Mike is having a bad night. He’s staring into the hexagon, incredulous, arms wide and eyebrows raised as his fighter stares back at him. Moments ago everything was perfect. Don Madge was fighting with the grace of a god. Dominant and impenetrable, blood slicked across his chest and hands, a devil’s grin on his untouched face as he slowly tore his opponent, Leon Mynhardt, apart. Three rounds in, Leon landed with a powerful overhand right, tearing through Don’s near-perfect guard, rocking him back. Don stopped, confused, his gloved hand coming up to his mouth. He turned to the ref, mouthing something, probing his finger in his mouth, something, and then Leon rocked him again. The crowd fell silent, eyes glued to the huge screens hung around the arena.
“Stop!” yells Don, pissed off, holding his hand out to Mynhardt, motioning to the ref. Leon hovers, caught in a weird loophole. Step forward and finish the job, or wait? No-one seems to know. The ref consults with an official through the wire mesh. Don pulls a broken mouth-guard off his teeth, again slipping a bloody finger inside, probing. Then it’s over, the ref’s latex gloves scissoring from side to side, it’s over, Leon’s won. The arena erupts. Boos echoing throughout, angry shouts. Mike stares at Don, Don at Mike.
“Fuck!” shouts Don, mouthing off at the camera beaming live to two million people. Leon’s got his hands in the air, his face a mess. “Victory to Mynhardt by verbal submission, 3:23 into the third.”
Later, the truth comes out. Leon’s brutal right rocked Don so hard he bit straight through his mouth-guard and his tooth before swallowing a chip of it. The rules state defective equipment is grounds for a time-out, a re-set, the putting in of a new mouth-guard, in this case the banishing of the thought of a tooth chip swimming in the gut – but not tonight. The decision’s been made, the result stands. This is Mixed Martial Arts. One wrong move and it’s over. One lapse, one lucky break, and it’s over. The result stands. Mike’s not happy. At the start of the night he was expecting four wins, nothing less; now he’s reeling.
He’s got one fight left, one chance to make good.
Two months earlier I met Mike Mouneimne at his gym in Gardens, Cape Town. It’s from here that African Top Team, his fight team, operates, training among the amateurs that make use of the gym too. Mike was upbeat, but tired, coming straight from a full day owning and managing a restaurant in the city.
“The EFC is a huge opportunity for us,” he said, keeping one eye on his 18-month-old son Hamza, while fighters began arriving for the evening’s training session.
“At the moment all of my guys have full-time jobs. We train two or three sessions a day, six days a week. To do that while working is… guys get tired.”
Jadyson Costa, Don Madge, James le Roux and Abrie Valentine are among the big, tattooed and muscle-bound men milling around. They’re the elite of the gym, team members fighting at the coming EFC Africa 13. Don is currently the No 2-ranked Muay Thai fighter in his division in the world, and No 5 in the EFC. James has had one pro fight, Abrie is still to make his debut, while Jadyson is something like MMA royalty. He’s trained with the best in the world, a veteran of 24 professional fights, and is African Top Team’s biggest drawcard for the coming event. He’ll be challenging for the welterweight title.
Mike’s about five foot eleven, a businessman and manager, neat and unfailingly polite. At the age of 35 he holds a third degree black belt in Goju Ryu Karate, as well as advanced levels in Kung Fu, Aikido, Submission Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. He’s currently retired from fighting, but the story goes that in his last fight, around five years ago, he was challenged by a younger athlete. Mike suggested they sort it out in the cage, and broke the man’s jaw in three places. He and his brother started African Top Team in 2000, inspired by the passion of the guys training at their gym. They put on various shows, trained hard and had a good time – but nothing really stuck until the advent of EFC Africa in November 2009.
“EFC Africa changed everything,” says Mike. “Suddenly we had the chance to be a part of something big, something as real as what’s happening overseas. All my guys are young superstars in the making. Now they have the opportunity to prove themselves.”
Mixed Martial Arts is a sport that is only 20 years old. Although versions of it have been practised throughout history, and various no-holds-barred fight leagues have operated in the 21st century, it was really the broadcasting of the reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (in 2005) that sparked the current global phenomenon. Today MMA has a higher profile than boxing and professional wrestling. Its premier organisation, the UFC, contracts international fighters to take part in events all over the globe.
“For us,” says Cairo Howarth, president of EFC Africa, an African version of UFC that has only been in operation for three years, “it’s always been about TV. We’ve known from the start that to do it properly would never be sustainable with ticket sales alone. Six weeks ago we went out live on e.tv. That was a huge milestone.”
The live broadcast of EFC Africa 12 smashed nearly all sports viewership records. Beaming out to 49 African countries, interest reached its peak with 1.6-million viewers, numbers 70 times greater than for live boxing – even bigger than Tri-Nations rugby.
“We signed four sponsors in two weeks after that,” says Cairo. “It used to be that I’d spend my days cold-calling sponsors and getting told they don’t want anything to do with us; now we’ve got three offers from America for live broadcast – the UK and Asia as well. We’re going huge, and we should be.”
