In the world of sports, natural talent is typically the most precious attribute an athlete can have. Those who have been blessed with such gifts quickly ascend the various levels of competition until they reach a point where knowledge, maturity, and experience are required to travel further. That being said, fighting is a different animal entirely unto itself.
For a young fighter like Brad Tavares, competing on the biggest stage in the sport has been a baptism by fire. Inside the Octagon, physical gifts are tested much more quickly, and the intangibles that differentiate contender from prospect must increase with each subsequent fight.
What began on pure instinct for the 24-year-old Hawaiian has now turned into calculation and execution. Countless hours at the helm of coach and mentor Ray Sefo, have not only strengthened his skills and body but his mind as well.
The respected and experienced Sefo has worked to add structure and technique to Tavares' raw power and aggression. Where he once worked off instinct, footwork and spacial difference now dictate his attack. The process has yielded impressive results, as Tavares has evolved from a tough island kid with a warrior spirit to one of the most promising prospects in the increasingly competitive 185-pound weight class.
"Honestly the biggest change is the coaches I get to work with," Tavares said. "It is such an honor getting to work with Ray Sefo. I like striking and while I'm a mixed martial artist, striking is what I like to do.
"I think strikers with good ground and wrestling games get the farthest in the sport. They are the most notable and the ones fans want to see. Striking is a huge part of my game and it has always been like that. In the past I wasn't able to work with someone with as much knowledge and experience in the sport like Ray Sefo has. That has made a very big difference to me.
"On top of that I get to train much more than I did when I was living and training full-time in Hawaii. When I was training Hawaii I had a normal job where I was working 60-plus hours a week, at least 40 hours minimum, and then I would go train after that. But then I moved to Las Vegas and began training at Xtreme Couture.
"Now I'm surrounded by coaches and awesome fighters who are great training partners. Luckily they are also full-time fighters and we can meet up any time of day. We can get together, go over things, and have a great training session. That makes a huge difference.
"This sport is very young and you have to continue to constantly evolve. There are so many aspects to this sport when it comes to striking, clinching, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu, you have to always be evolving.
"Even back when I was on The Ultimate Fighter, I said learning is what I like to do on my off time. I like to learn knew things and sharpen the skills I already have. I don't train crazy when I'm off. I listen to my body and I'm smart about it but I'm always training and learning. I want to always be a better fighter than I was the last time."
Positioning himself at one of the sport's premier gyms has fueled Tavares' growth tremendously. While he came from Hawaii with a solid base of skills, the collection of experience at Xtreme Couture has pushed Tavares to new heights.
He has elevated every aspect of his game but it is his wrestling abilities which have developed the most. With hours of drilling and grinding in the trenches with a collection of the sport's best, Tavares has a new found love for grappling and is constantly preparing for the challenges he will inevitably face on the road ahead.
"It's great working with so many wrestlers at Xtreme Couture but what a lot of people don't know is that the little team I came from in Hawaii had a lot of good wrestlers as well," Tavares said.
"Early in my career I never had to use my wrestling too much. My first four or five fights were all either fast TKO's or submissions. My wrestling definitely has stemmed from Hawaii. I never wrestled in high school or as a young child. I started wrestling when I began training with my team in Hawaii MMA Development. The wrestling coach is Rob Hesia and I've just grown from there.
"I love wrestling now and I wish I would have done it growing up. That would have helped me tremendously in this sport. I'm learning and I get to work with guys like that and the guys I work with now like Jay Hieron, Kyle Griffin, and all the great wrestlers that come through the gym. It's an awesome experience.
"The guys I'm fighting nowadays come with these crazy wrestling pedigrees. They are collegiate Division One wrestlers, All-Americans and things like that. It really helps being able to train with these guys to prepare me for the fighters I'm going to have to face."
During his time in the UFC, Tavares has found victory in four out of five outings, with the lone setback coming via decision to Aaron Simpson. Each showing has been a learning experience as Tavares has shown marked improvements with each performance. Though he has always shown flashes of promise but it was his most recent fight that showed the talented kid from TUF was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Stepping in against highly touted newcomer Tom "Kong" Watson at UFC on Fuel 5 in Nottingham England, Tavares attacked from the opening bell as the two fighters put on one of the card's most impressive scraps.
Watson's UFC debut may have come in his home country, but it was Tavares who refused to give ground as he fired combinations from bell to bell. The battle ultimately went to the judge's scorecards and Tavares' hand was raised in victory. It was a huge step for the TUF alum and another important learning experience in the books.
