Mixed martial arts is the third sport Zac Pauga has competed in professionally.
Before he ever wrapped his hands and put on a pair of four-ounce gloves, the 34-year-old was a fullback for the NFL’s Houston Texans. When his football career ended, he pivoted to rugby, playing for the Denver Stampede of PRO Rugby and the Glendale Raptors in Major League Rugby. Along the way, he’s dealt with numerous losses and setbacks, but his first MMA loss in the finale of the heavyweight competition on Season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter opened his eyes to a reality that is limited to combat sports.
“I’ve taken a lot of Ls before, but I never really wrapped my head around the fact that I could lose without ever really getting a chance to respond, you know?” said Pauga, who suffered a second-round knockout loss at the hands of Mohammed Usman in the finals of the TUF 30 heavyweight competition last August. “Getting knocked out, you don’t even know how or why you lost.
“So it just made me double down on the basics and tight defense, because one mistake is all it takes and you don’t get a chance to make up for it like you do in other sports. You throw (an interception in football), you can always come back out and try and get it back. That’s not the case in MMA, so I learned from that and I grow from that.”
In addition to learning from the new reality Usman exposed him to last year, Pauga’s return to action this weekend sees him return to the light heavyweight division, where he’ll take on former middleweight Jordan Wright in the co-main event.
Like numerous other competitors before him, the Elevation Fight Team member saw competing up a division at heavyweight on the long-running reality television series as a good chance to earn his way onto the UFC roster, believing his natural athleticism, steadily improving skills, and not having to cut weight in order to compete would be enough to help propel him through the competition.
And he was right, mostly.
In the quarterfinal round, the Team Pena representative earned a unanimous decision win over Team Nunes’ Nyle Bartling, and in the semis, Pauga collected a second-round stoppage win over his teammate during the season, Jordan Heiderman, to punch his ticket to the finals and a showdown with Usman.
He started out well, using his movement, speed, and diversity of attacks to get the better of things in the opening stanza, but 36 seconds into the second round, Usman found his chin with a left hook that put Pauga on the deck and bounced him from the ranks of the unbeaten.
“Heavyweight MMA is a different game,” he said with a laugh. “Those tiny little gloves and everyone hits so hard that while you have to have good skills, sometimes it doesn’t even matter.
“Light heavyweight was always the plan,” added Pauga, who went 5-0 before appearing on The Ultimate Fighter, including a unanimous decision win over UFC vet Markus Perez. “The chance at heavyweight presented itself as a guaranteed way to get into the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter.
“It was a nice year of not having to cut weight, but I’m right on track; this was always my plan.”
But competing in mixed martial arts wasn’t when he first ventured into the gym.
Pauga was working as a patrol officer for the City of Wheat Ridge and wanted to improve his ability to defend himself should situations arise that required him to get physical. That quickly led to him serving as a training partner for heavyweight standouts Curtis Blaydes and Alistair Overeem, amongst others, and prompted him to step into the professional ranks himself soon after.
“I don’t have the career that I have, maybe I don’t even get to the UFC without Elevation Fight Team, without having guys that are at the top of the game, coaches that have been through it that can guide me, put me where I need to be,” said Pauga, heaping praise on the Denver-based team that has shaped him as a fighter. “I’m probably not here right now if I’m at some small gym where I’m the biggest, most athletic guy and I’m beating up everybody.
"My entire career is thanks to Elevation Fight Team and Curtis, and Alistair, and all these guys that have come through.”
The combination of his natural athleticism, previous professional ventures, and working with those big bodies and the cast of standout coaches certainly expedited Pauga’s rise through the ranks, but he also had unimpeded success before standing in with Usman last summer, as well.
A six-fight amateur career that started at the beginning of 2019 produced six victories, five finishes, and a transition to the professional ranks less than 18 months later. Three wins under the LFA banner were followed by unanimous decision wins over Terrance Jean-Jacques and Perez on consecutive Cage Warriors events in San Diego a couple months apart in 2021, which landed him a bed in the TUF house and a spot on Team Pena.
Now, he’s ready to make his UFC light heavyweight debut against Wright, who is also looking to start fresh by shifting divisions.
“I was familiar with him just because he does have a crazy highlight reel for himself and against him,” Pauga said when asked about Wright, who won his promotional debut at light heavyweight before dropping back down to middleweight and going 1-4 over his next five fights. “I was aware that he’s this wild fighter that goes out there with a ‘kill or be killed’ attitude. In breaking down his skills, he’s very traditionally trained — he has good kicks, good punches, and he fights like a martial artist, and he goes out there to kill.
“He’s never seen a judge’s scorecard and I think that’s something in my favor,” added the UFC sophomore, who has gone the distance in four of his five professional victories. “It’s not a mystery; it’s not a secret with Jordan — he’s coming to end the fight as quickly as he can, and I’m ready for it.”
Having dealt with an entirely different type of setback than he’d previously encountered in his pro sports career in his UFC debut, one might think that Pauga is chomping at the bit to go out there, get that one back, and taste sweet victory for the first time inside the Octagon.
While he certainly intends to emerge from Saturday’s penultimate pairing with his hand raised triumphantly, the lifelong athlete is more focused on the bigger picture and the final destination, not this next step.
“I’m planning to win — that’s my goal, that’s what I’m manifesting — but it’s just another step,” he said. “It’s not any big deal to me to go out there and get the victory that I know is coming; it’s just the next step in the road.”