Tai Tuivasa and coach Shaun Sullivan go back a long way. Growing up playing 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 on from when a 15-year-old Tuivasa was the second heaviest player at Penrith Panthers — of any grade — at 116kg (255 pounds), the duo stands alongside one another on the cusp of a shot at the UFC heavyweight title.
The journey to build a metaphorical Tai Tuivasa “mansion” is nearing completion, albeit with a few bumps and difference of constructional opinion along the way.
“Tai was just this big kid with a big personality, and this was even before we knew that we were going to be involved in the MMA scene or he would pursue it as career,” Sullivan told ESPN. “And then Tai got involved in a little bit of fight training and I joined in for a bit of rugby league training in the offseason to stay fit and I fell in love with it.
“Tai was just naturally gifted and did really well at it — myself not so much. I had to work hard at it to get some tips and tricks to get a couple of wins on the board. But I had a teaching background and that made it an easy progression to fall into a coaching role and you could tell from an early age that Tai had something special. That’s when I took more of a role in making sure he could reach his full potential.
“We had our first fights together and went on a bit of a run, and then he had his first fight under me as his sole head coach when he was about 120kgs, before that he was knocking everyone out and walking around at about 150kg. He won the AFC title and fought James McSweeney [in 2016] and then we got the call-up to the UFC.”
Tuivasa’s rise up the UFC’s rankings was almost as fast as his fall back down. Three straight wins in the promotion saw him headlining a UFC card on home soil against Junior dos Santos, a fight the Australian lost via second-round submission.
The defeat sent Tuivasa on a downward spiral as he then dropped two more fights to Blagoy Ivanov and Serghei Spivak, splitting with Sullivan in the process and leaving his UFC career on life support.
“Earlier on in his career, Tai was relying very heavily on his natural talent. He didn’t really respect some of these other disciplines,” Sullivan said. “And not only was he very good at it [striking], but he was having great success with it too. When you’ve got someone like myself trying to tell him, ‘This guy is definitely going to try and take you down, he’s a jiu-jitsu black belt, we really need to make sure we tick our boxes,’ and him not wanting to buy into that and dodging the session there — and then he goes out and knocks him out in under two minutes and then says, ‘I don’t know what you were stressing about, I told you right uppercut equals out all belt comers,’ 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 very top, two really experienced guys in Junior dos Santos and Blagoy Ivanov, and then obviously a bad loss against Serghei Spivak; that’s when he really decided, ‘Hey, if I want to stick around here and compete at the highest level for a fair while then I’m going to have to make sure that I can handle my own in all areas of the fight.'”
With Tuivasa heading in a different direction, Sullivan decided to take on another opportunity. With the sport of mixed martial arts exploding in the United Arab Emirates, the Australian was the successful applicant for a job implementing a program for the sport in schools and thus moved his life to the Middle East.
And then came the pandemic. With COVID-19 resulting in severe restrictions on sports across the globe, affecting athletes’ abilities to train and prepare in their chosen fields, the UAE became a hot spot for mixed martial arts as the limitations on training were not as strict as elsewhere. The UFC also set up Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
All of a sudden, fighters from the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and elsewhere were queueing up for a ticket to the Middle East — Tuivasa included.
“It was combination of things, and Tai hit the nail on the head,” Sullivan said of his parting, then reconciliation with Tuivasa. “We’d known each other since we were 11 years old, we’d both probably made mistakes [in our relationship] and we both probably needed to have that little bit of a break.
“And we’re both extremely stubborn. There were times there when I thought he was going to do his thing and would probably go and win a world title, and I’ll stick with my thing. I’d moved over to Dubai doing the MMA thing and I wanted to make this as big and best as possible, I had a chip on my shoulder, so there were probably times when I thought that was it [for our partnership].
“But once we got back together, it was like nothing had changed. He ultimately said to me, ‘You’re always going to be my big brother and you’re going to look at me as a little brother, but I just need you to look at me not as your 13- or 14-year-old little brother,’ and that was pretty cool. And when he said that, it put things in perspective for me a little bit. There were times previously when I’d say to him, ‘You can’t go and eat this’ or ‘you can’t drink a beer four weeks before a fight,’ I’d just tell him that’s what he had to do because I said so, because I know what’s good for you and I know what’s right. With someone like Tai, that’s not going to work.”
