UFC fighter Themba Gorimbo: ‘I saw people die in front of me at a very young age’

Themba Gorimbo of Zimbabwe is crowned the winner after his fight against Japan's Takashi Sato. Photograph: Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

London – The Zimbabwean had $7 left before he won a career-changing fight and film star Dwayne Johnson took him under his wing

“My life is a movie, directed by God,” Themba Gorimbo says while his lunch grows cold on a winter’s day in Harare.

Gorimbo is back home in Zimbabwe, taking stock of the twists and turns of his dramatic past which meant he had just $7.49 (£5.88) left in his bank account before he won a life-changing second fight in the UFC as a mixed martial artist.

After his victory in Las Vegas in May, Gorimbo mentioned his perilous financial situation at the press conference and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became involved.

The controversial commercial relationship between Johnson and the UFC needs to be addressed but, for now, the feelgood narrative depicts him being swept away by Gorimbo’s plight.

Johnson’s production company is called Seven Bucks as he, too, was down to his last $7 when he set out on a career as a wrestler who eventually reinvented himself as one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

Gorimbo became an internet sensation after Johnson posted a video in which he surprised the Zimbabwean in an MMA gym. Johnson has since bought a house for Gorimbo in Miami, but the more I talk to the 32-year-old fighter the more interesting his backstory becomes.

“I’m just the main character in this life story of Themba,” Gorimbo says.

“Everything that happened to me, the good and bad, led me here.”

We talk on Zoom and Gorimbo sits in a small cafe.

His lunch remains untouched, despite my urging him to eat while we chat, because Gorimbo has so much to share.

He also wants to use his new-found fame in a way that, eventually, he can “do the kind of work Sadio Mané did in helping his people [in Senegal]. I want to do the same for Zimbabwe.” Gorimbo has already started to change life in his village but, first, it is important to understand his past.

“Life for me started out very good,” he says. “My father was working at the hospital as the breadwinner for the entire family. But my mother died when I was nine and my father died when I was 13. Life went south from there and we had to move to the rural areas. It was very tough but it made me who I am. I appreciate everything that has happened because if there was not that bad I probably wouldn’t have the good that is coming now and in the future.”

At 16, he left school to dig for illicit diamonds. “I was very lucky in the Marange diamond fields because you are chased by dogs and horses, by the police and the army. I’ve seen people die in front of me at a very young age. I almost got killed by the German shepherds and I’ve got scars all over my body.”

Hollywood superstar Dwayne Johnson recently bought Themba Gorimbo a house in Miami, USA

“I almost got killed but that day was pivotal for me. After one week some of the wounds were not healed but I thought: ‘I don’t have money, I need to go back to the diamond fields and dig again.’ So I went and found the biggest diamond I’ve ever got. It was 12 carats and that’s why I call myself the Cinderella Man. Give me a second chance and I will run away with it. Like this year, I lost my first ever UFC fight [against AJ Fletcher in February]. But in the second fight [beating Takashi Sato in May when down to his last seven bucks], I ran away with it.”

Did he fear for his life when he returned to the diamond fields after being savaged by dogs? “I was not scared,” he insists. “You get to a point where every horrible thing is happening to you and there’s nothing else it can do but drive you forward.”

Soon after his diamond haul, and having just turned 17, he left for South Africa. He spent his first week in jail as a refugee but he had enough money to bribe his way out. Having initially decided to return home he changed his mind. It was second time lucky, again, and he made it to Johannesburg. Gorimbo was often homeless and he made a pitiful living handing out leaflets at traffic lights. He eventually managed to get to Cape Town where, while working as a labourer, he saw a movie called Never Back Down. It was about a mixed martial artist and it inspired him.

“I didn’t know fighting was a sport until I watched that movie,” he says with a grin. “I thought fighting was just violent. I was working as a gardener when I saw a poster for a gym and three months later I won my first fight with a knockout after seven seconds. But, really, my amateur record was terrible. Eight wins, seven losses, because I was also working full-time as a gardener and security guard. I didn’t have much time to train but I learned a lot from the losses.’”

Gorimbo started fighting professionally 10 years ago and it was a long slog through South Africa’s EFC (Extreme Fighting Championship) before he eventually landed some fights with UAE Warriors in Abu Dhabi.

