The top Australian athletes you’ve probably never heard of

Ask most Australians about the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and if they've heard of it at all, they know one thing — that it's violent.

What they won't know is Australian fighters are rising to the top of several divisions of the UFC — by far the world's most popular Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) league.

Robert Whittaker is the current middleweight world champion, while Tai Tuivasa has cracked the heavyweight top ten, and half a dozen other Australian men and women occupy similarly rarefied territory in the UFC and other leagues.

Renowned for its seeming brutality, MMA allows striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground. More kinds of contact are allowed, and fighters frequently break bones and recovery after a fight can take months.

That reputation for brutality might be one of the reasons why the league is yet to be blessed with consistent mainstream media coverage in Australia.

That's despite the fact the sport has a tested audience in Australia. A league-record crowd of more than 56,000 attended the UFC event in Melbourne in late 2015.

Robert Whittaker kicks Yoel Romero in the mouth

Twenty-one male and female athletes now represent either Australia or New Zealand in the UFC, compared to just three in 2010.

One of the top MMA journalists in the US, ESPN's Ariel Helwani told The Signal there's no mistaking Australia's hot streak.

"This is, at least as of right now, the golden age of Australian MMA. There's absolutely no doubt about it," he said.

"If we're talking UFC in particular, there's never been this much talent. So 100 per cent I would describe it as an explosion right now for Australian MMA."

Life as a rising UFC fighter

The "golden age of Australian MMA" hasn't changed life much for Tai Tuivasa or Tyson Pedro.

When I visited 25-year-old Tuivasa at his home in far Western Sydney, and we sat down with his wife, his son and his dog in their lounge room, in front of The Wiggles.

Tai Tuivasa kicks Andrei Arlovski at UFC 225

His brother in law, Tyson Pedro, another top UFC fighter, was also there.

I asked Tuivasa what was different since he found success in the league and he said, laughing, "You took a cab to Western Sydney! Not much changed around here."

UFC is as much about entertainment as it is athleticism, with all the theatrical trappings of combat sport thrown in at every turn.

There's walk out music, pre-fight grudges, unpredictable press conferences, and showy, macho aesthetics.

Tuivasa has a flair for showmanship, walking out before one fight to Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On.

He's also earned himself the nickname Tai 'Shuivasa', having made a habit of doing the 'Shoey' — drinking from the shoe of an audience member after each fight — to a blend of disgust and delight from US fans.

Tai Tuivasa does the Shoey after UFC win

Dedicated UFC fans in Australia recognise both men without much trouble, but the effect is limited, at least on home soil.

"It is surreal still going all over the world and people recognising who you are," Pedro said.

"More people outside of Australia recognise me than inside Australia."

Tuivasa says he doesn't yet "know what fame is".

"I understand a lot of people know me, but I'm not changing who I am."

They're both recovering from fights, but Tuivasa approaches it as a job.

"People who might earn a lot of money, their rest can be a bit longer than others [but] this is how we make a living, so if you're running low on money, you've got to get back in there," he said.

"Everyone's gonna go hungry. You've got to go fight for them."

Tyson Pedro fights in a UFC bout

In contrast, champions of the league make a lot of money.

Former featherweight champion Conor McGregor famously made an estimated $US100 million from his fight against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, but you don't have to go far down the ladder to find fighters who are paid a fraction of that sum.

Pedro knows that better than most, having made a net loss on his last fight, although he's reluctant to complain.

"I don't want this misconception from people, like me sitting here saying that we don't have enough money and we're broke," he said.

"But the amount of money that I put back into myself has pretty much surpassed what I'm making.

"My last [training] camp cost me $36,000 and I made $12,000 in my last fight, so I'm putting my savings back in there."

He counts five failed attempts to unionise the sport, and believes the athletes are at a crisis point.

"Those top end fighters are making so much money that they're happy, so everyone just wants to get to the top end," he said.

Tuivasa said he wouldn't be fighting if he didn't think he could become a world champion.

"I got a kid now, and that's why I'm doing this. I'm doing this to get better than I've ever had, And where I'm at now is a lot better than where I'm from," he said.

Where to for MMA in Australia?

Pedro believes media coverage may be the key to the UFC cracking the mainstream in Australia.

He also points to the residual stigma stemming from the perceived brutality of the sport.

"It is changing, and I'm glad we're part of that changing of the guard, but there are still people who frown on it," he said.

"Once people see past that we're not just meatheads going in there and punching on, that we're athletes and professionals, they'll start enjoying it."

Tai Tuivasa and Tyson Pedro

ESPN's Ariel Helwani said the battle is half-won in Australia, with the success of current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.

"You have a guy in Robert Whittaker who's an unbelievable human," he said.

"Slowly but surely, he's starting to get a lot more respect in this sport."

Among MMA's top athletes are a number of Olympians, and Ariel Helwani said the league's "barbarian" reputation is long gone.

"They're not just people off the street," Helwani said.

"Don't be blinded to what actually takes place in there — to me it's the purest form of athletics."

Helwani said ascendant fighters like Tuivasa and Pedro will be crucial in raising the sport's profile domestically.

"It just takes a little time to get people on board," he said.

Tuivasa sees Australia as lagging in its support for MMA.

"I say to all the boys, I gee 'em up: 'This is our country and we're far behind in this sport, and we have a champion of the world'," he said.

Despite that, both men are overwhelmingly optimistic about the sport's future locally.

"We're part of the generation that's going to get UFC to Australia," he said.

"Always getting beat up" isn't a long term plan for Pedro.

"I can't put that on my family — I'm going to have one good run at the title and then probably have a rest," he said.

Long term, he and his brother-in-law Tuivasa want to create financially viable ways for young fighters to train locally.

"Make a big ranch for the best people to come to Australia, the best people to train here, and just start building," he said.

"Next five to 10 years, all of these people who are hating on it are going to be watching it. It's just the way the world works.

"Once we keep winning, they can't deny it."

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