After five fights and five Tuivasa wins, the fruits of Sullivan’s labor are clear.
Now, Tuivasa is not only happy to work on his jiu-jitsu and grappling, but is also relishing the challenge of improving the weaker parts of his skill set. Five straight wins by either KO or TKO suggest Tuivasa’s success is still bound to the power in his hands, but Sullivan can see the growth in his charge’s all-around game, something he will need in this weekend’s fight with Ciryl Gane.
“When we got the Augusto Sakai fight, we were definitely expecting a grappling-heavy offense, so we brought in a couple of high-level jiu-jitsu black belts and one or two really good wrestlers from Dagestan,” Sullivan said. “And there were definitely some days when it wasn’t easy. Previously before, when he wasn’t good at something or he didn’t like it, he would almost flip the bird and walk off, whereas before the Augusto Sakai fight he really bought in to try and get better.
“At the start he was getting taken down five times a round by these high-level Olympic-level wrestlers. Then it was two or three per round. Then eventually he was able to negate that and get through a full five-minute round. And that’s when I thought that Tai — with those little MMA gloves — I know how hard he hits and how precisely he can find the chin. If he can put the fight on his terms and make it a stand-up fight there’s not too many guys who want to stand there and trade punches with him.”
After the shocking victory over Derrick Lewis in February, a win that catapulted Tuivasa up to No. 5 in ESPN’s heavyweight rankings, the 29-year-old headed home for some time away in Australia. The holiday coincided with the launch of the DrinkWest beer with his close friend and fellow UFC star Tyson Pedro.
As you might expect, Tuivasa mixed business with pleasure.
“[He was] probably about 150 kilograms, he definitely enjoyed himself,” Sullivan said with a chuckle of how Tuivasa returned to camp. “I tried to give him as much space as possible, because ultimately I hated seeing it. We’re a bit different in that way, he really likes to enjoy a drink and a party; so he let his hair down more than probably what he should have.”
Tuivasa eased back into preparations for the Gane fight first in Thailand, before heading back to Dubai to start the fight camp proper.
Sullivan’s work had already been underway for some time. He had been planning for the possibility of fights with Stipe Miocic, Tom Aspinall or Gane, reflecting the care and detail that he puts into his role.
“Another coach told me that in this role as a head coach for one of these athletes, I see myself just as the builder of the house,” Sullivan said. “I pride myself on having a good understand of jiu-jitsu and striking, holding the pads and all that, but what I want to do is not build an average house. I want to build a mansion so I’m going to bring in the specialist painters and plumbers, if you follow that sort of analogy.
“I’ve got some world-class jiu-jitsu guys over here, we’ve flown in two high-level Glory heavyweight kickboxers in Filip Verlinden and Bruno Chaves, I’ve got really intelligent high-level strength and conditioning experts. So I’m bringing in experts in their chosen fields … but with any of my fighters it’s up to me to know when they need a bit of a kick up the ass to rip in a little bit more, and on other days [offer] a bit of a rub on the back and someone to tell him it’s going to be alright.”
Tuivasa hasn’t had that kick for some time. Sullivan is now working with a fighter intent on achieving his potential and bringing UFC glory back to the area in which he grew up, a community for whom he remains a huge inspiration, even if at times he still needs to pinch himself. Defeat Gane, and a shot at the interim heavyweight title, at least, could well be on the cards for Tuivasa.
So how does he do it?
“Gane is going to feel that he has the tactical and technique advantage over Tai. I think he feels that Tai is predominantly a power puncher and he wants to stay away from those heavy hands, knees and elbows as much as possible, and touch and move and try and make it a long fight,” Sullivan said. “But what’s in our favor, from Tai’s first or second MMA fight, if you asked what [his opponent’s] tactics would be it would always be to touch and move, and then try to take it to the later rounds. It’s definitely something that Tai has come across many times before.
“I just think that in a stand-up fight using MMA gloves, regardless of who Tai is competing against, it’s a 50-50 bet, even against the best strikers …. So no matter who you are, when you look across the cage at Tai Tuivasa, you know that you’re going to be in a fight and it’s going to be a hard effort to try and take Tai out. And I think deep down Cyril knows he’s in for that on Saturday.”
In a city where the Eiffel Tower stands tall above everything else, the construction of the house that “Tai and Sully built” will continue. Day-by-day, brick-by-brick, the Tuivasa mansion is on its way to completion.