Isi Fitikefu is a man of few words. That’s what I was repeatedly told in the week before talking to the 26-year-old Tongan-Australian. “Ultra-shy” was the gentle caution I received from one of his handlers shortly before our call, and Fitkefu himself was quick to qualify, early in our conversation, that interviews were his kryptonite. The undefeated prospect, who counts UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker among his training partners, doesn’t appear to have publicly accessible social media accounts and dutifully shuns the spotlight – preferring to let his fights do the talking. But those fights are putting him on the radar in a big way, and one expects that he won’t be able to avoid publicity for much longer.
“I just want to fight,” Fitkefu said. “Just keep fighting and winning, getting experience. Doing interviews… I’ve only had to do a few. But when I do I have a panic attack. They give me notice, but I get real anxiety. Even when the cameras are around for Rob and that, I try my best to avoid [them]. Even though they’re coming around and not shooting me, but if I’m going to be in the footage I try and hide behind the cameras. I try my best, I’m just not a camera guy.”
“I can’t look at people in the eyes and talk to people,” he said later in the interview. “I can’t hold a conversation for too long. When they told me that you were going to call, I was like ‘oh f---’.”
It’s hard not to notice the striking contrast between Fitikefu’s diffidence in conversation and his sublime self-assurance when the cage door closes. It’s not quite Gegard Mousasi, in-the-line-to-buy-a-sandwich levels of nonchalance, but as his name gets announced, and the bell rings, the man looks very much assured of the damage he’s about to inflict on whoever’s unfortunate enough to be standing across from him. In those moments -- and given his propensity for first round finishes, they’re often in short supply -- he is exactly where he wants and needs to be; that’s worth the occasional interaction with a penman.
Fitikefu was born and raised in Mangere South in Auckland, New Zealand -- the same locale as Whittaker and Mark Hunt -- before moving to Gregory Hills in Sydney, Australia when he was 14. Today he holds both the Eternal MMA and SuperFight middleweight titles and a professional record of 5-0, though his combat sports journey has been much shorter than one might assume, given these successes. After a short stint in karate at eight years old, which Fitikefu recounts was necessary to “stop me getting beaten up at school” for “being a smart arse,” his adolescence was dominated by rugby league, and it wasn’t until he was 20 years old that he rekindled his interest in martial arts.
“I used to do karate as a kid [at age eight]” Fitikefu said. “After that, I didn’t really do any martial arts. I played rugby league. I tried to make the Taylor Squad Cup team for Cronulla [and didn’t]. I was shattered. I thought that was what I was going to do, play rugby league [professionally].
“After I didn’t make the squad, I had a year off. I’ve always wanted to do martial arts and that, but I was too shy... I finally had the guts to walk into a jiu-jitsu gym and start training. Things kicked off. I started at a gym called Roots, leaning jiu-jitsu. From there, I got into boxing and mixed martial arts. I started training at an MMA gym called Lion’s Den, that’s where I had my first amateur fight.”
Fitikefu fell head over heels for combat, but he’s quick to emphasize that his first love is for his family. After his initial foray into competition, he took an extended hiatus from fighting after the birth of his first child. Between working as a pick-and-packer in a retail warehouse by day and attending to his growing family by night, training fell onto the back burner until he could negotiate a homecoming.
“After having my first pro fight, I took a year and a couple months off, just trying to sort my family out,” he recounted. “Trying to keep them on their feet. I was staying with my in-laws at the time. There were four families staying in a five-bedroom house. Each family had two or three kids. There was a few of us in there. We weren’t poor or anything, we just wanted to move out and get our own place, have more stability.”
“I was working so much,” he continued. “I was stuck in work mode all the time. I was getting unhappy, working hours after hours. Then I went back to boxing. I started getting fit again. I did boxing, just to keep my mind off things. I ended up fighting for the New South Wales State title, the league title. I won that. One of the guys who I used to train with, Corey Nelson, asked me if I wanted to come down and spar. I’d forgotten how to kick, take people down. I got nailed up, I was getting smashed. I realised how much I missed it, all the tools you can use. F---, I missed it all, I missed the grind, I missed getting kicked to the head, getting smashed in the stomach, getting slammed. I missed all the aspects of MMA. I was like, ‘F--- man, I need to come back and train.’”
