Not long from the greatest test of his UFC career to date, against the home hope in the headline bout of the promotion’s breakout event in France, Tai Tuivasa is playing it as cool as a late-summer Paris night.
“I’m from Western Sydney, we’re the underdogs all the time,” the Australian tells The National, as he gets set once more to assume the role of enemy in hostile territory. “That’s fine with me. I come down there to [mess] up a party.”
On Saturday, Tuivasa takes on highly skilled Frenchman Ciryl Gane in Paris, when the UFC makes its long-awaited debut in France. Gane represents a formidable opponent, beaten only once in 11 professional MMA bouts – his unanimous-decision defeat to champion Francis Ngannou, last time out, in January.
A month later, Tuivasa was spoiling another homecoming, knocking out local favourite Derrick Lewis in Houston to lift his remarkable win streak to five. All five victories have come via knockout.
The run, spurred by a career-saving victory in Abu Dhabi in October 2020, has helped Tuivasa to No 4 in the UFC's heavyweight rankings. Come through this weekend against No 2 Gane, and a title shot apparently awaits.
“This definitely will be one of the biggest fights of my career, as of yet,” Tuivasa says. “Just more meaning on what’s on the line. Obviously, it’s a hard opponent. But that’s the great thing about fighting: we get to get in there and give it a crack… and have a crack.”
The just-concluded camp in Dubai has only buttressed the belief he can claim another eye-catching result. A resident in the emirate since early last year, Tuivasa spent the past five weeks hard at it at the sprawling new Wellfit Gym in Jumeirah Village Circle, where he has been put through an understandably arduous regime by coach Shaun Sullivan.
Having just finished his final session before jetting off to France, Tuivasa seems in as fine a shape as ever. Clearly, he has been dedicated and disciplined.
“I feel good,” he says. “The camp’s been gruelling, but it’s a big fight so it’s been a big camp. As long as I get my work in, listen to my coaches and my training partners, it’s just another fight. Just a bigger opponent and hopefully a bigger pay cheque. That’s all I really care about.”
Still, the magnitude of the event has not gone unnoticed. Saturday marks the UFC’s first foray into France, a significant moment given mixed martial arts was illegal in the country until two years ago.
“It’s a great accomplishment and great to be a part of,” Tuivasa says. “Not only am I fighting a Frenchman, but in the first ever MMA event in France. It’s really big for me, and not just that, it’s giving some of my family and friends the opportunity to travel the world and come over and watch me, which is something that means a lot to me.
“I’m from a place where not many people get to travel outside of our own walls. For that, it’s really made me happy and really proud.”
Tuivasa, 29, will for the first time have his young son, Carter, in attendance. It adds to the sense of occasion; this feels an important juncture for the surging heavyweight who believes that, after three defeats from late 2018 that threatened his UFC spot, he is finally finding his feet in the sport.
Gane, though, is another step up in challenge.
“Obviously he’s only lost to the champion,” Tuivasa says. “He’s a great fighter, great athlete. Everyone knows this, it’s pretty obvious. But like I said, this is the fun thing about fighting, you get to get in there and you get to throw down.
“And if I dink ‘em, I sink ‘em. That’s real simple. He might have more skill or whatever else - I see a lot of people write me off – but I’m a fighter and I’m going to get in there and have a fight.
“Like I said, I’m from Western Sydney. We’ve been written off, we are always the underdogs. But we always end up out on top.”
Tai Tuivasa trains in Dubai
It helps that much of the pressure centres, surely, on Gane. A lot is expected of the slick former kickboxer, who trains out of the capital and will of course form the night’s main attraction. A sold-out Accor Arena anticipates.
“That’s really up to him,” Tuivasa shrugs when asked how the pressure will affect his rival. “For me, I don’t really notice. I’m there to do my job, and my job is to win and get paid more money. That’s all I’m there for.
“I’ve never gone into a fight and just let someone beat me. I’m coming to throw down and I’m coming to win. Obviously he wants to win. We’re in the top of the division - everyone up this end wants to win and I’m sure he’s going to try his best to win.
"If I’m crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s I’ll be in with a good chance to come away with the win. I feel confident, feel I’ve a good plan and I feel fit. And we’re going to get in there and have a crack.”
The stakes are obvious. Defeat Gane, and Tuivasa looks dead set for a championship bout next.
“I think I’m pretty close," he says. “I’ve never really thought of it. But I’m pretty sure if I win this I should have a crack at the belt, or I’ll be very close to it.
“It’s another cool thing on my resume, and like I said, hopefully it leads me to getting a bigger contract.”
Contract or not, Tuivasa considers himself already one of the best heavyweights in the world.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says. “I have a couple of weapons that will put anybody out. I back myself, so we’re going to have to get in there and see.”
Gane, 32, has never been knocked out. Tuivasa, meanwhile, specialises in KOs. It should make for must-see viewing in Paris on Saturday.
“I’m not going to submit him,” Tuivasa smiles. “I’m going to take his head off - that’s the plan. Everyone knows ‘Bam Bam’ comes to fight. I’m there to put on a show… and I’m going to shock the world.”