"This fight now, back in Australia, I'm pretty confident with the first fight out of the way that I'll be more relaxed and focused and I'll get to enjoy it more." - James Te Huna
Nobody enters a fight at 100%. That's the MMA cliché. It's been particularly true for James Te Huna, who fights Aaron Rosa this Friday night (Saturday morning in Australia). Te Huna's continuous triumph over injury has been made up of small miracles, like the one that took place during a 2006 fight in Sydney.
"The first minute of the fight I knew I had this guy. I thought I'm gonna stop this guy pretty soon and we were rolling around on the ground and I went to sweep him and my shoulder came out. The ref, lucky for me, stopped it -- he didn't call the fight off. He stopped it and called the doctor in. So I was lucky he did that. What he should have really done is stop the fight altogether."
But the show went on.
"The doctor came in, he couldn't put it back in, they were about to call it off. But before they called it off my cornerman Pedro - he's a big Samoan guy and one of my trainers from back in the day - I ran over to him, he yanked on it in the worst possible way, like a church bell, and it went back in, and I was ready to fight again."
Te Huna went on to win that fight after his opponent threw in the towel. In his 2010 Octagon debut (a fight he won by TKO), he suffered a nasty broken arm that was so bad he had a doctor tell him he'd never fight again. Then there's the tale of Te Huna's last training camp before his first round knockout win over Ricardo Romero.
"I'm kind of used to it now, when something happens. That last fight I had, my game plan was to stay on my feet and try and strike with Ricardo, and two weeks out I dislocated a finger sparring so I couldn't close my fist before the fight. And then we started practicing on the other hand, and after drilling for the next few weeks on the other hand I tore a ligament off the bone on my thumb and I couldn't make a fist on that hand either (laughs)".
The KO - done with a right uppercut - was important for Te Huna; it came after a first-round submission loss to Alexander Gustafsson, a defeat that caused Te Huna to reevaluate his training.
"Yeah it was (good to win again), I needed that win too. Before that (win) came I changed up a few things, I changed up my boxing coach, I've been training with Lincoln Hudson, he works with Olympic boxers, and he's got a whole bunch of pros that he coaches. I used to think my hands were all right until I went to this guy. His boxers just toweled me up and exposed all these bad flaws that I had so I went to him and just fixed them right up."
The New Zealand born Sydneysider is quick to praise his training camp, which includes world-class training partners from every facet of MMA.
"For this fight, I've got a real good sponsor, so what we did was I found that I had everything here, the best of everything here - world champion kickboxers that are my weight, and I spar with these guys, an Olympic freestyle wrestler (Igor Praporschikov) - he's my wrestling partner here, I've got a jiu-jitsu black belt (Fabio Galeb), a really good strength and conditioning coach (Hayden Knowles), I've got Brad Pitt, he's an Olympic boxer for Australia, and represented Australia in 2008. "
In a 2011 interview with UFC.com before his loss to Gustafsson, Te Huna confessed to being overwhelmed by the nerves in his first UFC fight. He doesn't expect it to affect his 2012 homecoming.
"When I fought Gustafsson we kind of got rushed out, so I didn't really get nervous, I didn't get a walk out or anything; they must have been running late so we just got quickly rushed out there, so that felt good, and the very last fight I had in Colorado, I felt like an unknown and pretty much no pressure at all. I felt relaxed, felt really good," said Te Huna, 30. "This fight now, back in Australia, I'm pretty confident with the first fight out of the way that I'll be more relaxed and focused and I'll get to enjoy it more."
Te Huna, who says he represents both Australia and New Zealand in the Octagon, has studied the man he will fight on March 2. He respects his opponent's skills, but doesn't view Aaron Rosa, 28, as a dangerous finisher.
"A lot of people are writing him off, but after what I've seen in his last fight he looks pretty good. Wrestling's okay and he stands up and gets up to his feet pretty good," Te Huna said. "I don't think he's real dangerous. He does seem like he can finish, but he doesn't seem to. So I won't be scared of him or afraid of his punches or afraid of his kicks, but he's gonna be a hard worker, so it's gonna be a tough fight for me."
The fight will be roughly five years on from the incident that brought him closest to giving up fighting.
"He (Hector Lombard) threw me, I placed my arm out and my shoulder came out. No excuses, he gave me a hiding in that fight but after that fight I thought I've gotta try and do something to get better, otherwise I'm gonna have to do something else."
Long before he made it to the UFC, he did what he's always done: persisted.
"So I went and had surgery, waited for the six months for it to heal. Couple months later, I started training for a fight and got back into it and started getting better and better, started improving. So it was really exciting again. I was on a bit of a win streak, so I stuck to it."