Tai Tuivasa and coach Shaun Sullivan have a long history. Growing up in rugby league in western Sydney – Sullivan played with one of Tuivasa’s older brothers – their sporting endeavors have long been intertwined.
Now, more than a decade after a 15-year-old Tuivasa was the second-heaviest player with the Penrith Panthers at 116 kg (255 pounds), the duo are on the cusp of a shot at the UFC Heavyweight Title.
Tai Tuivasa’s journey to building a metaphorical “mansion” is nearing completion, albeit with some bumps and construction disagreements.
“Tai was just this big kid with a big personality and that was before we even knew we were going to be involved in the MMA scene or he was going to pursue it as a career,” Sullivan told ESPN. “And then Tai got involved in a bit of fight training and I got involved in a bit of off-season rugby league training to stay fit and I fell in love with it.
“Tai was just naturally gifted and did it really well – not so much myself. I had to work hard to get some tips and tricks to get a few wins on the board. But my background as a teacher made it easy to transition into a coaching role and you could tell early on that there was something special about Tai. I took on more of a role there, to make sure he could reach his full potential.
“We had our first fights together and ran a bit and then he had his first fight under me as his only head coach when he was like 120kg, before that he was knocking everyone out and was running around at about 150kg. He won the AFC title and fought James McSweeney [in 2016] and then we got called up to the UFC.”
Tuivasa’s rise in the UFC rankings was almost as rapid as his descent. Three straight wins in the promotion saw him lead a UFC card on home soil against Junior dos Santos, a fight the Australian lost via second-round submission.
The loss sent Tuivasa on a downward spiral as he then relinquished two more fights against Blagoy Ivanov and Serghei Spivak, parting ways with Sullivan in the process and putting his UFC career on life support.
“Early on in his career, Tai relied heavily on his natural talent. He didn’t really respect some of those other disciplines,” Sullivan said. “And he wasn’t just very good at it [striking], but he also had great success with it. When someone like me tries to say to him, “This guy is definitely going to try to get you down, he’s a jiu-jitsu black belt, we really need to make sure we meet our requirements,” and he doesn’t want to address it and dodging the session there – and then he goes out and knocks him out in less than two minutes and then says, “I don’t know what you were stressing about, I told you that right uppercut will level all belt corners,” then it’s hard to get him to buy in [to the training].
“Unfortunately it took a couple of losses against some of the guys at the top, two really experienced guys in Junior dos Santos and Blagoy Ivanov, and then obviously a tough loss against Serghei Spivak; that’s when he really decided, ‘Hey, if I’m going to stay here and compete at the highest level for a while, I need to make sure I’m comfortable with myself in all areas of the fight.'”
With Tuivasa going in a different direction, Sullivan decided to take another opportunity. When the sport of mixed martial arts exploded in the United Arab Emirates, the Australian was the successful applicant for a job implementing a program for the sport in schools, thus shifting his life to the Middle East.
And then came the pandemic. As COVID-19 placed severe restrictions on sports around the world, affecting athletes’ ability to train and prepare in their chosen fields, the UAE became a mixed martial arts hotspot as training restrictions were not as severe as elsewhere. The UFC also set up Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
Suddenly fighters from the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere were lining up for a ticket to the Middle East – including Tuivasa.
“It was a combination of things, and Tai hit the nail on the head,” Sullivan said of his departure and reconciliation with Tuivasa. “We’ve known each other since we were 11 years old, we both probably made mistakes [in our relationship] and we both probably needed that little break.
“And we’re both extremely stubborn. There were times when I thought he was going to do his thing and probably win a world title, and I’m sticking to my thing. I had moved to Dubai the MMA thing and I wanted to make this as big and as good as possible, I had a chip on my shoulder so there were probably times I thought that was it [for our partnership].
“But when we got back together, it was like nothing had changed. Ultimately he said to me, ‘You’ll always be my big brother and you’ll always look at me like a little brother, but I just have to make sure you don’t look at me as your 13- or 14-year-old little brother,’ and that was pretty cool. And when he said that, it put things into perspective for me a little bit. There used to be times when I’d say to him, ‘You can’t go eat that’ or ‘You can’t go four weeks before a fight Drink beer’, I would just tell him he had to do it because I said it, because I know what’s good for you and I know what’s right. That won’t work with someone like Tai.”
