When he first made it to the UFC, James Te Huna wondered if he belonged there. Te Huna, who fights Joey Beltran at UFC on FUEL TV 4 on July 11, wasn’t sure if he deserved to compete against the best fighters in the world. That self-belief came a little while after his 2010 loss to Alexander Gustafsson, his second fight in the Octagon.
"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."
Te Huna was born in New Zealand and now lives in Sydney, Australia. It's particularly difficult for any fighter who lives so far away from a hub of MMA like the USA or Brazil to develop that confidence.
"Yeah, it's kind of hard being here, away from the main countries that have all the fighters and thinking “ah, I have to be over there,” and after training with some UFC fighters, we're all on the same level; it's just a matter of believing in yourself and staying hungry."
Confidence has bred success for Te Huna, who has won his last two fights by first round stoppage. He has built an impressive knockout ratio, and his last seven wins have come by KO or TKO. Te Huna says he doesn't exactly look for the knockout.
"If I see my opponent make a mistake then I'll take advantage of it. I don't go out there looking for the knockout, but if I see an opening, then I'm gonna land that shot and if he starts going down I start taking advantage of that,” he said. “So yeah, they come unexpectedly. I do go into fights thinking I'm gonna knock the guy out (laughs), but when it actually happens I keep composed and look for weaknesses and take advantage of those."
Te Huna, 16-5 in MMA, was originally scheduled to fight Brandon Vera before his opponent was changed. While Joey Beltran and Vera are very different fighters, it hasn't disrupted Te Huna's training.
"Not really (my preparation hasn't changed); Beltran's a brawler and Vera was more of a kicker and he's quite crafty. So I started working with really crafty guys and I kept them when I found out I was fighting Beltran,” he said. “I have to evolve my game anyway, and I've gotta try and get better at everything, so it doesn't really matter. Even though Vera was a southpaw, it still didn't really change anything.” This fight marks Beltran’s debut in the UFC light heavyweight division after spending most of his career at heavyweight. “The Mexicutioner,” 14-7 in MMA, thrives in brutal wars, and Te Huna is impressed by his durability.
“In his fights at heavyweight, to me, he looked kind of slow. He's tough as nails, he can weather the storm, he can take hits, he's got a pretty tough chin, and he can come back out on top after having pressure put on him,” he said. “He's kind of like the last guy I fought, Aaron Rosa. He was pretty good like that, and once guys put pressure on him he can come back and work hard and get the win. Beltran's the same, but just tough, and his last round's like his first round; he's a very hard worker.”
While he has experience preparing at elite US fight camps, Te Huna has relied on Australian talent for his last two fights. He recruits world class kickboxers, wrestlers and jiu-jitsu fighters from around the continent.
"Same thing for this (fight) but different training partners. Fabio Galeb has helped me out heaps, he lives on the Gold Coast and he's the man on the ground. He's got the whole package, so he's been helping me evolve my game and I've been working with other jiu-jitsu guys and other brawlers, just trying to get better and better at all my weaknesses."
Working with experts from different disciplines has been an eye opening experience for Te Huna.
“I used to think my boxing was very good and my kickboxing was very good and then I started working with world champions. I started working with a world champion kickboxer and Olympic boxers and an Olympic wrestler and they just opened up all these holes in my game. I didn't realize I had so many holes in my game and they just fixed it all up.”
What’s been most remarkable about Te Huna's career so far is his persistence through injury. From a chronic shoulder problem that once required his cornerman pop it back it mid-fight, to a nasty broken arm that had a doctor tell him he'd need to stop fighting after his 2010 UFC debut, to dislocating his thumb rendering his left hand useless before his fight against Ricardo Romero, Te Huna has overcome it all. While his luck has been far better of late, and he’s been able to focus on more than just rehabilitating injuries, he didn’t get through his last camp unscathed.
"Every camp I've got some strange bloody injury. The last fight I got a corked leg in a sparring session and I stuck a plastic ice brick on there,” he said. “The next morning the skin started coming off and I went to a burn specialist and it ended up being a third degree ice burn and then it started getting infected but I managed to get on top of it and it was just one of those things."
The 30-year-old is light hearted about his record of misfortune. While he says he’s currently injury free, he’ll be ready if one comes.
"I get the worst bloody luck before fights and during my camps it's just a normal thing. It wouldn't be a proper fighting camp if I didn't have something wrong with me."
Just over two years on from his UFC debut, Te Huna now feels he’s hit his stride. And he has more self-belief than ever before.
“I went through a period in my first year in the UFC where I was just recovering from injury and trying to get to where I was before. But now I'm getting better, having fun, and learning from the best guys in their discipline and getting better.”