From street­fighter to ris­ing star

• Diepsloot young­ster may be on the verge of world ca­reer in mar­tial arts

Business Day - - LIFE - Les­ley Stones

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.”

/Su­plied /Sup­plied

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.

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