Aussie heavyweight Justin Tafa outlines his rise from NRL wannabe to UFC fighter

Justin Tafa won’t tell us which Brisbane rugby league club he moonlights for.

With good reason, too.

He isn’t supposed to play.

“Nah, UFC doesn’t know,” the 120kg heavyweight cackles from down a phoneline in Las Vegas, where he throws down this weekend against American Jared Vanderaa.

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Justin Tafa still plays a bit of NRL on the side. Picture: Sam RuttynSource:News Corp Australia

“But I still play occasionally with a few family, yeah.

“A bit of fourth grade at home in Brisbane.

“Because while I’m a fighter now, footy was always my first love.

“So every now and then, I still have a run.

“I won’t disclose the club though … that should probably remain a secret.”

While now establishing his name as a rising UFC heavyweight, 29-year-old Tafa was once an NRL wannabe who not only started at the same Auckland club as Sonny Bill Williams, or went through juniors with the likes of future Test players David Fusitu’a and Tui Lolohea, but was scouted himself by no less than Melbourne Storm.

Playing for a Storm U/20s side overseen by Anthony Seibold, the then teenaged Tafa packed down alongside the likes of Christian Welch, Matt Lodge and Nelson Asofa-Solomona.

But as for what Melbourne head coach Craig Bellamy made of him?

Justin Tafa embarked on an NRL career alongside David Fusutu’a. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

“Ah, we only met the once,” Tafa laughs. “I walked into the showers one day after training and Craig was already there himself.

“At the time, I really wanted to play NRL.

“Thought I could push to be among the elite players too.

“So I remember walking in there thinking ‘oh man, this is the way I meet the first grade coach?’.”

While his NRL dream may never have eventuated — thanks, in part, to a back injury — Tafa is now looking to continue his undeniable rise in the UFC heavyweight division, appearing on this Sunday’s UFC Fight Night card headlined by bantamweights Cody Garbrandt and Rob Font.

Despite hailing from a family of fighters, Tafa only turned professional in 2017.

However, the now Queenslander needed only three quick-fire KOs — each one within two rounds — before catapulting himself, within two years, into an Octagon debut before almost 60,000 at UFC 243, in Melbourne.

While that first fight against Yorgan de Castro would end in a loss, Tafa’s profile, and game, have undeniably grown since.

Apart from rebounding with win over Juan Adams, the Australian then looked better again in January against Carlos Felipe, before losing a controversial split decision.

Tafa meet Storm head coach Craig Bellamy just once, and it wasn’t his preferred meeting. Picture: Daniel Pockett/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

“And I feel I was hard done by,” Tafa says of the decision.

“But I know I didn’t lose any stock.

“And my game, it’s only improving.

“Before entering the UFC, all my appearances combined didn’t even add up to one full fight. So I’m really still trying to find that maturity in my game.

“And that only comes with time.

“Like in footy, you can only get your experience in the middle, out on the field.

“So for me, I just need that time inside the cage.”

Elsewhere, Tafa has also offered to throw down with undefeated Aussie boxer Paul Gallen later this year — “if the money is right, I’m there” — but stresses his main focus is working up the UFC heavyweight rankings.

So as for a prediction against Vanderra?

“Second round, I’ll knock him out,” Tafa says simply. “When it comes to striking, he can‘t match my power.”

Which undeniably, serves as a timely warning not only his rival this Sunday, but also those playing fourth grade rugby league in Brisbane.

Originally published asNRL wannabe turned UFC fighter’s awkward Bellamy run in

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