Cairo is talking from the weigh-in the day before EFC Africa 13. Close by, Graham Cartmell, the company’s matchmaker, is taking the fighters through a mundane but necessary pre-fight briefing. Around 50 men are seated there; 24 fighters and their trainers, from all over the continent.
“Don’t,” says Graham, “wait for the cameraman. Walk. The cameraman will match your pace, you don’t wait for him. We have to keep it moving. We’re going live at 10.30.”
For some of the fighters this is their EFC debut; for most, this is the biggest event they’ve ever been a part of. Mike and his boys are there, five heads among the rest.
“These guys are the pioneers,” says Cairo. “They’re like the 1995 Springbok team. They’re setting it up. In a year’s time this is going to be huge, our champions are going to be huge.”
I ask him what his goal is for the company. He doesn’t hesitate.
“We want to be the second biggest sport on the African continent, after soccer.”
Overhand right!” calls Mike, his voice piercing the cage. Abrie Valentine’s in the middle of his EFC debut. He hears, and obliges. Boom! The shot arcs up out of his shoulder to pound into his opponent’s cheek. It’s about 7:45pm, African Top Team’s first fight of the night, the fourth on the roster. Three wins have gone before, three losses. A time out is given for a stray shot to the groin. Abrie leans against the cage fence, chest heaving, bending as Mike talks in his ear.
“Relax. Relax, Abrie. Take your time.”
The crowd’s baying. They go again. Savage. Abrie crashing his man to the ground, then straddling him.
“Posture and pound!” yells Mike, “posture and pound!”
Abrie’s wild, giving everything in a rain of fists. But things change. Now he’s tied up, ensnared in a mess of limbs, and then it’s over. He taps out, the victim of an aim bar. Defeat is instant. Mike takes it on the chin, talking to his fighter as they make their way backstage, keeping him positive.
The Grandwest Arena is filling up. Interested Cape media are dotted around cage-side enjoying the spectacle, the fights, the luscious EFC girls with their day-glo tans. Most don’t know what this is and they’re wide-eyed, some giggly. A new promo video hits the screens in a blaze of sound. A new fighter being introduced.
“When you fight,” says James le Roux, taking time out in the VIP room, his hoodie pulled low over his eyes, “all you can hear is Mikey. You can hear him as clear as day.”
James is a taxidermist by trade, a farm boy from KwaZulu-Natal who grew up hunting and discovered MMA after he took a beating in a playground. He’s been with Mike for three years now. Tonight will be his second appearance in the EFC.
“In a way,” he says, “it’s almost fifty-fifty. Don’t get me wrong. I fight my own fight, but there comes a time where I don’t know what to do. Then I do what he says.
“Say you’re on the last round of the fight,” he continues, “and you’re on the ground. You can’t see out one eye. You can’t think. But Mikey’s there. He’ll say put your left leg on his bicep, move your knee to his hip, put your elbow on his neck, whatever, you just got to do it.
“His tone of voice tells you a lot,” he adds, suddenly grinning. “If he starts screaming then you know, you better get a move on, it’s a problem. But if he’s calm, then you’ve got to relax. Breathe.”
James is a likable guy. Gentle and soft-spoken, excited about his growing fight career, confident about the night. He talks about why he likes fighting, grinning again, eyes shining like a kid describing ice cream.
“When you’re in there,” he says, “everything is so clear. Everything is like, in high definition. With the adrenalin, your senses are sharp, your body’s clean. You’ve been on a really heavy diet, you’re as fit as you can be, mentally, everything, and it’s like, the sensation of being on the top of your game. It’s just you and him, and you got your fists and your heart and your head. You bang, and you see who comes out on top. You smell the blood, and you go mad.”
At around 8:30pm Eminem starts pumping through the arena, loud and hard enough to rattle the floor. James makes his way to the cage, bathed in white. He walks slow and steady, Mike a step behind, talking quietly in his ear. There’s nothing extra on his body as he strips down to fighting briefs, handing. Mike his shirt and shorts – all functional muscle. He enters the cage and waits. One year ago he lost in the cage to a TKO, his opponent beating his face until he could no longer defend himself, the referee diving between them to stop it. Tonight he’s got something to prove. Wade Henderson makes his entrance, a 22-fight veteran, a real test. The two eye each other, both calm, supremely fit, both at the top of their game. James loses, his inexperience showing when he goes too hard too fast, gifting Wade his elbow. Wade sinks an arm bar in deep, ending the fight at 1:19 into the first round. James is devastated. All that work, gone in an instant. Mike clenches his jaw before scrambling to the cage. Two down.
