This feature was written in the build-up to the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first trip to New Zealand. Kiwi James Te Huna was making his middleweight debut against 50 fight veteran Nate Marquardt in the main event; the attainment of a lifelong goal for the boy from Te Kauwhata.
When James Te Huna heard his forearm snap, a break that would require a steel plate, seven pins and a year to heal, he knew he had to do something before the pain left him incapacitated. “I knew I didn’t have much longer,” he says. “I knew I had to finish the fight before the pain set in.”
Te Huna was ten and a half minutes into the fight of his life, a mixed martial arts bout with Croatian light-heavyweight (84.3kg-93kg) Igor Pokrajac in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in February, 2010. The UFC is the greatest stage on which a professional mixed martial artist can compete. As for mixed martial arts, it’s a mixture of the most proven techniques from various martial arts such as boxing, muay thai, wrestling, judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu.
Te Huna headlines the first-ever UFC event in New Zealand on June 28 at Auckland’s Vector Arena. He’s a star, the fighting pride of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, with a record of 16-7 with ten knockouts and three submissions to his name. He makes a good living from the sport. But the stakes are high. Any fight could be his last.
Te Huna was the first Kiwi to compete in the UFC when he stepped into the cage for his fight against Pokrajac. He takes up the action from the third round of their fight: “Pokrajac came up high, went to go for a head kick and I blocked it with one arm. I heard the snap and I thought it was a broken hand. Turns out it was nerve damage playing games with me.”
Without revealing any sign of discomfort, Te Huna absorbed the blow and charged forward with a right hand, clubbing the Croatian fighter on the ear.
For two rounds the combatants had traded leather to the roar of 17,000 screaming fans inside Sydney’s Acer Arena.
Years of preparation had boiled down to fifteen minutes of execution where the slightest mishap, just a split second of hesitation, could leave either fighter unconscious.
“I had a good training camp for that fight,” says Te Huna. “I had great preparation, but going in, being the first fight in the UFC, everyone talks about the adrenaline dump that a lot of guys suffer from in the walk out.”
The art of all fighting is as much a mental battle as a physical contest. To control your nerves is a crucial skill. Too much nervous energy and a fighter can burn themselves out before they reach the cage; too little, and they risk being unable to pull the trigger.
Te Huna says, “I’d been focusing on that for the last six weeks, thinking about it every night – the crowd, the stadium, the cage in the middle so I was prepared for it. But when the time came, I walked out there and, next minute, boom, the big lamp was in my face and the cameras and there were thousands of people and signs being held up and it blew me away. I was freaked out by it all. I was overwhelmed.
“All I remember was walking up the steps to the cage and then the next moment I’m on my hands and knees with the crowd going off and Igor on my back hitting me in the side of the head and I realised I was already in the fight.”
Knocked to the floor twice in the previous rounds, Te Huna came in to the last round neck and neck with Pokrajac on the scorecards.
Thirty seconds in, Pokrajac threw the kick that shattered Te Huna’s forearm.
With time running out, Te Huna drove Pokrajac to the ground and, with his broken arm, pounded on the Croatian until the referee stopped the fight.
“I knew he was gassed by his body language and the way he was breathing. The ref was telling him to advance to another position or he was going to stop the fight. The only hand I had free was that broken arm. There was a lot of pain in that arm but the win was there so I just took it man, I took it.
“That cemented me a place in the UFC. Your first fight with the UFC you have to make an impression and that’s exactly what I did.”
Trained killer in the cage, nice guy out of it, Te Huna is a gentleman. He was brought up in rural Te Kauwhata, a town of just over a thousand people on the edge of Lake Waikare in the Waikato.
“My whole family was into boxing, my father was a bit of a brawler back in his day,” he laughs. “So whenever there was a boxing fight on he’d be watching it. We grew up with all sorts of martial arts - Bruce Lee movies, Van Damme movies, and I was just really keen to try it out except there wasn’t really anything in Te Kauwhata because it’s such a small town. There wasn’t a whole lot of anything except a whole lot of grape vines.”
