One of the most exciting new talents in heavyweight fighting will make his debut for GLORY in China this month.
Junior Tafa, 20, of Brisbane, Australia, may not be well known yet, but his training partner Mark Hunt is, and he thinks Tafa has what it takes to go all the way.
Hunt, a K-1 Grand Prix winner and PRIDE FC veteran who is now part of the UFC heavyweight division, recruited Tafa several years ago to form part of his training camps.
“I think he is a very talented fighter for his age. He has a very smart mind for fighting and when he is in good shape he will give anyone trouble. I respect him as a fighter and have used Junior for the last four or five camps of mine,” he says. “I believe if he gets his mind right and training right will become a world champion.”
Tafa is presently in Thailand with Hunt, where the two are training at the Tiger Muay Thai camp together. On October 14, Tafa will enter the ring in Guangzhou, China to make his debut for GLORY.
He is the youngest of three brothers - the other two are aged 23 and 26 respectively - who all fight professionally. The trio are of Samoan heritage, as Hunt is, and are all natural heavyweights.
“I first got recruited by Mark when I was 17,” Tafa recalls. “He invited me to come and train with him and form part of his Team Juggernaut outfit. Team Juggernaut doesn't have a head facility as such, it’s just wherever Mark is for his fight camps, his training partners go there with him.
“So at 17 I started traveling with him for his training camps and through that i’ve gotten to meet and train with so many great names. Las Vegas stands out - we were with Randy Couture and Ray Sefo, who are both legends. Those experiences are amazing.
“Just through being part of Mark’s setup I’ve benefitted so much, being able to train with top level guys like Uriah Hall and Travis Browne. It was a bit weird at first, sparring with guys who are so well known to you, but once the round starts you just get on with it.”
Hunt, 43, is a veteran of the fight game and hard sparring no longer forms part of his necessary training routine, but the rest of the squad sometimes get into it.
Tafa notes with a laugh that when sparring with Hunt “we aren't trying to take each other’s heads off, but with the other guys, like when I sparred with Travis, you’re basically having a fight.”
One observation Hunt makes about Tafa, who walks around at 135kg (297lbs) and cuts to 120kg (265lbs) for his fights, is about how well he moves for a heavyweight. The young prospect concurs.
“I don't really get into standing and trading with guys, standing there smashing through the guard. I like to move and create openings, find my shots. I can box, I have good hands, good cardio, good footwork - I create places for my shots to land and that’s how I finish fights,” he explains.
It’s all a long way from his first venture into fight sports. “I started at the gym aged 15 and really early on did some sparring with a guy who weighed about 70 kilos (155lbs). “He just beat me up,” he laughs. “But that made me want to learn how to fight properly.”
Two years later he was fighting professionally and at the age of 17 he won a fight against a New Zealand champion. Hunt happened to be watching that fight and that’s what got Tafa onto his radar.
Contact and an invitation followed shortly afterwards and Tafa then found himself in Thailand helping Hunt prepare for what turned out to be a UFC ‘Fight of the Year’ nominee bout against Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva.
That invitation was the first step on what has thus far proven to be a ladder of success. Next month Tafa climbs a step higher, moving on from the domestic scene of Australian and New Zealand.
“I’m at a stage now where I am having trouble getting opponents back home. It was guys who thought they could take me, then it was guys who just needed the money. I've kinda cleaned out [the heavyweight division at home]. I think I am ready for that international stage… and now here I am!”
Tafa will face Chinese heavyweight Xiang Ye in the co-main event of the GLORY 46 CHINA card, which airs live in the USA on ESPN 3 on Saturday, October 14 at 9am ET/ 6am PT and re-airs the following night on ESPN 2.