Travis Browne probably isn’t the first opponent to describe the knees of Alistair Overeem thusly:
“[Overeem] had heat-seeking ability in those knees,” Browne said. “He’s always had devastating knees.”
Indeed, Browne survived a vicious 40-second tirade of strikes and knees from the former Strikeforce and K-1 heavyweight champion and came back to knock out Overeem in the first round at UFC Fight Night 26 on Aug. 17.
It was a gutsy performance by Browne, who, compared to most UFC fighters, is a relative latecomer to MMA, having taken up the sport professionally in 2009 and only first stepped foot in a jiu-jitsu dojo at 25.
Six years later, the 31-year-old is on the cusp of becoming the No. 1 contender for the UFC heavyweight title, if he can defeat veteran and former UFC champ Josh Barnett at UFC 168 on Dec. 28. The winner will face Fabricio Werdum for the next title shot when champion Cain Velasquez returns from injury.
As he was against Overeem, Browne is once again a decided underdog at plus-170 odds, according to most MMA betting websites. But Browne is used to that and doesn’t sweat it.
“I don’t have a combat sports background, so I’ll always be the underdog,” Browne said. “I want to be the best and fight the best. But people who know will tell you I’m just a big softie. I’m more of a lover than a fighter.”
And who doesn’t love an underdog?
Browne is half Hawaiian, and his nickname “Hapa” literally means “half.” Browne says his middle name, Kuualiialoha, means “Prince of Love” in Hawaiian. And while the literal translation from a Hawaiian-English dictionary might suggest something more along the lines of “beloved child,” either way Browne holds his Hawaiian heritage dear to him as a symbol of his compassion, as well as his warrior pride.
Raised in Hawaii until he was 10, Browne learned to swim, surf and do anything but fight. He dabbled in a little karate, but he admits he was an “emotional kid.”
“I cried a lot,” he laughed.
Sadly, his parents’ divorce took him and his mother to San Diego where he eventually developed into a standout basketball player. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Browne dominated his local competition and had offers to play some smaller schools and even semi-pro leagues overseas.
“I had good quickness to play a big 3 or small 4, maybe even the 2 at times, depending on the lineup. I could play on the perimeter or down low. I was a strong kid and liked the contact.”
After one season at Palomar College, Browne gave up the hard court and took to the mats. On a whim, a buddy convinced him to try jiu-jitsu.
“I told my buddy, 'Show me how you do [jiu-jitsu],' and he put me in an armbar,” Browne said. “I was hooked and just became obsessed with it.”
Browne began in at Oceanside’s North County Fight Club, the starting point for fellow UFC heavyweight Joey Beltran. After the fight club disbanded, Browne landed at Alliance MMA for a while and developed his wrestling and muay Thai skills. It wasn’t until he joined Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn’s gym in Albuquerque, N.M., however, that Browne’s career took off.
Browne’s laid-back style and warrior spirit is a juxtaposition that fits in well with the Zen-like atmosphere of Jackson and Winklejohn’s.
“It was the perfect fit for me,” Browne said. “They encourage creativity and teach you to believe in yourself, your skills. The coaches are on board with experimenting with different things. So I asked Winklejohn to teach me a new skill for Barnett.”
“Heat-seeking knees” was the response.
“I try to do different stuff for every camp,” Browne said. “Always add something you can use. Train smarter, harder.”
He will have to first get through Barnett, a grizzled 16-year MMA veteran who has fought wars in nearly every fight league that’s existed -- Pride, Pancrase, Affliction, Dream, Sengoku, Strikeforce -- and held the UFC heavyweight title in 2002 after defeating Randy Couture.
Barnett is an oppressive grappler, with 20 wins by a multitude of submissions. He also is a devastating striker, as evidenced by his most recent demolition of Frank Mir at UFC 164. In many ways, Barnett contrasts with Browne like day and night. If Browne is a lover and a fighter, the fighter part will have his work cut out for him.
At 6-foot-7, Browne’s length and 79-inch reach gives him some safe distance to gauge Barnett’s striking. However, in the clinch there are few better than Barnett. That’s fine with Browne.
“I want to be the best and fight the best. I have momentum now,” Browne said. “To stop me, my opponent is going to have to finish me to win.”