Phumi ‘Phumelele Lwazi’ Nkuta (25) is South African mixed martial art (MMA) pro champ based in the United States (US), who is intent on being the best martial artist of all time.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Mixed martial art is an alternative sport that is still widely misunderstood and under-appreciated in the African continent. As a result, few black martial artists hail from the African diaspora. But the world is changing, and black martial artists are starting to dominate the sport. Phumi Nkuta is one of those African martial artists, who is climbing the ranks in the sport.
Born to a South African mother in the United States, Phumi grew up in New Jersey, and at the age of 12, while channel surfing, he discovered the sport and from there on, he has been working hard to become a successful martial arts pro.
“I was flipping through TV channels, and I saw former professional wrestler and mixed martial artist, Ken Shamrock, doing martial arts, and that caught my eye,” he tells Blacklight during a Zoom interview.
”I had seen boxing, kickboxing, and Taekwondo competitions, but this was different than everything I had witnessed before. When most people see two people brawling in a ring; at that age, I was able to pick apart the different techniques within the game. The sport is beautiful art. The ability of the artists to seamlessly move from one move to another is like poetry in motion.”
Phumi is a two-time amateur champ (2018). His part of the Serra-Longo Fight Team in New York. However, convincing his mother that he was to pursue the sport full-time was a difficult conversation. As a mother; pursuing a university degree seemed more of a sensible choice.
“Like any South African (black) mother, she was not exposed to the sports. In South Africa, martial arts was (and still is) something you rarely saw on television. She had no references when it came to the sport, and that is why representation is so important,” he explains.
“It’s important for black kids to see other black people in all fields, not just doing it, but also very successful at it. In martial arts, we have people like Israel Adesanya and Kamara Usman from Nigeria, and Francis Ngannou, Cameroon, that African kids can look to, for inspiration. I am excited that everything is opening up, especially in sports, because there is so much talent in Africa.
“Many black kids have that ‘I can’t do it’ mindset, but we can do it! I am that kid who went and did it. I cannot say the journey was easy. I faced a lot of struggles, but you have to keep your head up. One thing that got me through those times was the understanding that no matter what happens, in the end, I will make it.”
For some of us who have little or no understanding of the sport, martial arts is a full-contact combat cage fighting that involves striking, grappling and ground fighting. The sport incorporates various sports and techniques, like kickboxing, Muay Thai, karate, Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, judo, to name a few.
“There are little intricacies and details about the sport that are overlooked,” shares Phumi. “Martial arts is more than just fighting, especially if one pays attention to the nuances. It’s the little pieces within the game that are quite captivating.
“It’s about pushing the human body to unleash the best of its capabilities. In my opinion: it’s the ultimate athletic competition because it’s mano a mano. It’s not just your physical ability that gets you the win; it’s also your mental strength.”
As much as the sport is growing, it still yet to become an Olympic sport. Sports experts predict that the sport might be part of the games by 2024, but that remains a dream.
The sport is also fighting to be recognised worldwide, as is still viewed as an underground activity. Phumi shares that the lack of recognition makes it relatively difficult for many to penetrate the industry.
“It’s difficult to get into the industry, but it’s not impossible! In Africa, the doors are slowly opening up, but it’s going to be a process. Even for other countries that are embracing martial arts as a professional sport; there is a process that they still need to go through. But I strongly believe that Africans can truly be the people who take over this sport.”
Winning his first two titles in 2018 was a needed validation to the athlete, that he is on the right path. Although his still at an amateur level and slowly climbing the pro ladder, he is already displaying great talent and sportsmanship.
He says about winning his first titles: “From being a kid and seeing other players winning titles and holding the belt; to winning your title and holding the shiny belt – it’s priceless,” he says with a glimmer on his face. “But I have learned that it’s not just about winning, it’s about who you are winning from. Winning alongside my team or the people who are in my corner is also an exhilarating feeling. So the win is a collective achievement.”
Phumi is now preparing for a fight against Alberto Trujillo for the CFFC (Cage Fury Fighting Championships) Flyweight Championship, to take place on 11 March. This will be his first match since the sport was suspended due to the covid-19 global pandemic.
Even though Phumi was born and raised in America and part of a US team; he still takes pride in his South African roots. His mother hails from East London, Eastern Cape, making him a Xhosa man. He visits home from time to time but is based in New York.
The athlete often adorns the South African flag when he steps into the sporting arena, before his game, in celebration of his roots. However, with his unmistakable American accent, people are often left baffled by his identity. And he has struggled to fit in America and here at home.
“I am a South African who grew up in America, and I can tell you that societal discrimination can come from all sides,” he adds. “With white people, you are a problem because of the colour of your skin. And African Americans and other American ethnic groups can poke fun at you because you are from Africa. You can go through a process of feeling displaced.
“My mother and my entire family played a big role in helping me to be who I am today. They do a great job of instilling good qualities in me. They have made it a point to ensure that I am never afraid to be myself. I can’t say that I have always followed that, especially as a kid. But I am finally at a place in my life, where I know what it means to be true to yourself.
“The blood that pumps through my heart is South African blood. I don’t care what anyone says or believes; I am South African. People can debate about who I am all they want, but in my heart, I know exactly who I am – and that’s what matters.”
Phumi says the sport has taught him discipline, perseverance, persistence, and the importance of hard work. “Before I step into the ring, I remind myself, ‘you’ve done all you can to prepare for this moment, it’s time to leave it to God; do your best and have fun.’
“Life is all about doing your best and also about letting it go so that whatever is meant to happen happens – whether it’s a win or lose.
To the young black kids who see him as a beacon of hope and as black representation in the sport, Phumi advises them to follow the right steps when pursuing MMA. “Some kids look stuff up on YouTube and try them out with their friends, and that’s dangerous.
“Seek out a professional to train you. Try and find a professional and reputable gym for martial arts, where they have people teaching real martial arts technique. Even if it’s a gym that offers one of the techniques, like boxing, kickboxing or Ju-jitsu. But most importantly: Try not to take damage. You have to keep yourself and body as safe as possible.”
With his eyes set on global domination in the martial arts field, Phumi is walking the walk. He says his goal is to get to a point where he viewed as a GOAT (Greatest of all Time).
“Legendary athletes like Muhammed Ali, Tom Brady and Serena Williams, are just like you and me, but they put in the work. Nothing stops the average human being from being like them – it’s all about work hard and commitment. And I hope one day I can be looked at the same way people look at them.”