What is MMA? At the dawn of mankind, some time after the first man had to defend himself in unarmed combat, the martial arts began to develop. The objective was simple. How best to defend oneself. How best to survive. Different styles began formalise and develop. In the East the disciplines of Judo and Kung-Fu, Karate and Aikido, and in the West wrestling, savate kickboxing and boxing itself. Over time the martial arts changed. They became introverted, shifting focus from what is most effective to what is most beautiful or edifying. Different styles claimed incredible abilities with regard to actual combat; but realistically, they had moved far away. The 20th century brought globalisation. Radio, air travel, TV and the Internet. Now, different styles became aware of each other in a way that had not been possible before. Practitioners began to wonder which style was most effective, who was best, and they began to test themselves. Underground videos circled the globe. Fighters studied them, and certain truths emerged. It seemed that if a fight was left to follow its most functional course it would usually end up on the ground, giving grapplers and submission artists an advantage. At the same time, it was observed that if a black belt ground fighter is hit hard enough, he drops down to brown belt, and if he’s hit again, suddenly he’s a purple. Martial artists wanted to know more. Mixed Martial Arts began to emerge, a new style of martial arts focused on what works, on how best to fight, on who is really the toughest. Today it’s a developing sport that is spreading like wildfire, igniting the passion and imagination of spectators and practitioners alike. [The lack of excitement in the heavyweight boxing division should also add fuel to the MMA fire -Ed.]
It’s around 11pm: Don has just lost. In front of his home crowd he dominated for three rounds, and then one slip-up, a decision to be debated until a must-see rematch, and no more. Mike’s reeling, and so are the guys. They disappear backstage, desperate to regroup.
Jess, Mike’s wife, is standing close by in the arena, her dad at her side. She’s worried, white knuckles clutching the bar in front of her, the crowd going crazy all around. Earlier in the night she’d said they were nervous, but confident. They were expecting a win from all four, their fighters were well prepared. Now she’s stunned.
“The thing is,” she says, “they really feel it. They’re like a family. Sometimes Mike gets a phone call at night, it’s one of the guys saying he’s had a fight with his girlfriend, wanting to talk it through. Or they just call to tell him about their day, you know? I don’t know how they’re handling it.”
Her dad, Max, is worried too.
“They work hard,” he says, “they put everything in. Wow. This is unfortunate.”
In the cage the heavyweight battle between Bernardo Mikixi and Calven Robinson comes to an end. A big, crunching match-up that doesn’t last long, Mikixi quickly proving himself the victor. It’s everything or nothing now, Jadyson Costa’s turn to challenge for the title. Mike’s last hope, and the biggest fight of the night. Jess squeezes the bar tighter as hard, Portuguese rap begins to blast.
Jadyson Costa glides into the arena, Mike behind him, re-composed. Always a joker, Jadyson’s showboating for the crowd. He relocated to Cape Town from Paranagua in Brazil, adopting this city as his own, the fans in turn adopting him. With all his experience he’s yet to become a champion, but tonight is his chance. On reaching the safety official he stops, taking a deep breath while raising his arms up in something like a yoga pose, sucking in calm and presence, the crowd cheering him on. He’s got an aura to him, radiating calm.
His opponent is Dallas Jakobi, himself a supreme specimen. With 15 wars behind him, Jakobi is the reigning champion. He’s earned his belt and you’ll have to pay for it with your life. It’s on. Spectators in 49 countries wait for Jadyson to twist him up with his ground game, to show what it means to be a 1st stripe Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. But it doesn’t happen. Instead he stays on his feet, controlled, sending precise punch combinations that hiss through Jakobi’s guard. A spinning back kick and Jakobi’s down. Jadyson hovers, refusing to follow, wanting to prove his stand-up game.
Jakobi’s cheek swells, and in the first break bursts in a gout of blood. The crowd gasps. He comes out for the second with his fists up, but Costa is unnerving. He’s still unmarked, his face a leering grin. Left hooks, over and over. Jakobi’s features change, deep swellings stretching the skin. His left eye closes, a weeping hole in the cheek, the other puffing out to double the size. He seems to shrink while Jadyson grows, but his heart pushes him forward, keeps his fists up. He’s showing courage, revealing something deep, his inner self on display as layers are stripped. Costa is a demon. He taunts Jakobi, incensed that he’s still standing, dancing to distract his blurred vision, then smashing another spiteful hammer into his eye.
“Die!” he seems to be screaming, “go down!”
“Jadyson, be cautious, be cautious.” Mike is controlled, but by the end of the third he knows they’ve got it. Jakobi comes out for the fourth, his face broken, his feet dragging but his fists up, always up. Jadyson steams in, impatient; with a right and left he sends Jakobi spiralling to the mat, spit and blood leaking in strings from his mouth. The latex gloves scissor for the 12th time tonight; it’s over. Mike’s arms are up, he’s jumping.
He enters the cage.
He lifts his boy high.
“Ja, it’s bitter-sweet,” says Mike the following day. “The three losses were hectic. For a moment there I was thinking we’re three-one down, it’s Friday the 13th, what is going on?” He laughs at himself. “But ja, we recovered. We’ve got a new champion. And my boys fought well. We’re looking forward.” Always forward.