(Richie ‘Vas’ Vaculik on the right. Props to Push.)
“A surfer who fights rather than a fighter who surfs.” Richie “Vas” Vaculik described himself as such sometime after he won his second professional MMA bout. And it was the truth back then: Vaculik, a native of suburban Sydney, Australia, gained fame first by surfing big waves off of Tahiti, Hawaii, and southern Australia. He’d also gained notoriety as a member of the Bra Boys, a hard-charging, occasionally controversial crew of surfers that was the subject of a 2007 documentary. And while he proved to be skilled at throwing punches and sinking chokes, fighting was just a hobby.
Not so much anymore. On March 12, Vaculik fights for the Cage Fighting Championships bantamweight title against Gustavo Falciroli. Going into the fight, Vaculik has a 4-0 record and designs on competing overseas if he continues to rack up wins. By his own account he’s giving the sport a degree of commitment that was lacking just two years ago. But he hasn’t left surfing alone: he’s still game to drop everything and ride the faces of waves that rise more than 20 sphincter-clenching feet. “That’s what I’m into: chasing stuff that just makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, I guess,” he says.
Vaculik began surfing in 1989 at his home beach in Maroubra, a suburb of Sydney. His mother enrolled him in the Maroubra Boardriders, a common entry point for embryonic wave riders. “I grew up looking up to guys like Koby Abberton and the older guys who were surfing in Maroubra,” he recounts. “They were into surfing the big waves, and I just sort of followed in their footsteps. That led to me taking on a little career surfing and chasing big waves.”
Vaculik checks weather forecasts every day, and if a swell pops up, he’ll drop everything at his carpet-laying job, pack his board bag, and hop on a plane. “It’s a pretty quick turnaround. I’m not waiting in areas for weeks waiting for the surf to come. I kind of try to fly in and out and nail it,” he says. Vaculik has traveled to spots near Tahiti, Hawaii, and closer to home off of southern Australia. Finding the unpredictable, mammoth swells that produce big waves frequently involves jet skiing or piloting boats a few miles out to sea. On his journeys, he captures video and photo evidence of his conquests, which he submits to big-wave contests like the Billabong XXL and the Oakley Big Wave Awards. But outside of the spoils from a handful of contests, the rewards for a career spent riding big waves are primarily sponsorship subsidies, exposure in the surf media, and personal gratification.
The words “Bra Boys” are tattooed across Vaculik’s abdomen. It’s a reference to the same group that was the subject of Bra Boys, a 2007 film that became one of Australia’s highest-grossing documentaries. The film, which primarily focuses on the Abberton family and two trials related to a 2003 murder, describes the group as a brotherhood comprised of disenfranchised youths from housing projects, a brotherhood accustomed to using their fists to defend themselves from aggressors. Others, including the off-duty police officers with whom the group brawled at a 2002 Christmas party, vilify the group as a gang. “The Bra Boys is just a big bunch of friends,” says Vaculik. “There are similar things all up and down the coast of Australia and all over the world where you’ve got a beach and a crew that hangs there.” As for the group’s reputation for fighting, Vaculik considers quarreling a youthful rite of passage. “You always bump into a couple fights, and I guess it’s just a part of growing up.”
The Bra Boys had a few boxers and martial artists in their ranks who showed proteges, including Vaculik, how to throw punches correctly. Along the way, a pair of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu players, Bruno Panno and Alex Prates, moved to Sydney, befriended Vaculik and company, and gave the boys an introduction to grappling. Over the years, Vaculik has done well in Australian tournaments, including three consecutive wins in the Australian National Submission Grappling Championships, an ADCC-style no-gi tournament.
In 2006, a local promoter asked Vaculik’s trainer if his student would compete on an upcoming fight card. Vaculik made his debut in November of that year, knocking out Michael Mortimer minutes into the first round. Vaculik fought four months later on the next card, winning by rear-naked choke.
Vaculik found his time in the cage to be a burden in late 2007. At a party for champion surfer Mick Fanning held on the Gold Coast, Vaculik was alleged to have been involved in an altercation with another patron, one which ended with the patron requiring surgery. “It was a time that I’m not at all proud of or happy about. It was just one of those things, gettin’ on the drink, carrying on like an idiot, got into a bit of a drunken pub fight, and things happened the way they did,” he says. He feels that the Australian media latched on to his exploits as an MMA fighter and his association with the Bra Boys to hurt his chances in the case. “In the end, it all worked out. I didn’t have any charges laid, so it was just a time I’d rather forget,” he says.
After navigating his legal troubles and surfing heavily in the interim, Vaculik returned to fight twice in 2009 and kept his even split between KO’s and submission wins intact. He still trains with Panno today at Gracie Sydney Association and its TP Fight Team, and drives to KickTactics and No Rules Fitness, both elsewhere in Sydney, for Thai boxing and strength and conditioning. “We don’t have the kind of set-ups like you do in the States. You’ve got to kind of drive around to cover all the bases,” he says.
With the UFC’s entrance into the Australian market this February, Vaculik says he hopes it will help shake the stigma that dogs the sport down under. The public perception of mixed martial arts as sport, he says, is comparable to that which was presence in the United States around 2000. But there is potential for growth. “It can be just as big as in the states over here in Australia,” he says.
Beyond a fight for Cage Fighting Championships this March, Vaculik would like to fight twice more this year. He has long-term goals to fight in the bigger organizations, maybe the WEC, maybe somewhere in Japan. Whatever happens, for the time being, fighting is as important as riding colossal waves. “It’s definitely not a pastime or a hobby at all,” he says. “I think when I first started, a lot of people had the perception that I was a surfer just having a little crack at this MMA stuff. But that’s not the case anymore.”