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Tai Tuivasa opens up on how losing, soul-searching spurred UFC career turnaround: ‘My head wasn’t in it’

It wasn’t long ago that Tai Tuivasa was on the verge of losing his job.

Rewind to the end of 2019 and what once appeared to be a promising UFC career had seemingly unraveled before his eyes after the Australian heavyweight was put to sleep by a Sergey Spivak arm-triangle choke in front of Tuivasa’s hometown fans. It was Tuivasa’s third consecutive UFC loss, two of which saw him decisively finished in front of Australian crowds, and a pink slip prematurely ending his octagon run didn’t seem far off.

Considering Tuivasa’s resurgence ever since, capped by his fourth straight brutal knockout win at UFC 269, it’s all a bit crazy to think back on how close things came.

“My confidence has always been [there],” Tuivasa explained this week on The MMA Hour. “I’m a fighter, so I believe deep down inside I’ll fight. If my back’s against the wall, I’ll fight. It doesn’t matter who it is or where it is. But I think it was more, my head wasn’t in it. And when you get to a certain kind of level — I kind of rushed it and I was all over the place. I went from fighting in little Australia shows to mainlining [UFC] cards and this and that. And it was just, I probably got a bit mixed up, I probably got a bit caught up.

“I just had to fix a few things and I had to really figure out what I wanted to do with myself, and I really think that — I enjoy this fighting stuff. I’ve always loved fighting. I just like punching people and getting punched and the blood, I love it all. But since I’ve become a proper professional, I think I needed to just fix a few things.”

The difference today is night and day for Tuivasa.

Since that last 2019 loss, the 28-year-old has transformed into one of heavyweight’s true breakout up-and-comers. His spectacular knockouts and love of post-fight shoeys have turned him into a fan favorite, and finishes of Stefan Struve, Harry Hunsucker, Greg Hardy, and Augusto Sakai have propelled him into the conversation among any heavyweight rankings. Tuivasa debuted at No. 13 this month on MMA Fighting’s own Global Rankings.

It’s a turnaround that Tuivasa always knew was possible, even if it took him a few years into his UFC career to fully embrace the work it would take to get there.

“I don’t think I was happy with myself,” Tuivasa admitted. “I don’t really think I knew if I wanted to fight. I love fighting but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it full-time. I don’t think I was taking training as serious as you should take it. Just little sh*t like that. Nothing too extreme. It was just a few certain things. But I still drink, I still have fun. I still do all the same sh*t. But when I go to training now, I have a different mindset. I never thought about that, I just thought about the fight. Now I kind of think about the training, I think about the preparation, the eating good, whatever it takes to be a professional. I’m only learning.”

When asked what prompted such introspection, Tuivasa was blunt in his response.

“Losing,” he said matter-of-factly. “Losing helped me. Being punched and being defeated in front of your family, in front of your friends — not just [them], also the world. But that sh*t means a lot to me. My mom’s got to see me sitting there with blood over my face, and I don’t want to go in there next time — if I do lose, losing is OK. But if I lose, I want to go in there and say, ‘F*ck, I had a crack. I put my all in and I had a crack, and I lost.’ And that’s sweet. But I knew I had more and I’ve still got more to give, and I think that I’m just getting started in this game. I’m still one of the youngest [heavyweights in the UFC].”

Tuivasa now hopes to carry that momentum into 2022 and continue his ascendance up the heavyweight ranks. He’s already tentatively expected to return for a massive Feb. 12 showdown at UFC 271 in Houston against Derrick Lewis, MMA Fighting’s No. 4 ranked heavyweight. It’ll be a hometown affair for Lewis, but Tuivasa is determined to have a big year.

“I do this to support my family and give my son a better life,” Tuivasa said.

“I said I’m going to come for everyone this year, so I’m going to stick by it.”