There is a special kind of martial artist that comes out of the Hawaiian Islands. With former UFC champions like B.J. Penn and Max Holloway showing representation at the highest levels of MMA, there are plenty of other examples of athletes cut from the same cloth. One such man is Legacy Fighting Alliance flyweight Braden Aupuni “Puni” Pagaoa.
Pagaoa grew up on the Eastern side of Oahu. While he didn’t always have his eyes seton a fighting career, it was something that was just part of his culture.
“I grew up fighting in Hawaii,” Pagaoa told Combat Press. “It’s that warrior culture. The Hawaiian Islands were united in war. There were a lot of street fights growing up. Even girls would fight, throwing 1-2 combinations with a leg kick. Fighting was just part of life. Now. I can do it legally.
“I grew up playing all the other sports – football, basketball, baseball. I didn’t care much for soccer, though. I thought I was going to be Kobe Bryant or DeSean Jackson – play in the NBA or NFL.”
However, Pagaoa realized when he was a teenager that he was likely not going to end up in those big leagues, so he went a different route. He started training at a martial arts gym in Kailua, and he committed to a fighting career at only 16 years old.
“I moved to Las Vegas when I was 18,” said Pagaoa. “My cousin is friends with Brad Tavares, so he connected us. I moved out to Las Vegas and have been here ever since.”
Tavares is also from Kailua, and he is a UFC veteran of 13 years, who most recently fought in Apr, 2023. He is a longtime standout at Xtreme Couture, and that is where Pagaoa has also trained ever since moving to the desert. However, being in Las Vegas by himself at such a young age, with his family back home, meant he had plenty of time to kill, as he was too young to go to clubs or anything like that.
“I did whatever I wanted at first,” said Pagaoa. “I would walk around Walmart at 1 a.m., just checking stuff out, seeing if there was anything cool to buy. There’s not much to do at 2 a.m., and I wasn’t old enough to go out.”
Pagaoa moved to Las Vegas in 2016. He only had one amateur fight under his belt at the time, but within a few years, he was 5-2 as an amateur and ready to turn pro. He had one fight scheduled in Feb. 2020, which got canceled, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and his career was temporarily put on ice. However, being in Las Vegas has its perks, and one of them is the strong presence of LFA.
“I got connected with LFA through local connections in Vegas,” said Pagaoa. “I was lucky to have good connections that knew [LFA founder] Ed Soares and [LFA matchmaker] Mark Bieri. We bugged them over and over again throughout COVID before I got signed.”
Pagaoa made his pro debut at LFA 105 in Apr. 2021, where he scored a knockout just 12 seconds into the fight. He made his sophomore appearance five months later, but dropped that one by unanimous decision. The next year ended up being a lot better, as he picked up a second-round knockout at LFA 124 in Feb. 2022, and a unanimous decision win at LFA 140 last August. Needless to say, he feels pretty good about where he is at right now.
“I don’t go into fights looking for the knockout,” said Pagaoa. “I just want to put on an entertaining show, and I feel like that’s what I have done so far.”
Tonight, live from the Gila River Resorts & Casinos in Chandler, Ariz., Pagaoa will face Humberto Duarte as the feature fight on the main card of LFA 158. Duarte, who trains out of Arizona, is currently 5-2 as a pro and will be making his LFA debut.
“I don’t know a lot about him,” said Pagaoa. “I’m expecting a tough fight. I know that he is going to be tough, but I don’t think he is the same caliber as I am.”
Pagaoa may only be in his mid-twenties today, but he got started early in his career, has some good experience, and brings in a wealth of knowledge from the coaches and training partners at Xtreme Couture. He will certainly be a handful for Duarte to deal with. And, at this point, he would like to fight again before the end of the year.
“I just want to stay busy after this,” Pagaoa said. “I don’t believe in ring rust, though. I sat out two years during COVID to come back with a 12-second finish. I want at least one, if not two more fights by end of year.”
LFA 158 kicks off live on UFC Fight Pass starting at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.