It’s not every day that a fighter makes his UFC debut in the unheralded first fight of the night and their next fight they are on the main card of an international pay-per-view. At the same time, it’s not every day that the UFC signs a 6’7” 250 pound Hawaiian who wins by a dominating TKO performance in round one of their debut.
This day in question was June 19th at The Ultimate Fighter 11 Finale when the enormous and promising heavyweight Travis “Hapa” Browne defeated British kickboxer James McSweeney with 30 seconds left in the first round. Up next for Browne, he is scheduled to travel to his vanquished opponent’s homeland at UFC 120 and take on another powerful kickboxer: Cheick Kongo.
What a difference a year makes? In the span of 12 months from February 2009 to February 2010, the Mixed Martial Arts world saw the rise of a new heavyweight from complete obscurity to amassing a 9 - 0 record, which warranted a UFC contract the following month.
“In 2008, I started training for MMA at the Compound,” said Browne of his MMA origins, training with the likes of Joey Beltran and Jason Lambert. “About 6 to 9 months later in 2009, I had my first fight in February. It was down in Tijuana for Cage of Fire. I was down there fighting south of the border, which was an experience in itself. Since then I've been trying to stay busy.” And by “busy”, Browne means winning his rookie fight in 43 seconds, fighting later that month against former NFL wide receiver Michael Westbrook and winning that fight by TKO as well.
Being a professional athlete always appeared to be in Browne’s future, but fighting was not the expected sport. “I was always competitive in sports growing up, whether it was basketball or football or whatever I could get into,” Browne continues on what stopped his progression, “In 2001, I was playing pick-up basketball. I was involved in a serious altercation and I got into a lot of trouble for it. It was only one punch, but I did a lot of damage to him. I had to stop playing because I wasn't at the level I needed to be. I didn't want to finish school and go play college sports. I didn't have connections to go play pro. I just stopped playing because I got so frustrated playing with 'weekend warrior' guys. I just stopped competing.”
“Hapa” sidelined himself from his dream of being a professional athlete. He settled down in San Diego, California, got married and began a family. Browne even got a “normal” job by starting his own private security K-9 training business. But soon enough his inherent desire to compete at a professional level and to provide for his family became too much to sit idle. “One day I was just sitting there and thought to myself, I don't want to tell my kids I shoulda' coulda' woulda'. I don't want to tell my kids that. I don't want to tell my grand kids that. I want to be able to tell them all that I was a professional athlete.”
In 2006, “Hapa” began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and entering tournaments. The following year, Browne started training Muay Thai. “I had my first smoker or amateur fight in Muay Thai in March of 2007,” Browne continues matter-of-factly, “I won that amateur fight. About four months later, I had my second amateur fight and I won that one. I eventually got sucked into the whole MMA world, where I wanted to combine the two sports.”
Browne’s almost immediate grasp of the fighting world is a case of both “nature” and “nurture”. “Growing up in Hawaii, fighting is just something you have to do,” Browne enlightens on the island culture. “People think it is just palm trees and sand out there. They don't get how crazy it is. Growing up you have to fight for everything. You don't eat your food fast enough they'll come steal it right off your plate. You're constantly working and fighting. If you bump into someone out at the store on the mainland it is ‘sorry, excuse me’, but in Hawaii it is watch where you're going because you're going to scrap.” Besides coming from a fighting culture, Browne believes being a great fighter is a built-in quality, “I think being a fighter is something you're born with. I think I have always had that inside me.”
Nowadays, Travis Browne is a professional fighter in the UFC and he has very high expectations of making an indelible impact on his division. “I think the heavyweight division is 4-5 years behind the other weight divisions,” Browne says bluntly. “I think we're just starting to get real athletes in there showing what a bigger person can do. But I want to be the face of these athletes and change the game. I want to be that guy that makes these camps revamp their training. There is no longer a spot for just a wrestler or just a striker. You will have to be well-rounded and you'll have to be an athlete.”
The first step towards “Hapa” achieving his UFC goals was beating James McSweeney. Browne was the underdog leading to this fight with The Ultimate Fighter alumnus, but “I don't get wrapped up in who they are or what they've done in the past because in my mind none of these guys have fought anybody like me.” This confidence in being the unknown powerhouse is what propels Browne in training towards victory. “Walking towards that cage and when that door closes, I know in my heart and in my mind that I've already done everything that I can do to beat this guy. At that point, all I need to do is do what I do best: win.”
For Travis Browne’s second fight in the UFC, he will battle French kickboxing stalwart Cheick Kongo. “I'm excited to get a fighter who will stand there and not run away from me soon as I come after him,” Browne glibly states. “I think he is a guy who will trade with me. He'll grab a pair and stand in the pocket. We'll give the fans something to cheer for.” Browne simply exudes confidence in the face of a stand-up war with the mighty Kongo, “I don't remember who he has beaten that is as quick as me or as big as me or as powerful as me.”
It does not happen often, but Kongo has been known to take fights to the ground using devastating ground and pound like he did against Mostapha Al-Turk. “It's not easy to take me down. It's not easy to hold me down if you get me down,” Browne’s confidence is vigilant. “I know how to tie him up and move to positions that benefit me. I welcome that type of fight. If he wants to get into a grappling match - I'm for it. If he wants to get into a striking match - I'm for it. I hope Cheick Kongo is bringing his A game and doesn't take me lightly. I respect the guy tremendously, but, at the same time, I'm going to be ready and I'm coming for him.”
It is difficult not to get caught up in the hype of two titanic heavyweights like Kongo and Browne going to war in the Octagon. An experienced dangerous striker with a great majority of his wins coming by knockout versus a young excitable juggernaut looking to lay claim to the heavyweight division. And why not get caught up in that hype? A match like this between fighters like these is what makes the UFC so thrilling. So let Travis “Hapa” Browne’s words galvanize your fandom because it’s not every day we get to see the beginning of a new career like this.
“I love this feeling, I love this sport, I love competing. I feel like deep down in my core I'm in this sport for the right reasons. I want to push myself. I want to go out there and compete with the best fighters. I know I have what it takes to be the best in the division in the UFC. Now, I just have to put in my time and do my work to make that a true story. My job now is to make my dream a reality.”