ONE Championship welterweight standout Isi Fitikefu and his team could well be the secret weapon behind the success of the Penrith Panthers over the last two seasons.
Ahead of his MMA showdown with Valmir Da Silva at ONE Fight Night 9: Nong-O vs. Haggerty on April 22 in Bangkok, Thailand, ‘Doxz’ lifted the lid on his life-long love of rugby league and his association with the two-time reigning NRL champions.
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Rugby league is in his blood after all.
Born in South Auckland, New Zealand, Fitikefu is the son of Jimmy Veikoso – although he didn’t become acquainted with his father until his teenage years.
Veikoso played a handful of games for the Canberra Raiders and represented Tonga on two occasions, first in 1992 and then in 1995.
A promising rugby league prospect in his own right, Fitikefu was by his own admission “getting up to no good” at his new home in country Victoria, prompting a move to Cronulla to live with his dad.
The move proved promising, as the young Tongan athlete was scouted by the Cronulla Sharks.
“I used to play rugby league back in New Zealand, and then I moved to Australia (to live with) my dad. He was a former NRL player himself. I’ve always wanted to be (a rugby league player) like every Polynesian kid who wanted to play rugby league for the first-grade team,” he said.
“At that time, I was living in Australia, so I moved out to Cronulla, and then I got picked up by the Cronulla Sharks team. I played for them for a bit, then I got cut. I was trying to get to the third-cup team.”
Although he didn’t make it to the senior team at the Sharks, a chance encounter along the way altered the course of Fitikefu’s life.
Gracie Smeaton Grange head coach Alex Prates – best known for mentoring former UFC Middleweight World Champion Robert Whittaker – and Fitikefu crossed paths at a school clinic.
As Fitikefu’s rugby league dream came crashing down, it was the Brazilian mixed martial arts mastermind that convinced the athletic young man to try his hand at the sport.
“I was pretty shattered (when he was cut by Cronulla). I didn’t know where to go from there. I just dreamt of just one thing. It was playing in the NRL. Sometimes things don’t go as planned,” he said.
“But luckily enough, during my rugby league career, I met my head coach (Alex Prates) that coaches me now. I met him when I was 16.
“He came to do a rugby league grappling clinic at our school. I met him there, and that’s how I got into MMA. He’s just showed a couple of simple (things for rugby league) that involved grappling, and it changed my world.”
Fast forward 14 years and eight professional fights, and now it’s Fitikefu that has returned to the NRL in a very different role.
Two seasons ago, the now 30-year-old took up a position alongside his Gracie teammates teaching adapted MMA skills to some of the NRL’s finest.
“It’s not so much MMA grappling skills. It’s more wrestling. You can’t overcomplicate it with all these rugby league players because their job is to run hard and tackle hard. So, we just make it simple for them,” he said.
“It’s just a couple of things – good posture, finish heavy on top, good control. That’s it. We worked with the Panthers. Alex Prates is our head coach for MMA. He’s been around, he’s taught the (Cronulla) Sharks, South Sydney, Brisbane Broncos, Penrith Panthers – he’s now with the Bulldogs.
“We just learned a lot of things because what he wants to do is pass on what he knows to us, so that we can continue it as well.”
Fitikefu and company first appeared at Penrith ahead of the Panthers’ drought-breaking 2021 premiership season.
While it may be a coincidence, the Ivan Cleary-led side became a defensive juggernaut enroute to that season’s flag.
As Fitikefu explains, sometimes it’s the small details that make the difference on the field, although the ever-bashful mixed martial artist refuses to claim any credit.
“There are just little things you see. They always have good posture when they’re tackling. Always heavy on top when they’re finishing. Yeah, just a lot of little, small things, not big things, but just little things that make it count,” he said.
“It’s only a small part of it. The wrestling part for rugby league is only tiny, probably half of one percent. But yes, it’s good to see that they are using whatever we’re teaching them in whatever way they need to use it.”
The Gracie Smeaton Grange crew, which includes Prates, Whittaker, Fitikefu, and Jacob Malkoun, have since made the move to the Canterbury Bulldogs ahead of the 2023 season.
The move came about through new Bulldogs head coach Cameron Ciraldo, and Fitikefu says that his players have shown some early promise with the new grappling skills in their arsenal.
“Cameron Ciraldo was the assistant coach at the Penrith Panthers. He got the full-time coaching role at the Bulldogs. We got a good relationship with him. So, when he went to the Bulldogs, we went with him,” he said.
“It’s only new so far (for the Bulldogs) because we’ve been with the Panthers for two years. Because we don’t know, from last year, I think there’s been a good improvement since the last few seasons. I reckon there is a big improvement.”
In just over two years, Fitikefu has been able to work with a bevy of elite athletes across his two NRL clubs.
By his estimation, there are plenty within the ranks of the Panthers and Bulldogs that have the potential to follow his lead and convert to MMA if they so desired.
“All those players have got a lot of potential. Penrith, the Bulldogs, they’re just super freak athletes – explosive, powerful guys,” he said.
“But any one of them could be (a fighter). If they wanted to step in the cage, I reckon any one of them could do that.”
But for now, the ONE Circle is Fitikefu’s domain, and he has a job to do at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand – the setting for ONE Fight Night 9.
And after tasting a narrow defeat in his ONE debut in November, he is ready to put on a show in his sophomore appearance against Da Silva.
“Tune in. It’s gonna be a battle,” he said. “Get ready, I’ll bring a knockout, submission, whatever, but you guys are going to enjoy it.”
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