Making his way through a sea of green and gold jerseys, a young boy watches as the men before him ready themselves for war. Australia is a nation that loves its sporting heroes just as much as they love their beer. When national teams do well in any sporting arena, the country is sent into hysterics. That’s what they call passion.
Emotions run high for football players in the locker room. It’s the setting for so many different circumstances — jubilee after a big win, sadness after a difficult loss and anger when things just didn’t go the right way.
Duke Didier has seen all of that and more. He’s the son of a representative level football player, and it seemed as though he was all set to follow in his father’s footsteps with a career in rugby. However, just as quickly as the mood can change inside that locker room, Didier’s path also changed. It was out with the green and gold. In its place, the gi.
“When I was nine years old, I got told to check out judo,” Didier recalled to Combat Press. “My dad played for the Wallabies and the Brumbies, and I grew up inside a lot of rugby change rooms. And one of the strappers in there was a judo black belt, and he said that judo would help my rugby. It just so happened that Marist College Canberra, where I was enrolled, had a judo program and, as it turned out, the judo program they had there was one of the best judo programs that the country had ever seen.
“I walked in there as a nine-year-old kid and I had Commonwealth Games gold medalist Tom Hill, who was an Olympian as well, and his brothers coaching me from the first session. I juggled judo from nine until 17 or 18. I was doing judo as well as rugby and other sports. When I was about 15, I started making representative teams and had been making the Australian team since I was 14, 15, 16, and I was national champion for Under 20s by the time I was 17. By that time, I’d made the choice that I thought there was opportunity in judo for me, so I stuck with it from there.”
Like many of his peers in the judo world, Didier saw that the discipline could be a gateway to mixed martial arts. With so many of his friends and people he looked up to testing the waters, it was always going to be just a matter of time before the Canberra native dipped his toes into the waters as well.
“I saw a lot of the older guys do it,” Didier admitted. “Notably, Priscus Fogagnolo at light heavyweight, and I saw Ivo Dos Santos have a fight. And these are all close friends of mine. I’ve traveled the world with them. Daniel Kelly also had a fight and whilst it was strange rules, it was still his first pro fight. I decided [to try MMA] after watching one of The Ultimate Fighter series. I called Priscus and I called Ivo and I spoke to Matt D’Aquino, who is a pretty notable grappler, and when I spoke to them we all kinda decided that it’d be crazy not to try and utilize my skills in another arena, so to speak. I put my name down. Then, as soon as BRACE came to town for their first show, someone from the gym was on there and they did well so for their second show [in Canberra], I gave it a go.”
A little over three and a half years have passed since Didier made his professional mixed martial arts debut. Over that time, the judo champion has managed four fights with four wins, all by way of submission.
“The first four fights were all taken within a good space. It was pretty periodically,” Didier said. “They were all successful. I knew with my base — with my takedowns and with my ground game — I knew that I’d have a good shot and a good run at this country. Two years ago, I did the maths and I sat down my judo coaches, and I was on track for the Commonwealth Games and it was the last time that judo was gonna be in the Commonwealth Games.
“I’ve put too much into this sport [judo]. It’s a very thankless, very tiring and very hard sport. You travel the world and travel the country and you pay your own way a lot. I’ve fought in high school gyms and I’ve fought in some third-world countries and stayed in some pretty shocking accommodation. There’s no money in judo, so when something like the Commonwealth Games comes up where you finally get recognized for all that hard work and all that effort you’ve put into it, you jump at the opportunity. So as time progressed, I got closer and closer and I made the criteria and I then had no choice but to focus on judo.
“I was traveling the world. I was in a different country training and competing every month, so last year my MMA career was put on hold for a year. However, if anything, it’s been the best year. I’m fitter and stronger, and I’ve still been striking and still been doing the grappling work. Just because I didn’t have a fight doesn’t mean I lost my edge. If anything, I’ve grown.”
The last time that Didier competed in mixed martial arts was in March 2013. Although he has remained active with his judo career, it’s still a long time between fights. He took that into account in the preparation for his upcoming bout on Feb. 27 in Canberra, Australia.
“It’s nearly been two years since I’ve been in there. I just wanna blow away the cobwebs,” Didier admitted. “I’ve spoken to people about the metaphorical ‘ring rust,’ and that’s a real thing, so I am conscious of that and I wanna get in there. This fight is at 96 kilos. My longtime goal is to get to 93 or 94 to fight at light heavyweight. All my other fights have been at heavyweight, so this is the first step towards light heavyweight. This is the lightest match that I’ve fought in I can’t even remember since when. I think I fought under 90 kilos when I was 17, so its been that long. I normally fight in under-100 kilo in judo. It’s part about the weight cut and part about just getting back in there and looking to the year ahead.”
Now that his judo career is beginning to wind down, Didier is more than ready to shift his focus completely to MMA. However, the 25-year-old hasn’t exactly closed the door on judo just yet. He still has some big goals in his sights.
“There’s Olympic qualification that I’m still on track with,” Didier admitted. “It’s a long way out, so I’ve still got that in the back of my mind. I’ve got competitions I need to do that are required, which means I’ll be competing at a major national competition the week before I fight and also, two weeks after, I’ll be fighting again in judo. So it’s gonna be a restless couple of weeks, but I feel more than capable enough for the challenge.
“I was in the training squad for [the 2012] London [Olympics]. Basically, it’ll be my last year of judo, regardless, so it’d be a great way to finish off what I think has been a pretty solid little career. My longtime goals involve mixed martial arts and a possible move to train at a different location, whether that’s abroad or here. Recently, I spent a couple of nights down in Melbourne training with Daniel Kelly, Jake Matthews, Brendan O’Reilly and Richard Walsh, and I got a lot out of that. It seems that the sport is growing enough that we won’t have to travel overseas and we can get solid teams together over here.”
All four of Didier’s professional bouts have taken place in his hometown of Canberra, and his upcoming fight at the Friday Fight Nights event on Feb. 27 is no different. Every time that he steps into the combat arena, especially in Canberra, he knows that he has the support of his hometown behind him.
“When I said I was the ‘Duke of Canberra,’ it was a joke at first with some judo guys just because my name is Duke and I’m from Canberra,” he explained. “I really feel like when I fight, I represent the town now, which I like doing. I like the fact that everyone gets behind me. I have the most amazing support base. Every time I post some on Facebook or do whatever media I do, people are so good to me. And I feel that it pushes me to train harder, just to repay everyone. I’m born, bred and fed in Canberra, and I’m very proud to be a Canberran. So I don’t wanna be disappointing anyone, so I try and do my best for the town.
“It’ll be good to get in there and show some people some good, old-fashioned grappling. I don’t care how I win [laughs]. I don’t care if it’s three rounds or three seconds. I just wanna win.”