Africa: Themba Gorimbo Aims to Be Africa's UFC Answer

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The Zimbabwean mixed martial arts fighter wants to be the first Ultimate Fighting Championship champion from Africa. It's a tough challenge, but he's beaten bigger odds to get to where he is today.

Themba "The Answer" Gorimbo doesn't want you to feel sorry for him. He works hard. He wins. He's the current Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) welterweight champion and is on the verge of taking the next step up to the greatest mixed martial arts (MMA) stage, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

As a result, he's hesitant to talk about exactly where he's come from and what he's endured. He'd rather not explain what it was like losing his mother when he was nine, his father when he was 13 and being forced to scrape together some kind of living through illegal diamond panning in Zimbabwe.

He'd also rather not discuss how he nearly died several times, how he crossed the border into South Africa at the age of 17 and had to sleep on the streets of Johannesburg before making contact with his family in Cape Town.

"It's something that I don't really enjoy talking about because I'm at a point in my life where I don't like people feeling sorry for me. It is life, it happened and it's something that I can't control," Gorimbo explained from the Ultimate MMA Fitness gym in Kyalami, which he co-owns with Angolan fighter Demarte "The Wolf" Pena.

"It was very tough growing up. I can't blame anybody for that because it's something that you cannot control. It built me to be who I am today and what I will be in the future," he said. "I can't cry about it because I don't have that victim mentality. I used to. That everybody must feel sorry for me just because. But no, the world doesn't revolve around you. It is a different mindset. You need to be at the top in any game and it doesn't include being a victim. I have to focus on what's in the future. It is tough, but you are built to be tough whether you like it or not, and I'm appreciative of that."

One story the 28-year-old fighter will share, though, is his heart-wrenching reason for giving up football. Gorimbo was a promising goalkeeper in primary school.

"When I got to high school, my friends told the teachers, 'This guy is a good goalkeeper, you must pick him.' But then I never attended any soccer practices," he explained. "I was too embarrassed to attend because my pants were torn. That's the year my father died, so there was no money. My pants were torn to pieces.

"If you're a goalkeeper, it means you're going to stand facing the inside of the field and all the spectators are right behind you, so I decided not to play soccer. Sometimes you went to school without underwear because you couldn't afford it, so it was embarrassing. I'd only tuck in the front of my shirt, but that's the reason I stopped playing."

Beautiful game to bloody sport

Football's loss was MMA's gain. Gorimbo discovered the sport while living with family in Cape Town, where he worked as a gardener, painter, security guard and anything else that meant he could pay the bills.

"I found this sport through a movie called Never Back Down. I always loved fighting and I thought, I can actually do that. I didn't know before that it was a sport.

"After I watched it, I looked for a gym. Funnily enough, I was on the back of a bakkie for the landscaping company I worked for and I saw a poster at the robots [traffic lights] that said there was a fight night and there was a gym."

Gym fees were hard to come by but, as always, Gorimbo made a plan. He showed great promise from the start.

"I didn't know it was something that I was going to become good at. Only after training a few times, the coach told me, 'Hey, you're good. I'm going to get you a fight in three months.'

"My first MMA fight ever, I won in seven seconds. I fought a guy who was 7kg heavier than me. I can't remember much about that fight because it was so quick. I had learned this move in the week of the fight - to catch the leg and throw an overhand right - from one of the guys I used to train with. I did that and he dropped. The fight was done."

A move to Johannesburg to further his career brought with it some horrible luck. After just a week, Gorimbo had dislocated his shoulder and needed surgery. He was living under the cage at the gym at that stage, hardly ideal for recovering from an open cut on his shoulder. So, he headed back to Cape Town to recuperate.

True to form, the young fighter was determined to overcome yet another setback as best he could, even if it meant eking out a living with just one good arm.

"My cousin in Cape Town helped me pay the rent and I used to work as well with my one arm. I called my previous boss and worked cleaning gutters at the restaurants. He was paying me half, but that was okay because I could buy food at least."

Finally recovered and back in Joburg a few months later, a return to the cage came with much trepidation.

"At first you doubt yourself because you don't know how the arm is going to work, if it's ever going to be the same again. It took me a long time to come back. I could do everything else but I couldn't wrestle properly, and I usually wrestle a lot in my fights. And I do jujitsu a lot, and that requires my arms working. But I worked extremely hard.