Fitikefu was able to return to training on a consistent basis, but doing so has put him on a punishing schedule. In between caring responsibilities (him and his partner now have a son and a daughter) and training, he works two full-time jobs, as a mental health nurse and a coach at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Smeaton Grange, leaving little time for things like sleep and recreation. Fitikefu is determined to keep up the pace until he’s in a position to pay the bills with just one source of income; until then he’s personified by the grind.
“We train every day, seven days a week,” he said. “Pretty much my day is, on a weekday morning, wake up and get the kids ready, drop them off at school. Then I go to the gym and teach my first two classes. I finish the class at 1pm, rush over to boxing, get stuck in. From there I go to my second session at Smeaton Grange and do all our grappling, MMA, wrestling from 2:30 p.m. to about 4:30 p.m. Then I go pick up the kids, bring them back to the gym and get ready to teach the class at 6pm. I’ll be at the gym until about 9:00, that’s when the last classes are. Then I have a shower and get ready for the night shift at my normal job. I finish work at 6 a.m., then start it all again. I sleep when I can.
“I have no time for myself man, that’s the hard thing” he elaborated. “I hope that it’s all worth it, putting all my cookies in the one basket and see what happens. No regrets.”
A big part of what keeps Fitikefu motivated is the people around him. Having trained alongside Robert Whittaker when “Bobby Knuckles” had just transitioned from the “Ultimate Fighter” house to the Octagon in 2012, he’s benefited immensely from witnessing his journey from promising prospect to UFC champion. It’s an inspiration that transcends the practice room.
“I trained with Rob when he was getting ready for his first fight in the UFC, out of the ‘TUF’ house” he recalled. “We were just grappling and that. It’s crazy, along the line we all linked up together. I started training again, and since then we’ve just been on a roll. All of us.
“Rob’s experience helps out a lot,” he continued. “He knows the dos and don’ts. He’s been fighting for a while, since he was like 18. When it’s time for getting ready for fights, he’s real knowledgeable. He’s like an older brother. He helps out, with cutting weight, skillful stuff. He’s just real good to have around. Rob is an inspiration, but it’s not just the success that he has in his fighting, it’s having good people around you. They’re having success in their careers, but they’re also good people. We’re not just a bunch of guys that are fighting and winning.”
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61FYRAd2YAc] Fitikefu’s next big target is competing more regularly. Two bouts have fallen through in 2019 -- including a highly anticipated bout opposite fellow Prospect Watch alum Kitt Campbell -- due to injury, and Fitikefu’s immediately priorities are getting healthy and adding to his perfect record.
“I was hoping to have more than two fights this year, but you have good and bad years, or maybe a better way of saying it, you have years where you’re busy and years where you’re not,” he said. “Sometimes you get cancellations in fights, or you get real sick. This has been one of those years. You just need to roll with the punches and trust the process.”
“After I had a fight fall through at the beginning of the year I got sick non-stop” he recalled. “I had skin infections, staph infections, ring worm. This was when I was resting! I had to have six weeks off trying to get myself right. Now I’m back at my first week at training, f---, I’ve nearly had a heart attack. My body was there, but f---, I saw the light today at the sand dunes.”
Many anticipate that Fitikefu could be signed by the UFC in time to compete on the UFC 243 card in Melbourne, where his training partner Whittaker will attempt to cement the undisputed middleweight title by stopping interim champion Israel Adesanya. It’s a date he’s got circled in his calendar, but even if he doesn’t make his Octagon debut that night, he’s looking forward to seeing Whittaker shine on the big stage.
“Hopefully end of this year would be good or next year [to make the UFC]” he said. “My main goal is to be in a major promotion before I’m 30, so I’ve got time. If I can do that, I’m happy. Hopefully soon. I’m just happy to be fighting.”
“[As for the unification bout] I think Israel’s got real good striking, but I [don’t know] if he’s prepared for someone with real unorthodox striking. It’s hard to counter. I reckon Rob gets the finish in the third or fourth round via strikes.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.