History seems to be an all too often used word that, for the most part, describes something that is anything but. Robert Whittaker unquestionably made history when he became the first Australian UFC champion – winning the Interim UFC Middleweight title, which was later unified after Georges St Pierre vacated the title.
With an Australian champion, a refreshed push for the UFC to host a Perth event was embarked on and late last year it was confirmed that the UFC would be making history again, with it’s inaugural WA event UFC 221, taking place February 11.
The announcement was welcome news to fans that have been justly rewarded with a stellar card, which is sure to shine the spotlight of the world on our Western Seaboard.
Despite a minor setback losing Whittaker from the main event, the replacement with Luke Rockhold for an interim title, an exciting fighter that has previously tasted victory on Australian shores and is a former Middleweight champ himself, does little to take the sheen of the event.
Ahead of this weekend’s action in Perth we had the chance to sit down with some of the fighters.
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“I have three fights left, and I’m out of here.” Mark Hunt
Mark Hunt (13-11-1,1NC) is a legend of MMA, not just in Australia and New Zealand (his home country) but the world over. A pioneer, he has fought in some of the premier competitions in the world including legendary kickboxing promotion, K-1 and PRIDE Fighting Championships – his first taste of MMA.
He’s also one of the most vocal fighters on the UFC roster, never shy of making his feelings known about the state of the division, UFC policy-makers and the use of enhancements in the sport.
For now, his focus is on his opponent this weekend – Curtis Blaydes (8-1-0,1NC).
“I know Curtis Blades is a strong opponent – I have no disrespect for him, he is No.9 for a reason but he’s not better than me,” Hunt said recently.
“I’m number 5 in the world, I want to fight these guys that are above me so that I can get my shot at the title. But if I can get past Curtis Blaydes at the weekend hopefully I can get number three next fight.”
A former title contender in a division that does not have as much depth as some of the others, he’s never more than a couple of fights away from a title shot, something that he’s looking to achieve in 2018.
“I have three fights left, and I’m out of here. I’d like to get three fights out this year. I want to work hard without injury, and get a shot at the title.’
On the subject of a possible return of Brock Lesner, who defeated Hunt at UFC 200 only for the decision to be overturned after Lesner tested positive for a banned substance. Recent news that Lesner may make a return to UFC has been met with mixed emotions, especially from the man Lesner last defeated.
“What’s disgusting about it…is it’s being pushed out to the whole world is that you can use steroids and cheat. We put these guys on pedestals – why? When in society we punish people for breaking the law. Why is it ok? I don’t know why they are allowing these guys to come back in [and] say ‘it’s ok’, fires up Mark.
“I’m honest, I don’t cheat. All it says is to be one of the best fighters is you have got to cheat, you have got to take steroids and it’s not true. You have just got to work hard.”
The thought brings back memories of Hunt’s war in Brisbane in 2013 where he faced off against Antônio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva. It was a fight that would go down in the annuals of history, a sure-fire contender for Fight of the Year 2013, but was tainted by Silva failing subsequent drug tests.
Hunt still bears the scars of that fight to this day; “That reminds me of it right there (points to a scar on his left hand where he has obviously had an injury/surgery). That was a year’s worth without income.”
Despite the controversy that follows Hunt he’s looking forward to being part of history in Perth and assures fans not to expect this to go past the first or second round.
“I’m not afraid to lose. But I’m going to go out swinging.” Tai Tuivasa
Another fighter that’s keen to make his mark on Perth, is Sydney born and bred Tai Tuivasa (8-0-0). Undefeated in eight fights, he joined the UFC in 2016 and in his first fight, scored a spectacular flying knee knockout of Rashad Coulter and earned him a Performance of the Night bonus.
For Tuivasa, the enormity of fighting on the card in Perth is not lost on him and as an Australian, he feels that he has the support of the people on his side.
“It’s massive. Not only is it awesome to be on the first ever card, but also I’m very blessed that my first two fights have been on home soil, in front of the home crowd. We don’t know how long until it comes back do you know what I mean? I’m just very grateful that I get to put a show on for my peoples …this country [are] my friends…my family,” he comments.
With less than a week until the fight, Tuivasa is a picture of calm. The hard work has been done and now it’s time to fight.
Smiling at the thought of the fight, he says; “I’m over the training – I just get to the end of the camp and I want to punch on.”
And as for how the fight is going to finish, there’s only one way he can see it going.
“I’m always looking for a knockout. I like to keep it Bam Bam style – my style, and get in there and get the bonus. Within the next few fights, I want to be knocking down the door of the Top 10.”
“I’m probably going to cut him up pretty badly and the ref is going to pull me off of him,” Tyson Pedro
Tyson Pedro (6-1-0) is on a different mission. Coming off the back of his first loss to Ilir Latifi (14-5-0) UFC 221 offers him the chance for redemption in front of his home crowd.
“When I was winning you would go home and have beers – like if you’re winning you feel like you’re doing the right thing and when you lose you’re like ‘ok, we have got to get to work’. So I went back and just started to focus on myself. Up-skilling myself, using my footwork…going back to what I am good at.
“My last fight that was more of a strategy issue than a technical loss. I made small mistakes that I needed to fix up and concentrated more on my opponent’s strengths than my own. I won’t make that mistake again,” comments Pedro.
While in camp, Pedro maintains his weight to avoid any last minutes cuts, which he admits he ‘hates’. It’s true, he looks fit and focussed on the job at hand, while understanding he is still young and with youth, sometimes, comes a lack of experience.
He says; ‘Every time I try and bring in a better version of myself. I’m always moving forward and always trying to bring out what I am doing in training. I’m still learning on the job and it’s early in my career. I listen to a lot of other fighters and once I can get that out – I think everyone will be pretty excited.”
His success in the UFC has afforded him opportunities that he could never have dreamed of, training in America at Jackson with some legends of the sport. But more than that, it has shown him the potential MMA in Australia has – something that he is proud to be part of growing.
“You don’t realise how little our MMA is in Australia until you go over to the states and see how big it is there. I started fighting so that I could go overseas and fight all over the world, but now I want to build it up in Australia,” he says.
And, when thinking of the talent coming up in Australia -Pedro has his eye on a few.
“Josh Culibao is up there. Isaac Hardman from Queensland, Daniel Rivett who hasn’t even had an MMA fight but is a beast that is coming through – those are some young guns coming through. There are some kids out there that are going to be good.”
UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold happens in Perth on Feb 11, prelims start from 7.30am AWST and 2pm AWST for the main card.