SA township fighter winning at life by beating the odds and competing in MMA championships

Nkosi Ndebele. Picture: SUPPLIED
Nkosi Ndebele. Picture: SUPPLIED

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, they ask.

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 for the first time.

If Brave likes what it sees, Ndebele he will join its global champs, 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. The fight-focused entrepreneur 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 pre-training sessions and look for talent,” Van Schalkwyk says. “Nkosi is the poster boy for what something like this is able to 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 are under 85kg.”

Jason van Schalkwyk. Picture: SUPPLIED
Jason van Schalkwyk. Picture: SUPPLIED

Every fighter says that MMA has made them a better person, and he believes that too, Van Schalkwyk says. “My step-father 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 crap 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.

He won the chance to turn professional by impressing at Brave’s Amateur World Championships in Bahrain in 2017, 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,” Van Schalkwyk 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, which will be amazing. I won’t let this opportunity slip out of my hands,” he says.

Whatever the outcome, Ndebele plans to help other township youngsters by getting involved in Rise Above, an anti-bullying campaign with the tag-line "real fighters do it in the ring".

Van Schalkwyk developed 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 it at 13 schools.

The campaign will include a school bus turned into a mobile gym in which children can spar with athletes, 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.”