Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

At EFC 66, a watershed event which brought SA’s first mixed martial arts (MMA) reality show to a close, Algerian bantamweight mixed martial artist Rizlen "The Lioness of Atlas" Zouak had her SA opponent Jacqualine "Demolition Jacqui" Trosee seeing stars — 27 seconds into the first round of their bout. Zouak’s roundhouse kick to Trosee’s head was a coup de grace, a culmination of years of training, discipline and dedication.

Similarly, Extreme Fighting Championship Africa’s (EFC Africa) rise to prominence as the biggest MMA promoter on the continent and a contender in the global MMA promotion arena, has demanded qualities that every successful fighter needs to come out tops.

Brothers Cairo and Silas Howarth staged their first mixed martial arts bout, EFC 01, in 2009 after they had witnessed the sport’s global rise in popularity over a number of years. They have a longstanding affinity for martial arts. The slight, 1.85m Cairo and his brothers Silas and Calvin had taken up karate and judo when they were youngsters, with Cairo going on to compete as an amateur fighter in muay thai — a stand-up Thai combat sport known as "the art of eight limbs".

The resources and experience available to Cairo and Silas, later joined by youngest sibling Calvin, at the moment of EFC’s creation have been instrumental in their success. Previously, Silas had been director of Sexpo SA after acquiring licensing rights for the international trade show. Cairo had headed Fine Point Productions, a marketing agency and TV production company specialising in commercials and long-form infomercials.

"We’re in a great position and we’re very fortunate that we have a TV company and an events company and a marketing company. We were at the right place with the explosion of mixed martial arts," says Cairo. "We thought, let’s give this a push. This opportunity doesn’t come around twice."

It’s not what school you went to, that has nothing to do with it. These guys and girls come from all walks of life

When EFC Africa was a hatchling, Fine Point Productions staff divided their time between working on the core business and on EFC Africa content. Regardless of available resources, however, the promotion lost money for the first several years of its existence before breaking even and becoming profitable.

What has helped to reach this point is diversifying their revenue streams.

EFC Africa has bulked up into a multifaceted platform with a number of revenue streams for the business itself, the 160-plus fighters currently signed to the organisation, the gyms where the fighters train and other businesses for whom EFC Africa is a direct client.

The events aspect is where EFC Africa plans and promotes MMA fighting events or "fight nights" organised into high-profile main card bouts and bubbling-under preliminary bouts by the weight category in which each fighter competes.

Selling dreams

EFC Africa presents an opportunity to rise in the ranks of the sport. For Cairo, MMA — as a relatively new sport in SA — has the advantage of comparatively fluid structures and boundless possibilities for athletes. He believes "anyone can get to the top" in the sport.

"It’s not about your background," he says. "It’s not what school you went to, that has nothing to do with it. These guys and girls come from all walks of life. A guy like Themba ‘The Answer’ Gorimbo slipped over the border from Zimbabwe, was working in the diamond mines there and came over here, was living on the streets here in Johannesburg, working as a gardener and got into mixed martial arts and fighting.

"And I’ll never forget the day he got his first car after fighting, he sent me a photo, he said ‘Thank you so much, thank you for the platform.’ So coming from having nothing, you can work and fight your way up relatively quickly if you have the talent and you have the determination."

To offset the expensive and unpredictable revenue streams that come with a professional MMA career (in SA at least), FFM squadmates Demarte "The Wolf" Pena and Gorimbo have teamed up in a business venture — their recently launched gym, Ultimate MMA Fitness (UMF) is in a shopping centre in Kyalami.

Brothers Warren and Ryan Bishop are exploiting a similar gap in the local fitness sector. They had co-owned a gym prior to being approached by EFC Africa to help establish a franchise gym that would borrow from the fitness regimens of MMA athletes but did not see the exercise’s endpoint being competition in the octagonal cage used for fighting. The resultant business is EFC Gym Sandton, a partnership between EFC Africa and the Bishop brothers.

EFC 66 took place at the tail-end of 2017 and the fight card featured a bout that was the finale of EFC Africa’s latest content pursuit. The Fighter, a 10-part reality series akin to the American fight promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) The Ultimate Fighter, was screened by the SABC locally and by Kwesé elsewhere on the African continent.

Sixteen undefeated middleweight MMA athletes from SA, elsewhere on the continent and the world slugged it out for the prize of R500,000 plus an EFC contract and a shot at EFC middleweight champion Dricus du Plessis’ title. The two teams of eight were coached by acrimonious rivals Pena and Irshaad Sayed, who had their own rematch for the EFC bantamweight belt after Pena was caught up in a doping scandal earlier in 2017.