Indigenous UFC Fighter Tai ‘Bam Bam’ Tuivasa KO’ing his way to Stardom

From NRL to UFC

Teenaged Tai Tuivasa in his Sydney Roosters junior and a then aspiring MMA fighter.

Teenaged Tai Tuivasa, a then aspiring MMA fighter playing for the junior Sydney Roosters NRL club. Courtesy of Fox Sports Australia, 2017. 

UFC fighter Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa has been KO’ing his way to stardom and making firsts in the realm of mixed-martial arts as a First Nations Australian. From humble beginnings in the Western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, the proud Wiradjuri Samoan man has made it in both NRL and UFC.

As a teenager, Tuivasa got signed to the Sydney Roosters NRL junior league club and came up through the ages to become a front-rower, playing Harold Matts and SG Ball before Under-20s. After a few years of struggling with gambling and playing footy far from home, Tuivasa decided that he “had to get out of rugby league. Get back…with family and a different way of living” (The Daily Telegraph, 2017).

“…the reason I picked fighting over Rugby League was because it suited me more and my personality. I’ve always loved fighting…I had my first fight at 17, so I was still playing football. After that, at 18, I was playing First Grade. It just became a job.”

 …with MMA you just keep learning, there’s always someone better than you at something all the time,” Tuivasa explained to The Daily Telegraph about his decision to leave the NRL in 2017.

After leaving the NRL, Tuivasa made his professional MMA debut in 2012 against Texan Rashad Coulter at the Qudos Bank Arena in the Sydney Olympic Park. Over the next four years, all of Tuivasa’s MMA fights ended in the first round with KOs, giving him a 7-0 record. 

Tuivasa, the first Indigenous Australian to win a UFC fight, headline a UFC event and to carry the Aboriginal flag into the Octagon

UFC Heavyweight fighter Tai Tuivasa proudly wearing the Aboriginal flag for his UFC walkout.

UFC Heavyweight fighter Tai Tuivasa proudly wearing the Aboriginal flag for his UFC walkout. Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph (Picture: Sam Ruttyn), 2017.

In Tuivasa's UFC debut on 18 November 2017 in Adelaide, he became the first Indigenous Australian to win a UFC fight! Incredibly, “Bam Bam” won the fight against Rashad Coulter via a flying knee in the first round.

The Sydney slugger made another first for his people by becoming the first Indigenous Australian to carry the Aboriginal flag into the Octagon. Traditionally, UFC fighters are only allowed to drape themselves in their national flags on their walk to the cage. However, The Daily Telegraph (2017) confirmed that Tuivasa convinced fight company executives to make an exception after writing to them about the significance of Indigenous pride within sports.

“...that decision by the UFC, it means so much to me. This is a flag Cathy Freeman flew at the 2000 Olympics and got into trouble. Same with boxer Damien Hooper [who was reprimanded after wearing an Aboriginal T-shirt to the ring at the 2012 London Games],” Tuivasa said.

“...My mum Kerry was born in Redfern. She lived on ‘The Block’ until they were all shifted out. And my great grandmother on that side of the family, she’s a Murray from up in Queensland. I’m so proud to be able to now represent that part of my culture,” Tuivasa continued, proudly speaking of his cultural background in his interview with The Daily Telegraph (2017).

The Wiradjuri Samoan fighter believes that this change will encourage a new wave of Indigenous Mixed Martial Arts fighters, as they will finally able to see more Indigenous representation and pride within the UFC.

In 2018, Tuivasa became the first Aboriginal fighter to headline a main event in the UFC. The fighter celebrated his cultural identity in his walkout through proudly draping himself in the Aboriginal flag, following behind a performance by local Aboriginal dancers - a tradition Tuivasa has continued since the UFC changed their rules to allow the flag.



Tuivasa initiates UFC Australia's first Welcome to Country ceremony

As the first Indigenous Australian UFC fighter to headline a main event on home soil, Tuivasa felt it was about time for the UFC to embrace Indigenous culture and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land through a Welcome to Country ceremony. So, in the week leading up to his fight in November 2018, the UFC finally held a ceremony.

In a social media post, Tuivasa (2018) wrote about the significance of having this Welcome to Country ceremony and how he vows to push for regular ceremonies: 

“People who know me personally know how much my cultures mean to me… This is the first ever Welcome to Country done in the UFC in Australia.

I want this to be recognised and make sure this happens every time there is an event on Australian soil. Cause this is our land and we are the first people of this nation and this needs to be known worldwide.”

Despite losing this round to Junior Dos Santos, the 25 year old fought in nine matches over the course of 2018 and increased his ranking to #11 in the heavyweight division (SBS, 2018).

Tai Tuivasa is a true inspiration, both in terms of his sporting achievements and as an advocate for Indigenous representation and recognition within the UFC. So, let’s continue to acknowledge and celebrate the success and contributions of Indigenous athletes and sportspeople!

Stay tuned for our next post about how Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa takes Las Vegas and how he’s increased his ranking to #3 in the heavyweight division after an undefeated streak!