Why Perth's UFC 221 lineup has its share of former footballers

PERTH, Australia -- They say it's like a bug, one taste of it and you're hooked. And given Sunday's card for UFC 221 in Perth, it's hard to disagree that Australia's "footy" players make good MMA fighters.

But why is that the case? And why do some choose to leave the only sport they've ever known, trading the boots of rugby league or Australian Rules, for the gloves of Mixed Martial Arts?

"You get stale, it's the same thing," Melbourne's Jake Matthews tells ESPN ahead of his fight against China's Li Jiangling in Perth,. "You go to [football] training twice a week and you play on Sundays. Then you have representative sides, so you might end up training four or five times a week and you might actually have two games on weekends. So it's definitely hard and as soon as you try something different it just grabs you."

For Aussie Rules player Matthews is one of three Australian fighters on Sunday's card with a football background, joining former rugby league players Tai Tuivasa and Alex Volkanovski. Originally slated to headline UFC 221, Robert Whittaker, too, grew up playing rugby league.

Tuivasa will tell you that his former pursuit, rugby league, has "gone soft" and that he'd probably spend most of his time on the sidelines with suspension or cooling his heels in the sin-bin.

Vokanovski, speaking with ESPN ahead of his fight with Canadian Jeremy Kennedy in Perth, said that he realised MMA was his "calling" after carting the football into defences as a front-row forward for much of his life. For him, and Matthews, MMA was initially a way of maintaining fitness during the offseason. And then, with one proper taste of combat inside the Octagon, they were hooked.

"While I was training for the first five months [in MMA] I still was playing AFL, I was still set on that," Matthews tells ESPN. "Then my coach asked me did I want to fight, so I had my first amateur fight and I ended up winning it by a head-kick knockout.

"I think the way I won the fight and how the fight went; I think probably if I'd lost it I wouldn't have taken it [MMA] up. And as soon as that fight was over I looked at dad and said I'm going to stop playing footy, I want to fight."

Given the changing landscape of both rugby league and Australian Rules, and their respective governing bodies' desire for player welfare and protection within their rules, the trend of Australian athletes crossing over to MMA for "something else" is unlikely to cease. In fact, it could go in the complete opposite direction and increase at a rapid rate.

The rawness of MMA, its primal nature, was once also at the heart of both rugby league and Australian Rules. Many will tell you that isn't the case today.

And should athletes try their hand at MMA and discover that hand-to-hand combat, wrestling and everything else that comes with the Octagon isn't for them, then there's no reason why they can't revert to something that involves a ball.

"If I see the games on TV or I go to a game live, I do miss it a little bit," Matthews says. "But maybe later on I'll go and play seniors or something, one day when I'm done fighting."