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Photo: Tyger Taam (center) celebrated winning a tournament with his Team Hawaii coaches, including his father Andy (right).
By Bill X. Barron
A double RMN national champion in folkstyle and freestyle, 15-year-old Hawaii’s Tyger Taam knows that “learning to lose at a young age” with grace and humility “teaches you how to win, which is pivotal in the preparation for life. Win, lose, or draw -— you are only as good as yourself.”
Tyger’s qualities of character mirror those of the legendary Hawaiian waterman, Tiger Espere, for whom he was named. Surfer Gerry Lopez says admiringly: “He had an innate presence that simply made him part of the wave — and, in turn, the wave seemed to be a part of him.”
“Espere was a very humble man who had many life experiences as a fisherman, cowboy, canoe voyager, writer, and musician. Once in the ocean fighting the swell, his style became very aggressive,” relates Tyger’s dad, Andy.
The elder Taam can likewise describe how his low-key son transitions into the attack mode once he is on the mat. After his initial exposure at age four to jiu jitsu and judo as well as wrestling, Tyger determined his best chance of success lay within the 28-foot circle.
“Competing in kids events, I won a lot of matches. When I started to lose more around age twelve, I learned I had to work harder than my opponents.”
“Doing something hard in life makes it easier to handle,” states the top-ranked fighter who has also competed at the highest level in BJJ and the National Judo Championships, although wrestling remains his passion.
Brother Boltyn was a Hawaiian state champ and two-time finalist who now wrestles for coach Jason Welch at San Francisco State.
Bedrock Sports Hawaii’s No. 5 pound-for-pound wrestler after just one high school campaign, Tyger’s discipline and dedication led to an undefeated freshman season, followed by his domination of the Oahu Interscholastic League Championship.
One of six 132-pound island champs who earned the right to compete at the Hawaiian state championships, still unbeaten and unfazed Tyger vanquished four foes to earn his first high school state title.
Challenging himself to grapple at the national level, Tyger was one of 2,500 wrestlers from 40 states who traveled to Denver for the 23rd Rocky Mountain National Championships in June.
To prepare himself for mainland competition, he first spent a day training “in the middle of cow fields” with Coach Ben VomBaur at the renowned Bear Cave Club in northern Colorado. “Ben showed us major aloha,” recalls Andy.
Wrestling in three-minute situational matches and eight-minute live freestyle bouts, Tyger held his own against members of the club who were state champs. However, as dad intended and Tyger prefers, only afterward did he learn about their accomplishments. Then he believes that he can “bring my best to the best.”
On the first day of RMN’s crown-jewel event, in his most familiar style, the throwing Hawaiian flung his 18U 132-pound freestyle opponents to secure his first of two RMN unusual trophies, so large it had to be disassembled for the flight home across the ocean.
Previously, Tyger had competed at the RMN Freak Show and Rumble in Reno.
“I love RMN’s cool atmosphere: it makes me feel welcome,” he said. “Smoke and lights hype me up, so I am ready to go.”
Coach and dad Andy relates: “RMN has the best energy out of all the tournaments we attend. Their marketing is unparalleled; they offer such different types of events and the best of venues.
“Kids feel like they want to be part of it all,” continues Andy, “especially when the finals are featured on an elevated stage. With all who come here, it was unbelievable to see Tyger progress to the finals.”
In the finals, Tyger faced tough Jason Ramirez of Arizona. “Traveling to a different time zone, across the ocean, you have work extra hard to come out on top in enemy territory,” Tyger declares. “Like life, if you stop working, everything goes south.”
Still, dad was confident, having watched Tyger pull out many close matches, including an early-round takedown win in overtime. “Tyger likes to shoot single-legs and the high crotch to get the clinch on his opponents.”
“In the finals, Ramirez caught me with a cut through,” retells the Islander. “Using technique to counter his attack, we went back and forth scoring takedowns and escapes.
“I work on getting the feel of their body and to see how they respond to pressure. Finally, I countered his shot in a way that also earned me back points. Back in Hawaii, I didn’t have exciting matches like this!” exclaims Taam.
“Wrestling really builds mental health,” proclaims the two-time RMN national champ. “Doing something hard prepares you for life and makes it easier to handle. It has helped me achieve a 3.8 GPA.”
“Wrestling is the best sport for transitioning into real life,” echoes Andy. “It teaches you respect, humility, goal setting, and the experience of traveling on your own.”
“In Hawaiian culture, we show each other the Aloha spirit! We welcome you warmly into our open hearts,” details Andy. “We show the ultimate respect to Islanders and visitors alike.
“Hawaiians are a unique melting pot from every race, language, culture, and cuisine. Even in difficult times, they are people who really love and care about each other.”
A team leader as a ninth grader, Honolulu’s Moanalua High wrestlers look up to Tyger, including six male and female 2022 state high school champions.
“Looking back, I think of all the coaches, family, and teammates have been really good to me.
“Club coach Kamuela Woode has been there throughout my career, helping me improve every time I am on the mat. My high school coach, Lucas Misaki, helped me be prepared for the post-season.”
Named for Africa’s legendary silverback gorilla, known to have the strength of 20 humans, Taam’s home club, the Goldenbacks, derives its name from this 400-pound beast and the gold of champions.
The island now has a new beast of the beasts with the name of a legend, one who springs upon his prey with leonine canniness.
Already a seasoned competitor, Tyger Taam is constantly training, never relinquishing the journey, not content with island dominance but seeking to establish his mainland destiny.