Heavyweight Justin “Bad Man” Tafa was just 3-0 as a professional MMA fighter when he got the call up to the UFC.
With those three wins coming by knockout, his fight time totaled just over 15 minutes. That includes breaks between rounds.
The 26-year-old, who fights Juan “The Kraken” Adams this Saturday on the main card of UFC 247, wasn’t complaining.
“It is what it is,” said Tafa ahead of his fight at the Toyota Center in Houston. “When the UFC comes knocking on your door, you’re never gonna turn it down even though you’re early in your career.”
It’s also fair to point out that the New Zealand-born Aussie of Samoan descent was no ordinary MMA rookie. His family has a fighting pedigree, as his grandfather was a national boxing champion and his uncles were world kickboxing champions.
The latest generation of Tafas have continued the tradition. All four Tafa brothers have fought professionally. He is coached by his brother Gerard while another brother, Junior, is an elite kickboxer.
That said, his UFC debut in October of 2019 was a baptism by fire. Tafa’s was the first fight on the main card of UFC 243: Whittaker vs Adesanya, the most attended UFC in history.
His last fight had been in front of a 900 strong crowd at a pub.
“When people make their UFC debuts they get thrown in the deep already,” said Tafa. “But to go from fighting in a pub to fighting in front of 57,000 people, that’s (really being) thrown in the deep end.”
Tafa lost by KO at 2:10 of the first round to Yorgan De Castro. After having some success in the early striking exchanges, Tafa was caught by a big right hand as he charged at his Cape Verdean opponent. Tafa thinks the UFC atmosphere may have got the better of him.
“I was gutted, because I know I’m a better fighter than him. I made a silly mistake, I tried to embrace the crowd and maybe the lights got a little too bright for me (laughs).”
Tafa, who is father to a four-year-old son, believes it’s his aggressive style that fast-tracked him to the UFC in the first place. He’s not about to start playing it safe.
“(I was picked by the UFC) because I’m exciting and the crowd like me because I’m genuine, I just want to fight in entertaining fights the crowds want to see.”
If Tafa wasn’t the type to take risks, his career may have followed a different trajectory. He was signed to Australia’s National Rugby League’s (NRL) team the Melbourne Storm. After being sidelined with injuries, Tafa found that he had lost his passion for rugby and picked up fighting instead.
While growing up as a Tafa came with backyard sparring sessions among the brothers, “Bad Man” had no formal martial arts training until after 2013 when he’d left rugby behind.
Fighters on the Australian regional circuit earn a pittance compared to NRL players, but for Tafa, choosing fighting was an easy decision.
“Whatever you like, you’ve just gotta do it,” said Tafa, who was also a youth worker in a homeless shelter before signing with the UFC. “I wouldn’t work somewhere I didn’t like for the money.”
In 28-year-old Juan “The Kraken” Adams, Tafa faces a fighter of similar experience. Adams has a 5-2 MMA record, has lost his last two fights and will be looking to break that streak against Tafa.
Tafa, who trains out of Tiger Muay Thai in Thailand and counts fellow UFC heavyweight Tai Tuivasa among his training partners, gives a straightforward assessment of Adams.
“He’s all right; he belongs in the UFC, he’s had a few wins, had a couple of losses, I’ve got nothing against him.”
Traditionally, wrestling has been the weakness of fighters from Oceania. But Tafa has wrestling specialists Frank and George Hickman among his MMA coaches, and says he has been getting ready to stop the former NCAA division 1 wrestler’s takedowns.
“I’ve been working on my wrestling a bit more, I got here at a good time because there’s a lot of big Eastern European wrestlers, so (I’m) just increasing the wrestling because I know he’s going to try and hug me.”
Once again, there will be no shortage of eyes on Tafa as the third-to-last fight of the night.
Tafa says he won’t be gun shy after his tough UFC debut. He’ll still be fighting his way.
“It’s always to try and finish the person. That fight I thought I hurt him enough and went in for the kill,” said Tafa. “This time it’s just doing it smarter and picking the right times. I’m always there to finish or be finished, I ain’t there just to hug and grind out a decision.”