Joshua Culibao’s martial arts journey started when his parents enrolled him in taekwondo classes to lose weight. A self-described “fat kid” who had a proclivity for white rice and second helpings, the undefeated featherweight prospect recounts how the extra kilos on his waistline paved the road to a career in MMA.
“So I was a pretty big kid growing up,” he said. “And [taekwondo] was something to do to help me lose weight and boost my confidence. As a teenager I wanted that confidence. I started to lose weight, started to feel good. Not only that, I was starting to beat up a lot of the adults in the class. That was a massive boost of confidence.”
At 17, Culibao -- nicknamed “Kuya,” which means “elder brother” in Tagalog -- sought to supplement his training with more practical combat disciplines, having become somewhat disillusioned with taekwondo after watching its adherents fail to make waves in the K-1 kickboxing promotion. A Sydney-sider with no shortage of reputable gyms to try out, Culibao made a stopover at the now-defunct XL Combat Academy, before landing on the doorsteps of Australian Top Team and Igor MMA, where he’s remained ever since. The dream, recounts Culibao, was always to go professional.
“Since starting this at 17, I always had [going professional] in the back of my mind” he narrated. “I used to watch a lot of old UFC [tapes] and used to say it was so cool. I used to watch Matt Hughes, Royce Gracie, the OGs. Back then it was a hobby, but I just kept doing it every day, and it became part of my life, part of my routine. I literally can’t switch off from it. I go to training, come home from training, I’ll be watching a podcast about fighting, watching jiu-jitsu, watching a kickboxing fight. Literally it just doesn’t stop going through my mind.”
Culibao’s heart was set on forging a career in the cage, but like all fighters, he didn’t have the option of making it his full-time vocation right out of the gate. His parents -- in particular his Mum -- encouraged him to follow in his brother’s footsteps and take up a trade, so he completed an electrical apprenticeship while getting his feet wet on Australia’s regional MMA scene.
“I copied what my brothers were doing; that was basically what my parents wanted me to do” Culibao said. “They wanted me to finish my apprenticeship before I started pursuing my fighting career. It just so happens that I was doing my apprenticeship and fighting on the side. I had to juggle both: 40-hour weeks plus all that training.
“I feel like it gives you more [in that you’re] suffering” he elaborated. “You’re doing a 40-hour week, you’re coming home tired from a physical job, to go do more physical in training. You’re suffering, so you feel like you have to win the next fight. It gives you that extra push, that extra motivation. It makes you think, ‘these guys aren’t getting up at 4 a.m. to get a training session in before work starts, and then training when work finishes’. It gives me motivation, that push.”
The grind that Culibao describes is his current status quo, but the full-time “sparkie” and part-time combatant doesn’t begrudge his hectic schedule. He is, after all, chasing his dream, and it helps that he has a rock-solid support network behind him.
“I’m hustling 24/7” he said. “The only time I get to get my mind off fighting is when I’m playing video games. That’s the only time I get to myself. It’s like my only release from fighting and work.
“I’m lucky though” he continued. “My boss is very supportive. He’s able to give me days off, or let me start [at different times] if I’m having a s--- sleep…My brothers support me, they do everything they can. My girlfriend, she does everything for me. She cooks my meals -- everything. Everyone’s supportive. I’m very lucky to have a good group of people around me.”
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Absolute inspiration to all of us up and coming fighters. He showed us that we have all the training facilities and coaches here in Australia to be able to become a world champion Australia is right behind you. @robwhittakermma It’s a shame I didn’t get the call up to fight on this legends undercard but I know my time will come. AUSTRALIA STAND UP. #UFC234
Culibao’s hard work has intersected with opportunity, and with the help of current UFC featherweight Suman Mokhtarian -- Culibao’s de facto manager until recently – he's pieced together a perfect record of 8-0 with titles across three of Australia’s major regional promotions: Melbourne’s HEX Fight Series, Adelaide’s Diamond Back FC and Sydney’s SuperFight MMA.
“Everything seems so rushed” he admitted when asked to weigh in on his success. “Everything seems so fast-forwarded. I sort of gave myself, realistically, until the age of 27 or 28 before I had a title, and on the brink of being signed in the UFC. [But] that’s where I am now.
“Everything seems a bit quick,” Culibao repeated. “I was taking big steps from fight to fight. I was two fights in and I got offered a HEX Fight Series title fight. I sort of thought to myself, that’s one of the biggest promotions in Australia, if not the biggest one. I’m already fighting for their vacant title. It was a big step, and then not only that I defended the title straight away a [couple] months later. Another big step. Yeah, everything seems fast-forwarded.”
Culibao’s last fight was for the SuperFight MMA featherweight strap, which he won via first round TKO over journeyman Josh Payne. Shortly afterwards, the 24-year-old announced that he’d been signed by Malki Kawa’s First Round Management, the same agency that represents Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson, among others.
“They messaged me before the fight, but I didn’t respond until afterwards because I didn’t want any distractions” he recounted. “I said ‘let me deal with [Josh Payne] first, and then after that we can talk. After the fight, we organized a call, they said ‘look we like your fighting style, we’d like to have you on board.’ I had a chat with my family, had a chat with my coaches, and we got it done.”
Culibao’s hope is to make his Octagon debut sometime later this year -- a cause that is helped by the UFC’s probable return Down Under for the promotion’s middleweight unification bout between champion Robert Whittaker and newly crowned interim titleholder Israel Adesanya. But he also admits to having “itchy knuckles,” meaning he might climb back into the cage sooner rather than later.
“I’d like to fight end of May or end of June,” he admitted. “I want to stay active. My goal this year was to have three or four fights. I tried to get one in early [with] the fight in [Superfight MMA] in March. I want to jump straight back in and fight. My manager, Maurice [Blanco], is pushing for the big shows. I’m not too sure where it’s at the moment. I’m waiting around at the moment.
“If I never make the UFC, fighting in One [Championship] or Rizin is definitely an option” he continued when asked about his preferences. “But the end goal is still the UFC. I still believe they have the best fighters and I want to fight the best fighters. I want to make the most money fighting the best fighters. They’re doing the best at the moment. But you never know what’s going to happen.”
One thing that does intrigue Culibao? One Championship’s policy on weight cutting.
“There’s no weight cutting [via rehydration]. You have to be hydrated when they weigh you in. If you’re a featherweight, you’re basically a lightweight; if you’re a bantamweight you’re a featherweight. That’s pretty enticing, not having to cut those extra kilos. I’m still a fat kid at heart.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. 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.