After five fights and five Tuivasa wins, the fruits of Sullivan’s labor are clear.
Now Tuivasa not only enjoys working on his Jiu-Jitsu and Grappling, but also enjoys the challenge of improving the weaker parts of his skills. Five straight wins by either KO or TKO suggests Tuivasa’s success is still tied to the power in his hands, but Sullivan can see the growth in his protégé’s all-around game, something he showed in the fight with Ciryl Gane will need this weekend.
“When we got the Augusto Sakai fight, we definitely expected a grappling-heavy offense, so we brought in some top-notch jiu-jitsu black belts and one or two really good wrestlers from Dagestan,” Sullivan said. “And there were definitely some days where it wasn’t easy. Previously, if he wasn’t good at something or didn’t like it, he’d almost turn the bird and walk away while fighting before Augusto Sakai really bought it to try and get better.
“In the beginning, he was getting defeated five times a round by these high-level Olympic-level wrestlers. Then it was two or three per round. Then he was finally able to negate that and last a full five-minute lap. And that’s when I thought, Tai – with those little MMA gloves – I know how hard he hits and how accurate he can find that chin to a lot of guys standing there wanting to trade punches with him.”
After the shock win over Derrick Lewis in February, a win that propelled Tuivasa to No. 5 in ESPN’s heavyweight rankings, the 29-year-old made his way home to Australia for some time. The holiday coincided with the launch of DrinkWest beer alongside his close friend and UFC star Tyson Pedro.
As might be expected, Tuivasa mixed business with pleasure.
“[He was] probably around 300 pounds, he was definitely enjoying himself,” Sullivan said with a chuckle as Tuivasa returned to camp. “I tried to give it as much space as possible because I ended up hating watching it. We’re a bit different in that regard, he really enjoys a drink and a party; so he let his hair down more than probably what he should have.
Tuivasa first prepared for the Gane fight in Thailand before returning to Dubai to start actual fight camp.
Sullivan’s work had been in progress for some time. He had planned the possibility of fights with Stipe Miocic, Tom Aspinall or Gane, reflecting the care and attention to detail he puts into his role.
“Another coach told me that in this role as the head coach for one of these athletes, I see myself as just a house builder,” Sullivan said. “I pride myself on having a good understanding of jiu-jitsu and hitting, holding the pads and all that, but what I want to do is not build your average house. I want to build a mansion, so I’ll bring in the specialized painters and plumbers if you follow that kind of analogy.
“I’ve got some world-class jiu-jitsu guys here, we’ve flown in two high-profile Glory heavyweight kickboxers in Filip Verlinden and Bruno Chaves, I’ve got some really intelligent, high-level strength and conditioning experts. So I bring in experts in their chosen fields…but with each of my fighters, it’s up to me to know when they need to kick a little ass to rip a little more, and other days [offer] a bit of a rub on his back and someone to tell him it’s going to be alright.”
Tuivasa didn’t have that step for some time. Sullivan is now teamed with a fighter who is determined to fulfill his potential and bring UFC glory back to the area he grew up in, a community he remains a huge inspiration to, even if he still pinches himself at times got to. If you defeat Gane, Tuivasa could at least have a shot at the interim heavyweight title.
How does he do that?
“Gane will feel like he has the tactical and technical advantage over Tai. I think he feels like Tai is mostly a power puncher and he wants to stay away from those heavy hands, knees and elbows and touch and move as much as possible and try to make it a long fight,” he said Sullivan, “But what’s in our favor, from Tai’s first or second MMA fight, if you ask what [his opponent’s] The tactic would be to always touch and move and then try to get it into the later rounds. It’s definitely something Tai has encountered many times before.
“I just think that in a stand-up fight wearing MMA gloves, no matter who Tai is up against, it’s a 50-50 bet, even against the best forwards… So no matter who you are, if you look in the cage.” in Tai Tuivasa, you know you will be engaged in a fight and it will be a hard effort trying to take down Tai. And I think deep down Cyril knows that’s what he’s in for on Saturday.”
In a city where the Eiffel Tower towers above all else, construction of the house that “Tai and Sully built” continues. Day by day, brick by brick, Tuivasa Mansion is on its way to completion.
https://www.espn.com/mma/story/_/id/34491960/ufc-paris-construction-tai-tuivasa-mansion Inside the construction of the Tai Tuivasa mansion