Tai Tuivasa was just a teenager lazing around with friends watching the UFC on television when, together, they created a eureka spark.
“One of my friends said, ‘F**k, these guys are crazy, but I reckon you can give them a hiding,’” Tuivasa recalls. “And I said, ‘I reckon I can, too.’”
That kind of declaration could have easily been dismissed as youthful bravado, but by that time, Tuivasa had already built up a fearsome local reputation. At 17, he was big (6-foot-2 and nearing 300 pounds), he was known to be down for a scrap (he was bestowed the nickname “Bam Bam”), and he’d already shown innate athletic talent, having been signed by the Sydney Roosters of Australia’s professional National Rugby League. Because of that notable accomplishment, his future seemed to be set. Stardom seemed to be in the cards for him. But little by little, as the game’s rules and standards attempted to force him to conform his quirky personality, his love for “footy” had waned.
Team sports were good, but an individual combat sport? As he watched with friends, it all seemed so tempting. And within a few months, he went ghost on the rugby world.
The switch wasn’t made in total haste; by this point, Tuivasa had already boxed and competed in MMA in his spare time, and the individualism of combat competition called to him.
“I grew up in a place where I watched people do what didn’t make them happy,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be like that. And I didn’t have the passion.”
“I grew up in a place where I watched people do what didn’t make them happy. I wasn’t going to be like that.”
His passion was in fighting, something that was ingrained in him from the start. His father Tony grew up boxing and competed professionally but couldn’t seriously pursue the career due in part to his fast-expanding family. Tai grew up with 11 brothers and sisters, and says that at times, he had “20-something” people living with him in his Mount Druitt home.
“It was hard but that’s how it was, just another day in the ‘hood,” he says. “As a kid we didn’t have much. I lived in a slummy area and we never had much money. We had to fight just to get by, but I loved the challenge of fighting.”
There were plenty of opportunities for him to meet that challenge. Growing up an Aboriginal with Samoan heritage, Tuivasa found many places where he was told he didn’t belong, that he was different. From those experiences, he found out early on that he didn’t mind fighting — that he even liked it.
“We were just street kids,” Tuivasa says. “It’s what we did. Sometimes fights looked for us. Sometimes they didn’t. But I realized I liked to have a bit of a fight.”
These occasional fisticuffs came in between his other, more serious athletic pursuits. He was a successful state swimmer for a while, following in the steps of his mother. He chased rugby. He played, he says, anything his family could afford.
By the time he was 15 years old, he came to the attention of the National Rugby League’s Penrith Panthers and was signed to their junior squad. His passion for the game, though, didn’t last, having been deflated by the strict standards imposed by the teams and coaches. Within two years, he was gone. Within a year of pursuing MMA though, he gained another big break when his new coach asked him if he was interested in going to New Zealand to spar with legendary heavyweight Mark Hunt.