Justin Tafa knows he has a big opportunity ahead.
He not only gets to fight in his native Australia, but he gets to make his promotional debut at UFC 243. Tafa will compete on an international stage for the first time when he takes on fellow heavyweight prospect Yorgan De Castro on the preliminary card set to air on ESPN.
It’s a major leap for the heavyweight who previously competed as a professional in small venues in which his hefty group of supporters was within earshot. Such a scene was far from luxurious, but it was one that Tafa grew accustomed to in the early stages of his career.
“There’s nothing like it,” Tafa told John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock. “It’s that little edge that you have over other people, man. You could be in some deep waters, and when you have your family and friends or fans screaming, it’s that little edge, man. It can spark the flame again, and that’s when that heart comes back out and that spirit comes out.”
Now, Tafa will compete inside the stadium that is responsible for the UFC’s attendance record, set by UFC 193. UFC 243, headlined by a middleweight title unification bout between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya, will be the promotion’s latest attempt at surpassing the record total of 56,214 fans.
And while it may be a much different atmosphere than before, Tafa expects to fill the seats of Marvel Stadium with plenty from that same support system that cheered him on when he fought in Australian bars.
“I know once it comes to Marvel Stadium, it’s going to be a bit hard seeing my family and all that,” Tafa said, “but I know they’ll be screaming somewhere.”
Justin Tafa joins the UFC
Tafa’s chance to compete on such a stage came after he strung together a short yet productive pro career.
The heavyweight debuted in May of 2017, scoring a TKO victory in the second round of his bout. He returned to competition 14 months later and again found success, this time getting a first-round TKO victory to secure the XFC heavyweight title.
Tafa defended his belt successfully in May with another second-round TKO win. It was then that he started to see the demand for his talents increase.
Tafa received offers from a number of different organizations, and while the UFC didn’t provide the most money out of the options, the heavyweight views his decision to sign as a long-term investment.
“UFC is the number one organization,” Tafa said, “That’s who I want to fight, you know, who I want to fight for, so I’ll take the cut now, and it’ll pay dividends.”
Originally, Tafa expected to get a call about an appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series. While that opportunity didn’t materialize, his interest in the show benefited him in the long run.
“I was shooting for a spot on the Contender Series and then I started to follow it,” Tafa said, “I saw the first week and I saw [De Castro’s] fight, you know, I was really impressed by how he handled the wrestler [Alton Meeks].”
At the time, Tafa had no idea he’d soon be signing a contract to fight against the fellow undefeated heavyweight.
“I was kind of like, yeah man, this guy, you know, he’s pretty, pretty impressive, you know,” Tafa said. “It’s funny, I was laughing, you know, they gave me the fight and I was like, ‘Oh s**t. Is that the guy from the first week?’ I didn’t even know his name.”
Evolving in training
Jumping at the chance to be recognized as a legitimate prospect, Tafa had to continue his development in order to maintain the accelerated pace of his career path.
“You learn a lot in camp, you know, and then it’s just like evidence when it comes to the cage, like you’re like, ‘Oh damn, this is why we train,'” Tafa said. “A lot of the stuff I learned, I learned through the camps. And then my fights haven’t been too long, so a lot of it’s just got to do with just trusting the process.”
As is the case for many rising fighters today, Tafa has spent much of his time rounding out his skills. However, doing so proved difficult for him.
“I was doing like wrestling, I was doing jiu-jitsu, I was doing striking, but it’s very hard in Brisbane to find specialist places that also have like big guys to do the whole, complete MMA,” Tafa said. “Like I might have some good guys that are good at jiu-jitsu that are big and then some good guys that are good at striking and I could only transition from one to the other.”
The challenges pushed Tafa to look outside of his native Australia. Ultimately, he wound up finding a home in Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand.
There, “Bad Man” has enjoyed training with a diverse group of heavyweights that help him avoid the complacency he sometimes felt in his routine back home. He has also benefited from a dedicated strength and conditioning program, which he previously never had the luxury of utilizing.
Learning from Mark Hunt
Beyond just in the gym, Tafa likely has learned the most from his mentor, MMA legend Mark Hunt. Hunt’s experiences are an invaluable resource for those that look up to him, and Tafa has done his best to pick his brain and employ some of Hunt’s strategies into his own game.
“Man, that guy, he could have the worst day, he could have had the worst sparring, but if you ask him if he’s going to win on the weekend, he’s like, ‘I want to knock this guy out.’ You know, like there’s no hesitation,” Tafa said. “I was like, damn, you know, this guy in his heart, he’s wholeheartedly like thinking I’m gonna win. So if that’s got him to 20 years of pro fighting on top, I think that’s what I need to take. And I’ve been blessed to be in a lot of camps with him over the last few years and I’ve been able to like take that kind of mentality.”
He’s also picked up the kill-or-be-killed approach that made Hunt such a fan favorite, and if Tafa has to put that into action at UFC 243, he’ll likely wind up adding a few more people to his own fanbase.
“If you go out, go out on your shield,” Tafa said. “If you need to throw down, man, don’t just fold. Bite down on your mouthguard and swing for the fences.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.