Māori MMA fighter sets sights on UFC

Mixed martial art (MMA) is brutal, bloody and exploding in popularity in Aotearoa - especially amongst Māori.

MMA fighters Kai Kara-France and Dan Hooker are Māori already making a name for themselves in the UFC. Now, Far North fighter Aaron Tau (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Toro) is on the cusp of joining them.

"My biggest goal is just to go up to the big leagues and show the world that I belong there. Just remind them where the greatest warriors on Earth come from," Tau said.

He's recently signed with Eugene Bareman who coaches MMA legend Israel Adesanya.

Bareman is already impressed with Tau's drive and toughness.

"His abilities they're both physical and mental, he is a very strong-minded individual."

In the cage, Tau's nickname is Tauzemup and with seven wins and no losses, he's living up to that name.

He explains how he got it. 

"The name Tauzemup is New Zealand slang. For lack of a better word, it's giving someone a hiding." 

But the 29-year-old is quick to add that his wins don't just come from his physical strength.

"There's a chess game being played that most people can't even see. 

"It's a lot more than just being violent. I definitely used to use my aggression a lot, to win fights; now I only use my intellect."

But it wasn't always like that. Tau grew up in Rahiri in the Hokianga in Te Tai Tokerau.

"Yeah, Hokianga hard."

But family life was turbulent and he left home at 15, heading to Brisbane. He started playing league and even made the Queensland Māori team.

"My mentality was win, win at all costs. I was real aggressive."

So aggressive in fact that his league coach suggested he try MMA.

"I was lucky. I got pointed in the right direction."

Aaron Tau.
Aaron Tau. Photo credit: The Hui

After a successful spell under the mentorship of MMA legend Dan Hooker, he's learned to focus on his mental skills and to take strength from his culture as a proud Māori.

"You've got to approach and exit exchanges with your intellect. And if you don't do it like that, that is when you get hurt. If you just jump in there and you're just swinging your hands around, you know that there's no honour [in that]. There's no mana in that. There's no matauranga in that."

If Tau does get his shot in the UFC, he'll be the first with a mataora - facial tattoo. He got it only in March and he's looking forward to showcasing Māori culture on the big stage by honouring the lessons he learned from his grandparents in Te Tai Tokerau.

"I want to pay them homage and pay my people homage. When I do represent, I want people to know where I'm from." 

Eugene Bareman describes Tau as "a small human being" who is incredibly strong for his size. He believes Tau is the best bantamweight in Australasia.

"He's developed into a very good fighter, a very good fighter."

But Tau knows once he's in the UFC, even a small slip could be career-ending.

"A minor mistake can cost you the fight, it can cost you the contract. It can cost you the last 10 years of sacrifice, so technique beats everything. Technique and consistency will make you a champion."

However he's determined to make his mark.

"I'm the 1 percent of the 1 percent, bro."

His motivation is not only his partner and children, but also the drive to provide a pathway for other young Māori like him.

"No one wanted to look after me or, you know, to teach me, because I was... I had this nature. 

"I'm trying to build up a whare for the children of tomorrow, so they have something to come to so they don't feel like an outcast." 

Made with the help of Te Mangai Pāho and New Zealand on Air.