbourne, Australia.

Fast forward to 2022, and Tai Tuivasa is a different, revitalized fighter. At UFC 271 earlier this month, the Australian’s head displayed an otherworldly ability to absorb Derrick Lewis’ best shots, before his elbow sent the American slumping face-first to the canvas. ‘Bam Bam’ is now not only a potential future title contender, but thanks to his larger-than-life personality, fast becoming one of the UFC’s most popular stars

Tuivasa Spivac
The night it all went wrong for Tai Tuivasa against Sergey Spivac at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO: USA TODAY Sports

“I’m A Banger From Western Sydney”

A Tai Tuivasa fight reliably delivers all those ingredients that make for an entertaining spectacle; a blistering KO, quickly followed by the swilling of beer from shoe and a post-fight interview that evokes plenty of chuckles, typically punctuated by his catch cry of “Eshay” resounding through the arena.

Pig Latin for “sesh,” the phrase is a nod to Australian-lad subculture to which Tuivasa proudly belongs. And that along with his social housing upbringing in the gritty, working-class suburbs of Western Sydney, Australia, are partly what makes ‘Bam Bam’ the uncouth-yet-highly likable personality we see in the UFC.

“I said it before and I say it again, I’m a banger from Western Sydney,” declared Tuivasa after his victory over Lewis. “I’ll bang on with anyone and will bang on till the day I die.” 

“I don’t mind being the guy who drinks piss out of shoes and this and that. I suppose everyone focuses on all that, but at the end of the day, I’m knocking the best in the world out.” 

Tai Tuivasa
Tai Tuivasa dressed in the traditional ‘Eshay’ uniform of Nautica shirt, Nike sneakers, and a fanny pack. PHOTO: Instagram/bambamtuivasa

Evolving His Game in the United States

But behind Tuivasa’s larrikin persona lies a serious athlete who’s been putting in the work to evolve as a mixed martial artist.

Disillusioned with the sport following his loss to Spivac, Tai spent a soul-searching year on the sidelines, during which time he uprooted from Australia and joined the ranks of American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) in San Jose, California. There, under the tutelage of Daniel Cormier and Javier Mendez, Tuivasa says he made significant improvements to his game, particularly with regard to wrestling.

“The wrestling side of things I haven’t stopped working on since I’ve been to America,” Tuivasa told 7News in Australia last year. “I feel I’m getting a lot better at wrestling and I haven’t even got to spend a lot of time in America.”

All that work seemed to have paid off, when in October 2020, Tai returned to the Octagon with a first-round KO of Stefan Struve. That win kicked off what is now a five-fight win-streak—all knockouts—culminating with that of Derrick Lewis earlier this month, which saw Tai’s heavyweight ranking catapult from #11 to #3.

Tuivasa now faces the prospect of fighting the division’s elite. But is he ready for it?

Tuivasa American Kickboxing Academy
Tai Tuivasa with Daniel Cormier and UFC middleweight Deron Winn at AKA. PHOTO: Instagram/bambamtuivasa

Tai Tuivasa’s Title Prospects

According to Daniel Cormier, who mentored Tuivasa during his stint at AKA, there are plenty of questions to be answered in ‘Bam Bam’s’ next fight.

“So the question now becomes, is Tai Tuivasa ready for the level of competition that he’s going to fight?” said Cormier on ESPN. “Because Sergey Spivac wrestled him to death, but when you get into the top five, getting wrestled to death is not just getting taken down—it’s getting pummelled into the ground by a guy like Curtis Blaydes. It’s him standing in front of a former champion like Stipe Miocic. Now the competition level skyrockets.”

Cormier further points out that, of those five KO’s Tuivasa has amassed in his last five fights, none came against a wrestler.

“One of the things that Tai has had the luck of having over the course of his win-streak is; Stefan Struve’s a striker. Greg Hardy’s a striker. Augusto Sakai is a striker. Derek Lewis is a striker. So he’s had strikers. Ultimately, he’s going to have to prove that he can stand in front of these wrestlers and defend takedowns enough to make them fight his fight. It’s a daunting task for a guy that, when you look back to the Spivac fight, had a massive hole in his game, and no one’s been able to fight him and exploit that to this point. But trust me, the next guy will have that ability,” said Cormier.

So, has Tai sufficiently plastered up the holes in his ground game to take on the likes of Blaydes and Miocic? Given their wrestling nous and that a title fight against Ngannou is unlikely, perhaps the bout that makes the most sense from Tuivasa’s perspective is Ciryl Gane. Not only for the relatively lesser threat he poses on the ground, but for the spectacle it promises: that of a clean-cut, technically sound Frenchman with an Adonis-like physique against a beer-from-shoe-swilling, love-handled Australian brawler.

But for Tuivasa, it doesn’t seem like he even cares who comes next. He just wants to punch on.

“Brah, to be honest I don’t even know who the fuck’s in the top five,” he told press after his victory over Lewis. “I don’t even watch fighting, brah. Like I said, I heard there’s the Stipe’s, the Cyril Gane’s and all of that and everyone up there. But this is my job. I rock up, I prepare with my team, and we fuckin’ punch on.”

How do you think Tai Tuivasa will fare against the heavyweight elite?

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