• Andrew Starc

Shoes, Booze & Bruises – Tai Tuivasa's Entertaining UFC Run

You could easily picture Tai ‘Bam Bam’ Tuivasa, wearing a bum-bag and Nautica tracksuit, loitering out the back of a KFC car park, trying to sell teenagers fake ecstasy pills.

Hailing from the rough-as-guts Western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, Tuivasa has been a breath of fresh air since his UFC debut in late 2017.

When he’s not sculling beer from an old shoe, he’s punching the cunt out of some of the biggest fighters in the UFC, plying his trade in the storied heavyweight division.

The self-styled ‘FOBoriginal’ – a nod to his mixed Aboriginal and Pacific Islander heritage – has quickly become a fan favourite, endearing millions with his unique brand of Aussie larrikinism and organ-rattling punching power.

Tuivasa vs Arlovski – Making his UFC debut

‘Bam Bam,’ like his spiritual predecessor Mark Hunt, doesn’t cut a conventionally athletic figure. In a sport where so many proudly tout their martial arts bona fides, the once promising Rugby League player loudly bucks the trend.

He looks, advertises himself as, and fights like, a brawler – someone who would just as enthusiastically fight some cunt in the McDonald’s car park as he would Andrei Arlovski in a packed US arena, live on ESPN.

And it was against Arlovski that Tuivasa announced his presence on the world stage, grinding out an impressive unanimous decision win in his third UFC fight. It is, for now, the high-water mark of ‘Bam Bam’s’ still developing career.

While a win against Arlovski, a faded former heavyweight champion turned divisional gatekeeper, is by no means what it used to be, it did grant Tuivasa entry into the contender conversation.

Showcasing that a brawler could overcome a technical boxer, ‘Bam Bam’ effectively passed muster with hardcore fans and MMA punditry, setting up a match-up with another former divisional champ in Junior ‘Cigano’ Dos Santos.

Below: Tuivasa drinks a 'Shoeyvasa.'

Tuivasa Vs Dos Santos – Headlining in Oz

The lead up to the ‘Cigano’ bout, headlined by Tuivasa in Adelaide, Australia, was perhaps more entertaining than the fight itself.

Per the nature of the UFC media powerhouse, with its steady stream of ‘inside access’ Embedded vlogs following fighters in their lead up to the fight, fans were blessed with a rare glimpse into what seemed like a blooming mateship, bordering on bromance, between Dos Santos and Tuivasa.

The Australian enthusiastically played cordial host to Dos Santos as the Brazilian, visiting Australia for the first time, petted cute Australian wildlife and awkwardly partook in an Indigenous ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony the sacred rite of proud Aboriginal Tuivasa.

It was a welcome change to the predictable bluster and bravado of typical pre-fight rituals, with Tuivasa summing up the experience, and perhaps his life philosophy, on Facebook thusly:

This is a lovely sport MMA. One day you could be cuddle buddies, the next be punching the cunt out of each other.

And punch the cunt out of each other they did.

The bout, Tuivasa’s first in Australia under the UFC banner, was meant to be his debutante ball – announcing his fighting pedigree to a rabid Aussie fan base perennially thirsting for a new local hero to channel their patriotism behind and spill foreign blood on their behalf.

Instead, the Australian, while holding up admirably in the first round, succumbed to a Dos Santos TKO in the second, courtesy of some vicious ground and pound from the Brazilian.

It was an anti-climatic end to ‘Bam Bam’s’ homecoming party, raising serious questions about his lack of technicality and ground game – deficiencies even more glaringly exposed in his next two bouts.

Tuivasa vs Ivanov – The downward slide continues

Returning Stateside in the undercard of UFC 238, Tuivasa squared off against Bulgarian Blagoy Ivanov, a Combat Sambo specialist known more for his fascinating backstory.

Resembling an over-sized immigrant cab driver or seedy nightclub bouncer, the Bulgarian’s survival of a 2007 knife attack, in which he was stabbed over 40 times, is routinely highlighted by commentators – an ‘overcome all odds’ story rivalled perhaps only by Francis Ngannou’s humble beginnings toiling in a West African sand mine.

He bears a grisly reminder of the event in the form of a sizeable, scarred indentation on his gut, astutely labelled by future opponent Derrick ‘The Black Beast’ Lewis as, employing the correct medical terminology, a ‘booty hole’.

At UFC 238, Tuivasa and Ivanov would put on a quintessentially heavyweight bout characterised by slow, plodding movement and heavy, audible slugs.

In the first round, the love-handled, 250+ lbs duo predictably stood and banged, the Bulgarian coming out the slight victor.

In the second, ‘Bam Bam’ returned the favour, wobbling Ivanov, who quickly recovered to out grapple the Australian, before an Ivanov guillotine choke would force a tap from a clearly gassed Tuivasa, seconds after the buzzer.

The third was another close affair, however the Bulgarian would claim an unanimous decision win, and Tuivasa, a second consecutive defeat.

Below: Bam Bam slides into the DMs of fellow heavyweight Justin 'Big Pretty' Willis.

Tuivasa's UFC dream ends...for now

Now even further from title contendership, pundits began raising questions about ‘Bam Bam’s’ UFC calibre. Tuivasa appears the type of fighter who's come to the fore thanks to his imposing frame and brawler style.

While this can deliver success while fighting part-time tradies on the Australian circuit, or even against the lower end of the UFC roster, it will inevitably come up short against the honed, experienced Junior Dos Santos’ of the world.

Demoted to facing the lowly-ranked Sergey Spivak in his next bout, Tuivasa seemed completely out of his element, at no point more so while flattened out and grounded and pounded upon, before delivered mercifully from this indignity via an arm-triangle.

After three consecutive losses, each against progressively less capable opposition, Tuivasa recognised swift and drastic changes were in order.

Seeking an experienced guiding hand not available in Australia, ‘Bam Bam’ took up residence at the famed American Kickboxing Academy, whose stable of celebrated fighters include Khabib Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier, and Cain Velasquez.

However, in August 2020, Tuivasa revealed on social media he'd been cut by the UFC, just as the Australian seemed to be taking the action required to get back in the winner's column.

No doubt we'll see 'Bam Bam' – so full of promise at the start of his UFC run – rebound to make his way back into the UFC, and drink plenty more beer mixed with the dregs of whatever festers at the bottom of his shoe.

**Update September 2020 – Tuivasa has been rehired by the UFC. He'll face Stefan Struve on 25 October.

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