Explosive striker James Te Huna, who fights Ryan Jimmo at UFC on FUEL TV 7 this Saturday at London's Wembley Arena, wasn't always an impressive athlete. But the self-described uncoordinated kid found his niche in combat, saying in 2010, "When I finished school I took up boxing, put a lot of hours in the gym, just worked hard at it, became good at it, and yeah - the fighting game was good for me."
Te Huna made his MMA debut in Australia in 2003 at age 21, losing his first fight by armbar. Winning more than he lost, his early career was nonetheless dogged by a chronic shoulder injury. At its worst, Te Huna was forced to consider quitting fighting when it dislocated in a 2007 loss to Hector Lombard. In one of the many small miracles that make up his triumph from over injury, however, Te Huna's shoulder recovered and he beat his next two opponents to earn a spot in an Australian light heavyweight tournament.
In 2009, Te Huna sensed that winning the eight man elimination tournament was his ticket to the UFC. Rolling the dice, he quit his job as a bricklayer and borrowed money from his family to finance full-time training. The gamble worked: he paid his family back and defeated three opponents by KO (including current UFC light heavyweight Anthony Perosh). He'd earned a spot in the Octagon.
The UFC debut of the Australia-based New Zealander against Igor Pokrajac in 2010 followed the consistent thread in his remarkable career. Suffering a broken arm in the second round, Te Huna demonstrated his toughness by continuing to fight and finishing his opponent by TKO in the third. The broken arm did not heal easily, with Te Huna being told by a doctor he would never fight again. But he bounced back once more, and returned to the UFC after a year's layoff.
Te Huna then squared off against current top contender Alexander Gustafsson in February of 2011. After a strong start Te Huna appeared outclassed by the Swede, who won by a rear naked choke in the first. The difficult loss forced Te Huna to re-evaluate his training. Of the adjustments to his training, he said in 2011, “I changed up my boxing coach, I've been training with Lincoln Hudson, he works with Olympic boxers, and he's got a whole bunch of pros that he coaches. I used to think my hands were all right until I went to this guy. His boxers just towelled me up and exposed all these bad flaws that I had so I went to him and just fixed them right up."
In Lincoln Hudson, who remains Te Huna's boxing coach, he has found a rare gem. Trainer of former world champion boxer Vic Darchinyan, among other notables, Hudson is a latecomer to the world of MMA. But Te Huna describes him as a professor when it comes to breaking down the standup game in the Octagon. Hudson, together with Aussie kickboxer Stuart McKinnon, and BJJ instructors Richard Sergeant and Fabio Galeb, now form the core of Te Huna's homegrown fight camp.
The changes paid dividends for Te Huna in his next fight against Ricardo Romero at UFC 135 in September of 2011. As usual, he was forced to deal with difficult injuries before the fight, as a dislocated finger on one hand and a torn ligament on the other made making a fist difficult. Nevertheless, his fists were closed tight enough to KO his opponent in the first round.
Te Huna then fought Aaron Rosa in March of 2012 in Sydney, Australia. This time he entered the Octagon with perhaps his strangest injury yet: a third degree ice burn after an ice pack was left on overnight. Unfazed, he quickly poured pressure on Rosa. Just over two minutes into the first, Rosa wilted under a powerful barrage of punches, giving Te Huna a TKO victory and earning him a fight against battle-hardened veteran Joey Beltran.
Before the fight against Beltran, Te Huna reflected on his struggle to find confidence as a fighter, saying "I felt like (I belonged in the UFC) after my second fight. I watched Gustafsson put away Matt Hamill. He fought Matt Hamill after our fight and he just toyed with him. Matt Hamill's a really accomplished wrestler and he couldn't get him down, and after I watched that fight I was like I do have the skills to stay in the UFC," he said. "That was the hardest thing; my first two fights in the UFC I kept on questioning myself. After I watched that fight I believed that I belong in the UFC. I started getting better and better, and started being confident and believing in myself."
In Beltran, Te Huna faced an extremely durable brawler. Te Huna landed powerful shots on "The Mexicutioner" and nearly finished him in the first. But Beltran's remarkable chin and heart kept him in the fight. While Beltran landed some blows of his own, Te Huna was busy enough in the second and third to claim a unanimous decision victory. It was a feat made all the more impressive when Te Huna revealed that he suffered a broken left hand and foot in the first round, injuries he has now successfully rehabbed.
Following his three fight win streak, the 31-year-old Te Huna now faces the toughest test of his career in Ryan Jimmo. Jimmo has won his last 17 fights, and as a former Canadian karate champion, he presents an interesting stylistic challenge for Te Huna. The Canadian was long known as a cautious counter striker. But a seven second KO over Perosh in his UFC debut quickly dispelled the idea that he isn't a dangerous finisher. If Te Huna wins he will make a strong case for a fight against one of the division's top ten. After an arduous MMA journey with a fair share of injury and disappointment, the stakes have never been higher for Te Huna.