The family moved to Alexandra – finally giving Te Huna the chance to fight. It was his introduction to pugilism and set in motion a rise to the highest level of mixed martial arts.
“There was a boxing gym around the corner and we jumped straight in to that,” he says.
“I trained and fought for a good couple of years there. I had my first fight – first loss. I had my second fight – first win, but it was just something I really, really enjoyed and I was just always keen to give it a go.”
He also laid the foundation of a work ethic that would see him excel in elite competition.
“I was happy to spend all my time down at the gym. I remember the first time starting at the gym my boxing coach would show me a jab and I practiced that jab for a good two months. I went down to the gym every day, jumped on a skipping rope and then spent around forty minutes on the bag just jabbing until I perfected it. It was such a long time but I never got bored of it, I really enjoyed it.”
When James was 16, the Te Huna family followed older brother Tama’s emigration to Australia in search of a better life. He left school and became a bricklayer – and also discovered the sport of mixed martial arts.
In 1993, two years before Te Huna began boxing in small town New Zealand, a young Brazilian named Royce Gracie choked out three men in one night in no-holds-barred fights to win the first ever UFC. Film of that epic feat - Gracie displayed the full range of his family’s Brazilian jiu jitsu, a grappling art descended from judo which focuses on joint locks, blood chokes, cranks, slicers, crushers and all manner of potentially deadly submission holds - was released on VHS. In 2003, a copy of the tape reached the hands of Te Huna. It blew him away and set him on his path towards mixed martial arts.
Te Huna was awed by Gracie’s jiu jitsu. “He just did it so easy. He was built like a weed and he was winning the fights. It was amazing to see so I went out to look for a jiu jitsu class, found one around the corner in Penrith and jumped right in and got amongst.”
Two months later Te Huna was headed to Queensland for his first fight. “I had to fly up to Queensland because at the time in New South Wales it was illegal.”
One minute in to the fight, Te Huna was thrown and landed awkwardly on his shoulder.
“It just popped out. I didn’t know what happened and then my opponent grabbed that same arm. Before he could put on a submission, I tapped out.”
While his first loss wouldn’t discourage Te Huna, his shoulder injury would plague him throughout his early career.
“During one fight it sort of popped out and the ref brought the doctor in to check it out. He couldn’t get it back in so before they called the fight off I ran back to my corner and one of my corner men, he’s a 140kg Samoan boy, grabbed the arm and swung it back in place and it was all go from there.”
In March 2007, Te Huna took a fight on three days’ notice against Cuban judo Olympian and current UFC welterweight contender Hector Lombard.
“Hector is world class. He’s not someone you can just jump straight in with. He taught me a lesson, you know? I wasn’t ready for the fight but I went out there and he pretty much blasted me from the go. He gave me a hard time, and my shoulder dislocated.”
The injury lead Te Huna to go under the knife, an operation that would keep him out of the cage for an entire year.
His return coincided with the inaugural Caged Fighting Championship light-heavyweight tournament, an eight-man elimination series. This time, Te Huna didn’t taking any chances with his preparation.
“I wanted to train as a full time professional so I pretty much quit work and borrowed money off my family and friends to get by each week. Hopefully I’d win the fight so I could pay everyone back. If I lost, man, I would have had a few overtime hours ahead of me,” he laughs.
“That just gave me that extra motivation to win. I won that first fight, paid everyone back and then the next fight was in the semi-finals so I did the same thing.”
Te Huna would ride this support through three consecutive violent victories – all within three rounds. It wasn’t long until the UFC made contact.
Several months later, Te Huna pounded out Pokrajac. Things were looking good. But life has a way of happening and Te Huna was about to face a trial more demanding than anything he could have planned for.
In the build up to Te Huna’s bout with future UFC title-contender Alexander Gustafsson, his father Jack fell ill.
“When dad got sick, he had staph in his blood and it went to his back and started attacking a few vertebrae. His whole body was pretty much shut down.”
For James, a man who fights to provide a better life for his family, this was a bigger blow than any he had taken in the cage.
