From the Houston Texans to LFA: Zac Pauga’s MMA journey

Zac Pauga gets readies his fists for an LFA fight. Zac Pauga before a bout in LFA. Photo Credit: UFC Fight Pass.

When Muay Thai coach Sean Madden was asked about Elevation Fight Team’s up-and-coming prospects, he had a list of eight.

Coach’s Corner host Joe McDonagh had asked him to prepare the list in advance, and Madden gave the impression that he could have talked about his entire team without prompting. He had exciting things to say about all eight, but the mention of an ex-NFL running back was hard to miss.

“He’s going to be out here with Curtis [Blaydes] this weekend as a training partner/corner. He’s a three-sport pro athlete. He played in the NFL, he played professional rugby, and now here he is in professional MMA.”

To be fair, it feels a little misleading to say he played in the NFL. While Zac Pauga (2-0) was signed to the Houston Texans’ in 2011, he was on the practice squad  and never played a game. Though being part of an NFL practice squad is an extraordinary achievement – one that most people are simply not capable of – he never competed in the sport’s most prestigious league. MMA, however, has the chance to be a different story.

“I’m really excited to see where he goes. … I would love to see him in PFL or UFC at some point. He only has two pro fights, but I think if he racks up maybe three or four more, he’s going to be getting a call from one of those organizations soon.”

After being cut from the Texans, Pauga still had his criminal justice degree to fall back on. He became a police officer for the police department of Wheat Ridge, Colorado. However, a career outside of sports just didn’t seem to be in the cards.

Founded in 2015, the Professional Rugby Organization was the first professional rugby league in the United States. Also known as PRO Rugby, it fielded five teams in its 2016 season. Pauga thought this league was an obvious choice.

“I love rugby, it’s my favorite team sport,” Pauga said. “I’m Samoan and grew up playing rugby with my dad. It’s a great game and so much harder than football. I miss playing rugby. I don’t miss playing football.”

Pauga was able to break his way into the league, getting signed by a team.

“I received an email saying that I was on a list of players that they were interested in,” Pauga told The Rocky Mountain Collegian. “Five weeks later I got another email asking if I wanted to be on the team.”

Pauga joined the Denver Stampede as a loose forward and seemed excited for PRO Rugby to grow.

“I am not really a businessman, I just play rugby,” Pauga said. “Rugby is a great game and it needs a professional league in America.”

Pauga and the Denver Stampede went 10-2, finishing first in the league.

Unfortunately, “success” wasn’t a sentiment that Pauga and his team could share with PRO Rugby itself. The organization folded after one season.

“After rugby was done they all thought I would put my criminal justice degree to work,” Pauga told Sportsology. Pauga went in a different direction.

“I’ve always been a fan [of MMA]. UFC 1 was in Colorado when I was like four or five. Fighting was always what I enjoyed watching more than anything,” said Pauga to Sportsology. “When the other sports were done, I decided to try it out around 28 or 29. After my first class, I was hooked immediately, and knew what I was going to do the rest of my life.”

Listed as 6’3″, Pauga weighed 246 when he played football, and he started his career at heavyweight. He made his amateur debut at Sparta Combat League, an organization that apparently used the same person as both their in-cage announcer and cageside commentary. Pauga’s entire fight with Charles Bullard (0-1 am) was shorter than the versatile announcer’s walk from the cage to the commentary booth – Pauga knocked him out without anyone announcing the fight.

From January 2019 to February 2020, Pauga racked up a record of 5-0 in the amateur heavyweight scene. He finished four of the five fights, ranging from the standing KO of Bullard to taking his opponents down and finishing them with ground-and-pound or submissions. After five amateur fights, Pauga went pro. He made another change, as well.

“I’m lucky to train with Curtis Blaydes and Alistair Overeem with Elevation Fight Team to see what a real heavyweight looks like. I was a heavyweight in my amateur career. I was fortunate to know light heavyweight is where I belong.”

Pauga’s success has continued into his pro career. He’s 2-0 so far, with his most recent fight ending with a first round ground-and-pound finish.

Pauga’s ground-and-pound has been his most significant weapon thus far. He has a position-first style, with him looking for a mounted crucifix in both of his pro fights, and succeeding in establishing one for awhile on Ashby Thomas (1-1). Once Pauga finds the position he needs, he mauls his target.

Scouting Pauga’s standup game is harder, because he gets most of his fights to the ground pretty quickly. What there is to watch implies he might not be the best at measuring distance. He throws what should be long strikes like leg kicks and jabs, but often gets closer than is necessary while throwing them. Reinforcing this idea is the fact that once he gets into the clinch, he becomes a much more effective striker, landing knees and elbows with ease.

Fortunately, Pauga takes few risks on the feet. He strongly prioritizes getting his fights to the ground. He also spends very little time in the pocket – he’s generally either at the edge of striking range or working for a takedown. When he’s at distance, he’s safe about backing up to avoid his opponent’s strikes. Pauga’s an athlete, not a brawler; he doesn’t put himself in harm’s way for no reason. He seems pretty committed to taking his opponent down while taking as little damage as possible, and so far, he’s been successful at that. Pauga’s never been hit cleanly, and hasn’t looked hurt yet in his career.

Pauga has so much to build on. More important than any one technique or skill is the fact that he fights smart. A coachable, high-level athlete in the hands of Elevation Fight Team is a deadly combination.  He’s already proven that he can succeed in two different sports, but MMA might lead to his highest achievements yet.