Hit machine: Richie Vaculik, 31, mixed martial artist
Richie Vaculik grew up as one of Maroubra’s Bra Boys, and has surfed some of the biggest waves in the world professionally. In 2006, he began a career in mixed martial arts, winning his first fight by a knockout. He now competes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and fights as a flyweight on November 8 in Sydney, an undercard for UFC Fight Night 55.
Richard Cooke How did you make the transition from big-wave surfing to mixed martial arts?
Richie Vaculik It was just a progression. In wanting to chase big waves round the world, I always enjoyed staying fit. Whenever the waves were small, I enjoyed training, and part of that training was boxing. I ended up competing in ju-jitsu and I loved boxing, an opportunity popped up, and I was hooked. I still love chasing waves, and I think getting in the ocean and being in the gym all the time really complement each other.
RC And the mental side seems related – they both involve a lot of fear.
RV Well, yeah, definitely. Stepping into the octagon, there’s a whirlwind of emotions that are involved in the lead-up to it, and it’s pretty similar going out chasing big waves. You have to remember to stay calm, do what you need to do and try and perform your best. Both sports definitely involve a lot of adrenalin, nerves, anxiety and fears, so in that respect they’re quite similar.
RC What drives the anxiety levels higher, a quadruple overhead or being grounded and pounded?
RV It’s funny that. I’ve grown up around the beach my whole life, just obsessed with the surf. Being around big waves as I was growing up, I developed a bit of a comfort level. Mixed martial arts came into my life a little bit later, and I’m still trying to find that comfort level inside the octagon. On the flip side, out in the ocean anything goes. There’s no doctor on hand, no rules, no referee. You sort of accept Mother Nature.
RC Even a lot of good surfers don’t like really big swells.
RV It can be a pretty sinister environment. If things go pear-shaped out in the ocean, you don’t have anyone to look to really, whereas in the octagon it’s a relatively controlled environment. It can be pretty hairy out there, but it also is what gives you that adrenalin buzz, and makes the hairs on the neck stand up. That’s why you go back for more, I guess – it’s a thrill.
RC What was your first fight like?
RV My first fight was here in Australia, on the Sunshine Coast. They had a local lad up at Caloundra who they wanted to put on the card. I had just done a little bit of boxing and a little bit of ju-jitsu, but I put my hand up [to fight him]. I went in there full of nerves, and pretty much closed my eyes and started swinging. I was lucky enough to get the knockout. It all happened in the first round. It definitely wasn’t the tidiest of my performances.
RC Now that UFC is starting to build a bigger fan base, are more people curious about what you do?
RV I’m glad to say that the sport’s slowly starting to break stereotypes. Especially here in Australia, the sport’s still in its infancy, and I think we struggled for a long time to be seen as a professional sport and shake the tag of brutal, barbaric, human cockfighting. All this kind of stuff. The UFC coming to Australia and doing some shows, and also The Ultimate Fighter show that’s on telly, see it becoming slowly more mainstream and catching up to where it is in the States.
RC When you encounter someone who hasn’t seen a lot of UFC, what sort of questions do they ask you?
RV Some people do get a little bit taken aback by it and struggle to understand why you’d be involved in such a sport. “Why do you want to do this? What would make you want to do this?” And it’s basically that I love to compete. It’s physical, it’s competitive, and that appeals to a lot of people. And I guess I’m one of those guys.
RC There seems to be a phenomenon where people will drop weight to the point where their energy levels are so low they can hardly get out of bed, and then be fighting not too long afterwards. It’s quite difficult for an outsider to get their head around.
RV People do get blown away with the way in which we cut weight to make each weight class and that kind of stuff, the way fighters can cut weight, and then put the weight back on and walk in the cage. It’s crazy to think that 24 hours out from your fight you’re physically in the condition where you can hardly do anything. You feel terrible, you’re dehydrated, you couldn’t squash a fly. Then 24 hours later you’re walking in the arena, inside an octagon, and you’re fighting for possibly 25 minutes.
RC What is the difference between sport and violence?
RV Well, I guess it’s all in the environment, in the controlled manner in which it’s performed. I mean, mixed martial arts is violent by nature, but it’s professional, we train extremely hard, we learn skills. It’s not to be taken outside of the gym to be performed on the street. And just from my personal experience, I know that getting involved in mixed martial arts had a huge influence on me. I just stopped getting in trouble. For a little while there I was like every young bloke, getting on the drink and carrying on like a bit of a pork chop and, yeah, it was the introduction of mixed martial arts that really sort of made me aware of the way in which I was carrying on, and the ideologies behind a lot of mixed martial arts. My trainers and the peers I train with have all been a great influence on me.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Hit machine". Subscribe here.