‘I refused to let the bullies win’
Some of the guys who bullied me in school are my biggest fans now that I’m in the UFC. I’m still not friends with them, but I see them share my stuff on social media all the time.
Isn’t it funny how life works?
Growing up I was a shy kid who got bullied quite a bit. There was this one time in particular, when I was 12, where I got beaten up so bad that I was left covered in bruises.
The next day, when I didn’t want to go to school, my mum found the marks all over my body. She asked me to write down what had happened so she could go and see the school about it. That was a really scary thing to do, because I didn’t want to make the situation worse for myself by getting the bullies in trouble.
I was small for my age which made me an easy target, and I hated not being able to stand up for myself. I felt vulnerable and lonely.
A lot of people would have ended up mentally scarred from an experience like that, but I refused to let the bullies win.
The way those boys treated me is what got me started in jiu-jitsu. My parents signed me up for lessons because they thought it would help me channel the negative emotions I was dealing with into something positive.
Martial arts taught me about discipline and accountability. It wasn’t about learning how to fight; it was about helping me find the confidence to try and talk my way out of difficult situations.
I was 16 when I had my first amateur MMA fight, and even though I lost I fell in love with the feeling I got inside the ring. It’s a place where you can’t rely on anyone but yourself, which is incredibly empowering.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
I was still in high school when I made my pro debut, a fight I won by headkick knockout. All my classmates heard about it, but I wasn’t doing it for the notoriety.
Since making it to the UFC, I’ve been doing some motivational speaking and even went back to my old school, at Mount Albert Grammar in Auckland, to chat with the students about bullying.
It was a really cool experience, because I can relate to what those kids are going through. I hope my story helps them.
The fight in Indonesia I’ll never forget
When I left school, I started training at a gym in Auckland called Strikeforce, just around the corner from my house. I met a guy there named Dan Hooker, who became my coach and friend.
This is years ago, way before Dan was a lightweight contender in the UFC. We’ve been through so many highs and lows together; starting from the very bottom and working our way up the hard way.
I was studying a Bachelor of Arts at university, but I was only really doing it because my parents wanted me to get a degree. My dad and one of my brothers are lawyers, my other brother is a sports journalist and my mum used to be a nurse, but I wasn’t interested in following them down any of those paths.
I booked a one-way ticket to Thailand to try out for the Tiger Muay Thai team and ended up being selected. That meant I had to drop out of uni. You can imagine what my parents said when I told them!
I ended up staying over there for four years, living and breathing fighting. Whenever I’d have to leave Thailand for my visa run, I’d plan trips to other countries where I could pick up fights.
There was one trip to Indonesia with Dan that I’ll never forget. I was booked for a fight in one of the provinces and I don’t know who the promotion was run by, but it was pretty dodgy.
The event was held in a rundown theme park and when I arrived the day before my fight I was in the middle of my weight cut. I remember looking around at that weird carnival setting and feeling so out of it, thinking ‘where am I?’
I was booked to fight in the main event against one of the local guys, so we came back at 12:00 the next day thinking I’d be on at 6pm. All of a sudden, this guy came in and told Dan I had to be ready straightaway.
The governor of the province had arrived, and he didn’t want to wait around. He wanted to see the main event first.
They didn’t give me any gauze or tape, it wasn’t that kind of set-up. I just had a regular hand wrap and my gloves, so I chucked them on and started shadow boxing.
I’d only thrown a few punches when Dan said, “sweet, are you ready?”
I walked out underneath the huge marquee and there were about a thousand guys, all dressed in black, standing around the cage. Military guys with guns as well. It was a pretty hostile atmosphere.
The event was run by a cigarette company, and they were handing out free darts to everyone. Making my way to the cage was like walking through a haze of smoke.
I broke the home town fighter’s nose, beating him up pretty badly to get the win by decision. Thankfully I didn’t knock him out because that would probably have angered the crowd quite a bit, especially if I’d done it in the first round. Even still, we didn’t stick around for long after the fight.
The whole experience was pretty cool though. One of the great things about fighting is that it doesn’t matter what language you speak. There’s a level of respect that is given to you when you step in a ring or cage.
Your heart and determination is there for everyone to see, and when you put on a show for the crowd, that resonates with people regardless of what country you come from.
A world first on a cruise ship
I competed in 13 different countries during my time in Asia, fighting almost every second week in boxing, Muay Thai and MMA.
Often, I had to fight whether I was injured or not, because I didn’t have much money back then. At one point, I lost three fights in a row at bantamweight and had a lot of family and friends telling me to come home.
I wanted to get myself out of that situation though, so I decided I’d drop down to flyweight and give it one more crack.
I took four months away from MMA first, while I used my boxing to pay the bills in Thailand. That gave me a chance to freshen up before I stepped back in the cage.
My return to MMA happened in Taiwan and coming off a losing streak the pressure on me was huge. I ended up knocking my opponent out in nine seconds.
Two weeks later I fought on a cruise ship, which I’m told was a world first. I got on the boat in Malaysia, sailing to Phuket in Thailand. We were docked at a port along the way when I fought a Filipino guy, winning by 12-second knockout.
I sailed around for the next two days partying on the boat. It was pretty crazy.
Fights in Guam and China followed before I finally decided to return to Auckland, on a five-fight win streak, all of them by first-round knockout. I won a title in Perth next, which got me picked up by the Ultimate Fighter.
I still can’t believe how I turned things around. I’d been close to having to walk away from my dream and all of a sudden I was on the show that could turn me into a star of the UFC.