Can Tai Tuivasa Shooey his way to UFC gold?
Well, that was a lot of fun.
I found that I was quite torn in the build-up to the UFC 271 co-main event between Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa - and honestly, I thought it was some pretty crazy matchmaking - forcing that Houston crowd to choose between their hometown hero and seeing a show-stopping shooey post-fight.
In an ideal world, that choice would never have been forced upon us all - but, in fairness to the UFC, the matchup did prove to be a lot of fun - even if these two guys are among the most widely adored in the sport.
And while it lasted, it was pretty wild - as these two hard-hitting heavyweights went to war - two guys who likely make up a pair of spots within the five hardest punchers in the UFC right now.
And you could feel that tension as these two threw bombs - fully aware that just one would be enough to drastically impact the direction of the fight. They both had their moments and each man seemed pretty prepared to go out in a blaze of glory if that’s what it took.
And I’ve seen a few people putting out this theory that Lewis took that elbow to the face and decided to take a dive - citing the way he fell to the floor. Seriously, lads? I’m not gonna engage with it any more than that.
That finishing shot was an absolute beauty - and though he is indeed known for having excellent power in his hands, those elbows have been an underrated component of Tuivasa’s offense over the years.
And when he fired that thing off Lewis’ head in that second round - he knew there and then that there was no need for a follow-up shot. So yea, the Houston crowd were once again deprived of their local hero having a big moment - but all in all, both of these guys came out of this one with their reputations in a good spot.
And for Tuivasa - whose star is growing more and more with each passing finish - all of a sudden, we’re not just looking at him as a mid-tier brawler who doesn’t seem to have elite potential. Because if you look back to late 2018 and the entirety of 2019 - Tai was more or less, seen by us as the Mark Hunt protegé who ran into several walls when attempting to build on his mentor’s great success.
Coming back from three losses in a row is a truly difficult task - no matter what level you’re fighting at.
So when that first wake-up call that saw him finished by Junior dos Santos led to a defeat to Blagoy Ivanov and then a submission at the hands of Sergey Spivak - those who held out hope for Tuivasa’s potential had every reason to move on and look at new options.
But at that time, Tuivasa was 25 or 26 - barely getting to his mid-life as a heavyweight.
I mean look, these big boys don’t age like bantamweights - and for the best of them, hitting your prime usually happens in your early-to-mid 30’s - sometimes even later.
And I remember thinking this at the time to some extent - as it related to Tai Tuivasa - but there’s just something about going 0 and 3 that causes one to tune out a bit - to dampen whatever excitement would have been brewing otherwise.
But from 2020 onwards, after a year out, Tuivasa started to show up - started to show improvement, displaying a skillset, in moments, that caused him to, in many ways, shed the label that many of us had attached to him.
Yes, with a gun to my head I’d call him a brawler at his core - and it does seem a bit rich to try and claim that he’s not after a fight like the one he just had with the Black Beast - but with each passing outing we started to see him become a better fighter - a more methodically chaotic customer.
And it was his second-to-last win over Augusto Sakai that really made me accept that I had underestimated his potential. Again, even now, the guy is only 28-years-old - which makes him one of the younger elite heavyweights in the UFC.
And I think looking forward - given that he has fought four times in the last 12 months - I’d like to see him take a bit of time off - let the weight of his accomplishments sink in, work on the skills that need work, spend some time drinking beer from a glass instead of a shoe.
And I’d like to see him use a few months to round out some of his edges before makes one almighty push - because as things stand, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is one win away from a title shot.
And whether his next opponent is maybe the winner of Curtis Blaydes vs. Chris Daukaus, or Alexander Volkov vs. Tom Aspinall - hell, maybe even Ciryl Gane - the point I’m trying to make is that Tai’s star power is in an excellent spot.
He just pulled off the biggest win of his career to achieve by far and away the highest ranking of his career.
And he did this on the back of a twelve month campaign that saw him force the entire MMA world to both shift their perception of his ceiling as a heavyweight contender - and accept him as a real potential star for the company.
So with a lot of top-10 heavyweight matchups set for the coming months, I’d implore Tuivasa to sit back for a bit and see how it plays out.
Because look, there is an almighty jump in skill ahead of him if he does in fact end up in there with a Gane, a Miocic, even Aspinall and Blaydes.
And I do have high hopes for this guy and I’d like to see him do well - because, if I could put my analytical hat to one side and give a nod to the shoe on my foot, the whole beer-drinking thing is right up my street.
And as much as I was shouting at the television like a madman last Saturday for both men as they had big moments, in the back of my mind, I knew the shooey needed to happen on this stage.
Can Tai Tuivasa find his way to an even greater level within the heavyweight ranks? Who knows. But it is very clear to me now that this division is really starting to come alive in a way that it hasn’t done in years.
And considering the prestige of the heavyweight division - it’s about time!