"I made sure that where I lacked with my hands, I compensated with my legs. I eventually made a comeback and I won that fight, but had to have another surgery straight after because I broke my nose in training."

Eyeing the UFC

Since then, Gorimbo has notched up an impressive EFC record of nine wins and two losses, although he'll tell you he only believes one of those was an actual loss. The other was when he was desperately ill with a gastro bug and shouldn't have been fighting at all. "I was young, stupid and naïve, and I paid for it with a loss," he admitted.

A first-round victory over Luke "Young Gun" Michael in 2019 saw Gorimbo acquiring the EFC welterweight title. In February, he successfully defended that title with a second-round submission of Lyle "Krusher" Karam. Now it's time to part ways with the South African-based EFC. Not because he disagrees with how things are being done locally - which he does - but because he has a bigger fish to fry.

He's eyeing the United States-based UFC and has no doubt he'll succeed in his new mission.

"I see myself becoming a world champion in the UFC. End of 2021 or early 2022. I have to be contracted by them, we're working on it and it's going to happen," said Gorimbo, who has recently signed with a US-based management company.

"Mixed martial arts is already big here in Africa. It could be bigger. For the sport to grow here in Africa, it needs an African who lives and trains here in Africa to go all the way and become a UFC champion. There's room for that and there's an opportunity to make history, so why not go for it?

"Nobody has ever done it and I'm going to become the first one. I'll work extremely hard to make it happen and by doing that I will inspire people. One thing I'll tell you, I'll never go and train overseas. Not for ego or anything but for my people. It's a promise I made to myself that I want to be that guy. I want to make sure that this history is written properly."

In achieving that, Gorimbo wants to be an inspiration to others because of his incredible work ethic and fighting spirit, not the hardships he's faced along the way. Interestingly, the man he's looked up to for many years is one whose story is miles away from his own, Kobe Bryant.

Like many, he was devastated by the former US National Basketball Association star's death in January and still finds it tough to speak about. He was attracted to Bryant's story because it was different from that of most of his NBA teammates in that he didn't rise from the ghetto. He was not motivated by overcoming the odds, but rather by an inner drive and incredible work ethic. That's something to which the Zimbabwean can relate. It's all about Mamba Mentality.

Bryant, who was nicknamed Black Mamba, explained the term to the Amazon Book Review: "Mamba Mentality is all about focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most. It's the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit. It started just as a hashtag that came to me one day, and it's grown into something athletes - and even non-athletes - embrace as a mindset ... It's simple, if you have a goal or a dream, you need to apply the Mamba Mentality to achieve it. Everything worth achieving needs total focus and dedication."

The words Mamba Mentality are emblazoned on the back of Gorimbo's shorts when he fights. He's embraced the concept fully.

"If you follow how Kobe lived and want to live the same way, it is very hard. You're going to have relationships broken, have people not liking you, you'll have people seeing you differently as crazy or weird if you want to live the Mamba Mentality. It's not something you can play around with if you want to live it. It's a lot of work. I don't think I'm even halfway there but I will get it done for Kobe, and I will live it for the rest of my career and probably the rest of my life. It's a scary lifestyle to live and you have to be all in it. Nothing else."

Answering his critics

So focused is he on living the lifestyle that Gorimbo is tempted to change his own nickname to Mamba. It's currently The Answer, a moniker that reveals plenty about his remarkable story.

"From the day I started MMA, people used to doubt me a lot and I always seemed to have an answer to all the doubters. So my friend and I came up with it and it's stuck with me. I'm still The Answer.

"They never thought I would go this far. Many people, except myself, thought that. But I've done it and that's the answer to those doubters. Hopefully they can take inspiration from this and change their perceptions about people."

Asked whether his past is at least part of what makes him so lethal in the cage, Gorimbo was clear. "It is part of it, but I am self-driven. I'm internally driven by my goals that I want to achieve and the history that I want to make.

"Also, what's the purpose of life if it's just living and getting by? Being in the sport just for people to say, 'There's a guy who fights MMA from Zimbabwe'? No, I want to be the guy that went all the way, so that's why I'm focused and driven. That's why I work so hard. Hard work comes naturally to me, so it's fine. I enjoy what I'm doing. The day I'm not enjoying it is the day I'll stop fighting. But for now, you're going to see me in your faces, winning fights all the way."

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