A New Zealand mixed martial artist is leaving the fighting ring to become … a pastor.
Hiriwa "T-Man" Te Rangi, a heavyweight fighting out of Invercargill, New Zealand, will battle in his last professional bout Saturday. Once it's over, the seasoned South Pacific pugilist will leave behind two decades of combat and start training for a new career in ministry.
"If you asked me a year ago that I'd be training to become a pastor, I'd have told them to shove off," Te Rangi told the New Zealand news website, Stuff. "I'm prepared for whatever the big man upstairs has ready for me."
The Southland Times reported in August that Te Rangi's far-reaching martial arts career began with his first kickboxing match in 1986. Since then, he's sparred in 13 traditional boxing matches and competed in 12 mixed martial arts (MMA) matches. He has fought on four continents, won a heavyweight MMA championship and even battled Dennis Alexio, the co-star of Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1989 film "Kickboxer."
Te Rangi said the many years of fighting has taken its toll, but he remains tight-lipped about his age. He looks forward to completing his career but has a tough final fight against long-time rival Paul Aberdeen. The two combatants clash in Wallacetown, New Zealand, this weekend at "Battle of the Gladiators." The fighting statistics website Sherdog.com lists Te Rangi as 44.
The aging grappler said he plans on attending Vision College's campus in Christchurch, New Zealand, for ministry training following his final match. An active member of New Zealand’s ACTS Churches, an Apostolic church movement, he said he's return to religion after a long hiatus as a heavyweight fighter.
"It didn't appeal to me," Te Rangi said of his earlier encounters with Christianity. "In 1988, I moved away, the whole thing wasn't for me and I started fighting."
Roger Pattison, a fighter who trains at Capital MMA in Alexandria, Va., said that faith often helps fighters he knows compete at a higher level. Though some see MMA as violent and cruel, he argued that it improves and strengthens participants’ self-discipline.
"A faith in Christ allows you to live and act for something higher than yourself, and that's why so many successful fighters are devout Christians," Pattison said. "They derive their strength from something other than themselves."
Joel Gerson, owner of Toronto's Revolution MMA training center, said he recommends that elder fighters constantly re-evaluate their skills as they age. He said fighters like Te Rangi or the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Randy Couture, who retired at 47, are capable of competing long-term as long as they know their strengths.
"There's no way to cheat experience," Gerson said. "Experience counts for a lot when developing technique and practicing different styles of martial arts. There's also some raw power some people get as they get older, and heavyweights peak later than lighter weight classes."
Te Rangi said he's excited to stop training and start a new life. No matter who wins on Saturday, he said, he'll feel like a champion in Christ.
"I've had heaps of fights – UFC, K-1, cage fighting and more," he said. "Being a pastor is going to be unreal."