Auckland- You might not have heard of UFC superstar Israel Adesanya’s training partner – but his name will certainly get your attention.
Mike Mathetha much prefers to go by his nickname Blood Diamond – to the point where he’s listed on the UFC’s official website as such.
He moved to the South Island of New Zealand from Zimbabwe when he was 13, back in 2003, and then moved to Auckland to study architecture at university.
“I didn’t enjoy it and I found myself being at the gym more than being in class,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“I was 21 and I still had people picking on me – I’m basically an adult and I’m still getting picked on like I’m a high school kid,” he laughed.
“But at the same time I was quite big, about 110 kilos. So I knew I needed to get in shape and learn how to defend myself. I suck at running, I hate running – so my options were to learn how to fight, or to get beat up.”
An easy decision led him to take up kickboxing.
Now, he’s the latest off the City Kickboxing (CKB) production line – founded by Eugene Bareman and Doug Viney in 2007, and growing into one of the most formidable stables in combat sports.
When he returned from Asia, where he plied his trade as kickboxer and developed as a fighter, the options in that sport in regards to full-time work were pretty slim.
“I came back to New Zealand and Eugene was trying to get me some fights and he said ‘man, if only you knew how to do MMA, there’d be so many fights’ and that’s when I decided to give it a go,” Mathetha told Wide World of Sports.
He was enamoured with the sport – and the gym – immediately, offering to sweep floors or do other chores to justify his membership as a student, with very little money.
CKB’s reputation is almost mythical at this stage, boasting not only Adesanya, but also Australia’s featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, as well as other UFC standouts Kai Kara-France, Dan Hooker, Shane Young, Brad Riddell and Carlos Ulberg.
“They use our strengths and weaknesses and bring them together – and everyone there has different skills, and that’s another thing that brings us together.
“There’s no pride in our gym – everyone is open to learn. It doesn’t matter what level you are, everyone’s willing to learn something from anyone else who’s there.”
He’d braced himself for a long slog through the amateur ranks and potentially a few fights in smaller professional organisations – but after just three fights, he finds himself in the UFC.
“Eugene just told me the things I need to know, and I’ve learned not to constantly question him, » he said on the shock of finding out his first fight would be a professional one.
“When he puts you in a fight, it’s because he’s confident in you being successful. He’s not just going to throw you into the deep end, he knows your ability, so I’ve learned to trust that.”
Diamond said a relationship of mutual trust was key.
“All my coaches, they know us, they know our abilities, our capabilities, our limits – that makes it easier for us to grow up as a fighter.”
The welterweight will make his UFC debut at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 271, on the undercard to that much-anticipated rematch between Adesanya and Robert Whittaker on February 12, with Ulberg also featuring.
“The special thing is the fact that me, Iz, and Carlos – we’ve all done king of the ring, won it at different weight classes.
“It’s just the three New Zealand combat kings coming in together and going to battle on the same show.”
He doesn’t remember exactly who bestowed the nickname upon him early on in his fighting career, but he embraced it – to the point that nobody will call him anything else at training.
“Especially at the gym, I’ll never respond to Mike – they must be talking to someone else!”
But most importantly – has he seen Blood Diamond, the movie?
The answer is yes – he saw it alongside his parents when it was released, the trio taking great joy in Leonardo DiCaprio’s efforts to portray a Rhodesian mercenary.
“His accent wasn’t bad. Man, it didn’t sound like the white Zimbabweans I know but I’m like ‘OK, you tried’.”