You’ve really got to love spontaneity: this past weekend it took me to the beach in Port Alfred, a mere 45 minute drive from where I live. I had a charming ocean stroll, then went for some lovely fish lunch on the Kowie river where we casually bumped into friends. And the featherweight EFC Africa champion, Demarte Pena. It really isn’t every day you get to hang out with the top MMA fighter in Africa, is it?
I met Demarte recently through his trip to Grahamstown to train up the Rhodes University MMA (mixed martial arts) club. We have a mutual friend, and I was fortunate enough to get to interview Pena for the student newspaper, Activate. Apart from being an incredible athlete, he is also a really nice guy, and I really enjoyed interviewing him, and had a jam partying with him in one of Grahamstown finest establishments that is Friar Tucks. On his last day of his visit, he and the rest of the MMA club went through to Port Alfred, where they had lunch and a casual game of beach soccer.
Here are some of the interesting things Pena had to say in our interview:
On his evening at Friars: “It was different. Normally just so restricted because of my training through the year, so hardly have time to really go out, so, it was good.”
Pena trains in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, with Richard Quan as his head coach. Because of the multiple disciplines involved in MMA, he also works with a number of other trainers. He has been a professional fighter for two years. “It’s been great. I started fighting when I was back in Pretoria, and I eventually moved to Jo’burg where I joined my current team.”
Pena started with Judo and Karate back in his home country of Angola, but didn’t fight as much when he came over to South Africa. “I lost a little bit of that love and passion for it for a while, but when I was in high school, I met a few other guys who were training as well. At that time when I started training again I was doing Muay Thai and a little bit of Kung Fu. We would mess around after school, train together. We learned about UFC.”
“I didn’t actually want to be a professional fighter. But one thing led to another: the opportunity came to fight for EFC Africa, the promotors here. They called my trainer and said there was a chance for me to fight. I was like ‘alright, let’s do it’.” Pena weighed in the 62-66kg category, and won his first fight, even though he hadn’t been training for the fight. After a second fight, Pena was granted the opportunity to fight for the title, where he beat the top contender in his division. “It’s been quite a speedy journey to the title. After I became champion, I decided to work on my training.”
At that time, Pena was studying towards a BComm in Entrepreneurship, at Tuks University, which he gave up and moved to Jo’burg, in order to pursue his his fighting career. When he moved to Johannesburg, he didn’t have a place to stay, so he stayed at the gym from Monday to Saturday, where he says he needed to stay and train.
He defended his title for the first time, and managed to “hustle” a place to stay. “The more you win, the more you get paid. You still get paid if you lose, but it’s half, so it’s a b****.”
“I became the third guy in history to defend his title for the third time, and recently, on the 19th of July, I fought and I defended my title. I am the only guy to defend his title for the fourth time in the history of African MMA.”
“It’s getting better as the sport grows. The fights are shown live in, I think, 111 countries worldwide.”
“For now I just want to establish myself more as an African fighter, but maybe in two more years time, hopefully, I can fight overseas. Just get more fights in. I train very hard and I put so much work in, in two more years I think I will be able to fight overseas and be more competitive there. So, just keep fighting and just keep pushing hard.”
“Guys normally retire around 35/36. You can open your own gym, or you can coach, but for me, right now, I do other things as well, like businesses as well. So I don’t need to rely on my fighting. I’m young still now, and I have a lot of time, so the cash you make from the sponsorships and the fights, you can do other things. So when I stop fighting I can live off the businesses and other things.”
On the things he enjoys most about being a fighter: “For me, the biggest thing is self-progress as a man and as an athlete,” said Pena. “It doesn’t just build you as a fighter, it builds your character; it makes you a stronger person. Not to be able to bully someone to enforce your own will, but self-confidence as well and the way you conduct yourself.”
“It’s not a sport for me, it’s something that I do, that I love and that I enjoy.”
“It is painful, but obviously you need to put in the hours. It’s rough but it’s not as bad as it looks. You want to make sure that you’re so well-conditioned that your body is ready to take that punishment.”
“We train Mondays to Saturdays, roughly four or five hours every day, and we train in many disciplines. So we train in the ground game, train in the kickboxing, training in wrestling, you’re doing lifting, general conditioning, sprints, jogging. So it’s so many things you’re training in together so you can compete at a high level of the sport. It’s not that just anybody can do it, this type of sport you have to really like what you’re doing. Because once you’re in there and you’re getting hit, it has to be something that you actually enjoy doing.”
“For me, I’d rather take the guy down and control the guy. It’s easier because you get hit less.” This comes from Pena’s past wrestling experience, but he makes sure that he’s not predictable as a fighter by utilising other fighting styles as well.
“Ever since I became champion I’ve tried to promote the sport a lot.” Pena coaches kids in Joburg as well. The sport is still relatively new in South Africa. Even at Rhodes it has only really starting to take off in the most recent years, however Rhodes is the only University with a club like this. “There’s still that stigma that it’s cage fighting, that it’s brutal, that it’s violent.”
He came to Grahamstown to promote the sport and share his knowledge and get a few more people excited about the sport here. “Who knows, in a few more years, or less, we can get a champion coming from here.”
Alex Awolaja, a member of the club described his experience. “The fact that the number one fighter in the EFC is here and willing to teach us is such a learning experience. I’ve trained alongside him in Jo’burg, but being coached by him is way better: I’ve learned a great deal more. Also going out and chilling with him is great.”
Pena worked with the Rhodes club over a training weekend over this long weekend past. “Just getting back to basics, showing them a lot more grappling and wrestling techniques. If you have a good base then everything you build on gets better. The guys are very motivated and they want to learn. I’m pushing them very hard. They’re not just giving up, they’re actually appreciating my time here. It’s exciting when you go somewhere and the people are passionate for the sport that you love as well as you are. It makes everything worth it. I don’t want to go to a place where the guys are slacking and you can see they don’t really want to do it. So I’m really impressed with the people who have been coming to the seminars.”
“The world is so unpredictable, and if I can play a little part for someone else, maybe they can mention me and they can say that I was one of the factors for them becoming champion or succeeded in the sport, then I’ll be happy.”
“For me, the biggest thing is to leave a legacy, just to be remembered you know, because we’re just passengers in this world: you don’t know when your last day is. This sport is so great because it gives me the opportunity to be an inspiration for someone else, not just specifically in Mixed Martial Arts, but anything in life. It’s a challenge to train that hard. You also get criticised a lot, obviously, when you’re fighting a guy, and his fans are swearing at you at times, and a lot of people don’t believe that you can accomplish something. So it’s not just a physical battle in itself, but very mental. It’s the challenge that I love.”
“The thing that I enjoy the most, is when someone has been underestimated and they overcome, that’s the thing that I live for in life. I was once watching a show, America’s Got Talent or something like that, and this one guy walks up on stage, and he was a chicken farmer. Like a rough-looking kind of guy, and as soon as he started talking with his funny accent, everyone started laughing and judging him like a trailer-trash kind of guy. So when the judges see him, already in their minds they were like, ‘This guy can’t sing, he can’t do anything.’ Obviously everybody would expect him to fail. And then when he started to sing, it was so brilliant that every single person that had doubted him before just stood up and applauded him for that. That’s the thing I live for: when people say you can’t do it, and you’re not good enough, and you’re this or that, and you overcome.
“When people underestimate you, that’s when you must do everything possible that to show them that you can.”