“We were just trying to look after him and it was too hard, you know, seeing a grown man screaming, screaming for his life and we didn’t know what to do. This was happening between my training sessions leading up to the fight. Family is the priority, it was just unfortunate timing.”
Despite his father’s condition, Te Huna never considered withdrawing from the fight.
“I’ve never pulled out of a fight and I’m never going to. There’s a lot of shit that happens to me during a camp that not many people know about, but I get through broken hands and everything. To me, pulling out of a fight is just not an option.”
Three days before the fight, tragedy struck again: the Christchurch earthquake, on the morning of September 4, 2010. It devastated his birthplace of Darfield.
“I remember I woke up in the morning and started watching it on TV, watching the devastation on the screen. It was heartbreaking. I’ve got a lot of family back there.”
Entering the fight with Gustafsson in emotional turmoil, Te Huna succumbed to a first round choke.
Despite the setback, he donated the entirety of his earnings to the earthquake recovery effort, a sentiment that was matched dollar for dollar by the UFC.
His father Jack recovered from his ordeal two months after the Gustafsson bout, and their relatives in Darfield were unharmed. With his personal life in order and a fresh mindset towards training, Te Huna won four straight bouts, rising to the top echelon of the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division.
Te Huna’s Australian homecoming at UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs Silva was spoiled when he was submitted via guillotine choke in the co-main event of by eventual title contender Glover Teixeira.
Then he was matched with Brazilian mixed martial arts icon Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion with 21 victories, 18 by way of knockout.
Many critics considered Shogun’s best days behind him but what happened inside the cage revealed the essence of why mixed martial arts has been dubbed the fastest growing sport in the world.
Te Huna was knocked unconscious with a single shot after exposing himself with a hasty uppercut in the first round. All the media speculation, all the online debate, was made irrelevant in less than a second by a single well placed punch.
The loss was crushing.
“After the fight I didn’t want to go nowhere, man, I was so embarrassed about the result. I think I stayed in the house for five days straight.”
The defeat was the catalyst for change.
Scheduled for a sponsor meeting in New Zealand, Te Huna was forced onto a plane by his manager and departed for Auckland.
“I didn’t want to go. I packed so many hoodies in my bag so I could keep my face covered.”
From Auckland, Te Huna journeyed to Turangi. “I went back down there and met up with my uncle Ez. He was a cousin of my father and he’s looking after all the land. I spent time with him, probably two or three days, and he explained everything, went over all the [family] history and I was really blown away by it all.”
The return to his roots provided a missing component in Te Huna’s life. To a man who places so much value on his family, it was a profoundly fulfilling experience.
“I was lost before but after that I came back with a clear head and a plan of attack and I knew what I needed to do to sort myself out. Everything was clear to me, everything was pretty much straight forward. I had an answer for everything.”
The answer was thus: he must drop to middleweight and reinvent himself as a force at 83kg. He makes his middleweight debut at the Vector Arena on June 28 against American Nate Marquardt, a veteran of more than 50 professional fights.
Te Huna believes he will enjoy a significant home field advantage.
“It’s going to be massive,” Te Huna says. “It’s going to give me all the momentum behind me that I could need to win this fight. I’ve got all the motivation to train harder and I’m just keen to get back and fight on home soil.”
The chance to represent New Zealand presents another important opportunity.
“I want to set a good example. I want to be the perfect role model for Māori kids to look up to. I didn’t really have any Māori idols in fighting when I was growing up, so to be the first Māori is a really, really big deal to me.”
When Te Huna takes to the cage in Auckland on June 28, just an hour drive from his hometown of Te Kauwhata, it will be the realisation of a lifelong dream.
“When you ask kids growing up ‘what do you want to be in life?’ everyone says an astronaut or something. If you had have asked me that question, it would have been to represent my country on home soil.
“The two main things in life that I wanted to make sure I’ve done are to one, always keep my family happy, and two, to achieve my childhood dreams. This is one of them.
“Dream big man, every dream is a possible achievement. I dreamt big when I was a kid, I put my head down and now those dreams are a reality.”