From streetfighter to rising star
• Diepsloot youngster may be on the verge of world career in martial arts
Children have a hard time believing Nkosi Ndebele when he tells them it isn ’ t cool to fight. How can a man who hits people all the time say fighting is wrong?
Ndebele learned to fight to protect himself from bullies in Diepsloot as a teenager, and is about to turn professional as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter. He will make his pro debut at Sun City in December with Brave — a Bahrain-based fighting platform whose matches are watched by more than 180-million viewers — when it brings its empire to SA.
If Brave likes what it sees, Ndebele will join its global champions, who slug their way around the world.
Ndebele, 23, is one of several youngsters identified as potential world champions by Jason van Schalkwyk, who screens Brave matches across Africa through his company Scuffle Media. He also runs the Search for a Scrap reality show and owns a stake in Fightstar, Africa’s biggest MMA promotion.
Many young South Africans have enormous potential, if only they could get off the streets, into gyms and onto the world stage — and Fightstar can help them achieve that.
“Fightstar has a development gym called Fighting Fit Africa where we do free pretraining sessions and look for talent,” Van Schalkwyk says. “Nkosi is the poster boy for what something like this can achieve.
“I have insanely high hopes for him. Most MMA fighters are underprivileged kids from tough backgrounds where they were bullied or abused and they don’t have anyone to help them out so they learn to fight. People think fighters are big guys, but most MMA fighters [weigh] under 85kg.”
Every fighter says that MMA has made them a better person, and he believes that too, Van Schalkwyk says. “My stepfather was a professional boxer and my dad was an amateur boxer so I came from a very rough background,” he explains.
“If you go through something bad it’s going to leave some aggression or scarring, and fighting has definitely given me a healthy outlet for all the c**p that’s sitting there. There’s nothing wrong with being a fighter as long as it’s done against other people who have the same outlook.”
Despite a lack of government or corporate sponsorship, SA ranks fourth in the world in amateur MMA leagues. Ndebele is Africa’s top amateur fighter, holding gold and silver medals from the African MMA championships.
Van Schalkwyk won the chance to turn professional by impressing at Brave’s Amateur World Championships in Bahrain in 2017 last year, after Van Schalkwyk and his sister paid for him to get there. “It’s about R30,000 for each athlete so it’s not crazy money, but for a guy from a township it’s so unachievable that it might as well be R10m,” he says.
Ndebele began to fight when his family moved to Diepsloot in 2008. “That triggered everything because Diepsloot is a rough location and the environment wasn’t very welcoming. It was tough going to school there, and when other guys fight you’re forced to fight back,” he says.
The bullies didn’t tangle with his friends who studied karate, so Ndebele joined the karate club. “I was good at it so that’s how I managed to survive.”
He led a small gang of his own, but instead of escalating fights he’d try to calm things down. “My gang would start a fight and expect me to go to war with them, but I realised that wasn’t me. I’m not the bad person they wanted as a leader.”
So far, Brave has only given him a one-fight contract, but a good performance at Brave Combat Week Africa in December could launch Ndebele internationally.
“Brave will see how the fans react because they want someone who is good for their shows. I believe I have everything they require so I’m super happy because if I pull this off they’ll give me a contract for a few fights ... I won’t let this opportunity slip out of my hands,” he says.
Ndebele plans to help other township youngsters by getting involved in Rise Above, an antibullying campaign with the tagline “real fighters do it in the ring”. Van Schalkwyk grew Rise Above in partnership with psychologists from Epworth Children’s Home in Germiston, and so far they have spent more than R300,000 on research and development. They now want to find a sponsor to launch the programme at 13 schools.
The campaign will include a school bus turned into a mobile gym in which children can spar with athletes, and also talks by athletes who were bullied, and comic books featuring them as superheroes.
When children ask Ndebele why he fights despite telling them not to, he has his answer ready: “I say it’s a different story because it’s not a street fight where someone might bring knives or guns. I’m a career fighter and there are rules. If you want to do that then come and train.”
Protecting himself: Nkosi Ndebele had to learn how to fight when his family moved to Diepsloot in 2008. He even led a small gang but soon realised he did not want to be bad enough to be its leader. Rough background: Jason Van Schalkwyk says mixed martial arts make people better persons.