This was his bridge to the promised land of the UFC which dominates professional MMA.

But Gorimbo lost a fight in Abu Dhabi when he dislocated his shoulder and, while he won his next bout, he was uncertain that he would be invited to join the UFC’s Contender series.

But the organisation saw something in him and a stunned Gorimbo was offered his first UFC contract a year ago.

His UFC debut ended in bitter disappointment when he was forced to submit in the second round against Fletcher.

He admits that he cried that night because “it was very painful. But I’m very grateful for that loss because I realised my mind was crowded.”

Gorimbo began training in Miami where, without enough money to stay anywhere else, he slept on a couch in the gym. One of his training partners, Colby Covington, an ardent Trump supporter who revels in his role as a villain in the UFC, showed unexpected kindness – even buying Gorimbo food on occasions.

“Colby does not need to train with me,” Gorimbo says of the vastly experienced Covington.

“I’m the guy from Zimbabwe. I don’t have anything to offer him except my character. For him to do all this for me touches my heart. Colby’s a very nice guy but [playing the villain] is good business. If he showed the true Colby to everyone the whole world would love him.”

All the odds were still against him when he arrived in Vegas to fight Sato.

“I was very sick in that fight and people don’t know this. I had flu but I went in there because I had two options. I pull out, don’t get paid and fly home to look my kids in the face and say: ‘I don’t have anything to show for what I have been doing in America the past seven weeks.’ My only real option is to fight. On the day of the fight I woke up with $87 left in my bank account. I was so sick with flu I ordered online medicine for $80 and was left with $7.49.”

Gorimbo knew that defeat would be catastrophic.

“The Contender series was about to start and that meant new fighters would come into the UFC and they would get rid of the ones that are not bringing anything to the table. With me being from Africa my back was against the wall. So I took a risk. Honestly, I was stupid to fight with flu. I’m over 30 so if I lost there’s no return to the UFC.”

Themba Gorimbo now wants to improve the lives of the people who live in his village. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Guardian

Later that night he posted a screenshot of his bank account because “I reconfirmed what I said at the press conference. Then my post was picked up by ESPN and I was like: ‘Wow!’”

The Rock tweeted his support and, last month, he shocked Gorimbo by turning up unexpectedly. “I was so happy,” he says. “I didn’t know he had [bought] the house for me. I didn’t know anything. I just remembered that, growing up, I would walk 10km to watch WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]. And to have a WWE superstar that you grew up watching suddenly in front of you, you just cry.

“I was very raw and so I needed to tell [Johnson] that I’m going to become a champion. I have to keep this promise. God blessed me with the gift of a house and the gift of fighting. I truly believe I’m destined to become the UFC champion. But God will do his work like he has already done in my life.”

Beyond divine intervention there is a clear commercial strategy at work. Last August, the UFC announced a long partnership with Project Rock, set up by Johnson and Under Armour.

As the Guardian revealed, all UFC fighters and their trainers were obliged to wear Project Rock footwear during fight-week events as well as during their walk to the octagon without receiving any of the proceeds themselves. Before his final fight for the UFC last September, Nate Diaz lifted up his Project Rock shoes and railed at the camera during an ESPN interview: “They made me put this shit on. Fuck these shoes.”

However Gorimbo, a novice in the UFC, is understandably overwhelmed by the fact that Johnson bought him a house: “My wife cried because she knows what we have been through. She told me that my daughter said: ‘God is blessing us because we have suffered so much.’ She is six years old.”

It is hard not to be moved by Gorimbo, who returned to visit his childhood village, Muvuti, in south-eastern Zimbabwe last week. “I am now in a situation where I cannot just change my own life,” he says. “I need to change the life of my entire village. We’re installing boreholes. That will be three for now. My village will never be the same. It’s very nice now. When I become UFC champion I will put electricity in Muvuti and I’ll be a happy man.”

He smiles and then, leaning forward, he talks even more urgently. “I won’t forget those days when I had $7 in my account. I won’t forget my daughter asking for pizza and my wife couldn’t buy any because we didn’t have money to spare. I won’t forget the eviction notice from the landlord after I lost and I won’t forget the words people said – that I’m not good enough. I take every type of situation and every energy, good or bad, to keep driving. I’m on my path and, no matter what comes in my life, I will remain Themba for ever.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here