"To be quite honest I had a weird anxiety leading up to the fight," Tavares said. "It stemmed from it being the first time I had to travel that far and taking that long of a flight. I was going into a different country where I wasn't quite sure what to expect as far as nutrition. I didn't know what was going to be available and if those things were going to throw off my weight cut.
"Ray Sefo and I discussed it and I went out there a little bit lighter than usual. I did that just in case because I've had fighters tell me when they fly that far their bodies won't let go of the water. I was kind of worried about that but luckily when I got there, everything worked itself out.
"When it came fight time everything went right like it normally does. I got those same emotions where I was excited and anxious to get out there to fight. You work so hard for so many weeks and the fight itself is really the fun part about it. That's your play time. You have been putting in work for eight to 10 weeks, and the fight is your chance to go out there and showcase your skills.
"As far as thinking about who he was or what he's done, none of the hype or any of that bothered me. I knew I needed to respect this person. Just looking at his record, how long he's been at it, the people he's fought and how those fights went; I knew he was going to be a game opponent. He trains with a very good team at Greg Jackson's. He is a tough guy and I knew he was going to come out with a good game plan.
"I re-watched the Watson fight and it was a good pace throughout. We were going at it, hitting each other with hard blows, and all the fans really liked the fight. Even the other fighters on the card enjoyed the fight. That is what people can expect from me. I'm just going to get better and better."
While Tavares may still be in the early stages of his career his eyes are fixated on the levels above. Ever the student of the fight game, he pays attention to the fighters who are competing in the positions he strives to reach and is excited by the resurgence of the middleweight division.
Tavares knows that in order for him to become one of the weight class' elite fighters, he will have to face the best the division has to offer, and it is an opportunity he's eagerly awaiting. But until the UFC calls with an offer to fight a top-ranked opponent, he is happy to work his way up the ladder in a division that is heating up.
"I definitely think things are getting exciting in the middleweight division," Tavares said. "There are guys who have come up in recent years who are proving to be real contenders. For example, a fighter who has taken the division by storm is Chris Weidman. We came into the UFC around the same time. Obviously I came off the show and he fought his way in. He is definitely a contender now.
"There is Chael Sonnen who is the only man to have taken the fight to Anderson Silva thus far. Mark Munoz just lost but he is still a contender. Michael Bisping has been around for a while but I think he's really coming into it. I think he'll get the next title shot at 185.
"Tim Boetsch has really been a surprise. Nobody expected him to be a contender but here he is knocking off top guys like Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard. He is another guy who recently came to the division with a lot of hype. I don't think anybody expected Boetsch to beat him but he did.
"The division has gotten a lot deeper and a lot more exciting. There are a lot of different looks and hopefully by next year I'll be right up in that mix. Hopefully, I'll be one of those guys people are talking about who came up and fought his way into title contention."
As the sport continues to grow and the dynamics of the fight game evolve, Tavares understands he will need to stay one step ahead in order to obtain the goals he has set.
He knows it won't be easy—nothing about fighting ever is—but with an unbreakable work ethic, the desire to learn and a genuine love for the tumultuous fray of trading leather with another human being; the future looks incredibly bright for Tavares.
"I'm in this sport because I love it but now I'm in the UFC and I eventually want to be a champion one day," Tavares revealed. "The only way to get there is to fight the best guys and big names. In the near future that is what I want. I want to be getting the calls to fight these guys.
"People talk so much about fighters being preliminary card guys or main-card status, but to me the only difference is how much you get paid. That is a big difference and I do want that main-card status.
"I want to be on the main card where people will be able to see my fights without having to go on Facebook. I definitely see myself getting there. I'm young and have a great work ethic. I'm only going to get better.
"I'm going to keep bringing exciting fights. I'm always going to go out there and look for the finish. That is super-important in this sport. You have to put on exciting fights because nobody really pays to watch somebody hold somebody down for three to five rounds or put them against the cage. They want to see exciting fights and finishes.
"I'm not saying you can go out there and finish every fight. At this level of competition you are going to have two men inside the Octagon who are fighting at a very high level and you have to be very precise.
"I'm not one of those fighters who is going to come out there guns blazing crazy, do something stupid and get myself knocked out. But I do go out there to push the pace and look for the finish. Even if I can't get those finishes fans can always expect exciting fights from me."