I remember getting a phone call early in 2010 from a gentleman named Cairo Howarth. He introduced himself as the president of a brand new MMA organisation called the Extreme Fighting Championship, EFC Africa and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing commentary for their upcoming event on May 3rd. I was intrigued, but not that keen as I was entrenched in SuperSport and was carving a name for myself at Africa’s biggest sports broadcaster, the historic FIFA World Cup was looming large and my radio career on 5FM with Gareth Cliff and the team was leading to many opportunities to do emcee work and work as a brand ambassador. Out of professional courtesy, I agreed to pop into their head office in Johannesburg to meet over a cup of rooibos tea and discuss the opportunity further.
I had no idea who Cairo was, what the setup was at Finepoint Productions and if was even a sport I wanted to associate myself with. I had heard of MMA, purely because of the UFC, but in South Africa at the time, it was very much perceived as cage fighting, barbaric, for steroid-filled meatheads and was not very popular…
Against my better judgement, I went to see Cairo and his brother Silas.
Arriving at the office, I was seriously impressed by the offices, the layout and the energy of everyone there. After a quick chat, I was ushered into a boardroom with a man called Dirk Steenekamp, I was struck by the size of the dude’s arms, the smell of the chocolate protein powder in his oats and his abundance of tattoos. What the hell was I doing here? I thought to myself.
Immediately we struck up a good connection, something key to commentary, I had commentated on rugby, cricket and some other sports and backed myself despite not having the intricate knowledge required of such a technical sport, but after a while, I felt comfortable, even though I was learning on the fly about this “cage fighting” sport.
We clicked and I thought we did well, Silas and Cairo were thrilled and asked me to think about a fee for commentary and the next thing I knew we were set for EFC 03 at the Dome in Johannesburg, Nel v Gloss…
At that time, wet behind the ears, slightly overwhelmed by the occasion and still trying to establish the difference between a rear-naked choke and guillotine choke, I was consuming UFC events, researching mixed martial arts and the intricacies of this captivating yet shunned sport. I was hooked. I decided not to set foot in a gym to learn to grapple or take a jits class, and I believed it was the right thing at the time as it kept me neutral when neutrality wasn’t so common in the fledgling organisation because some gyms were more active in promoting themselves, had better quality fighters and were organised.
I was welcomed by the community and I am so grateful for that because had it not been for the support and backing, I would have left after a few events.
The sport changed my life and although I received a lot of abuse on social media for a long time, I chose to ignore it, focused on building relationships within the sport, understanding the technical side of MMA, improving my craft as a broadcaster and on the way made lifelong friends.
EFC 03 wasn’t my best performance technically, but I gave it a proper shot. The videos on YouTube and doing the rounds on the EFC’s streaming platform of me commentating in the early events make me cringe, but also make me proud that I could play my part at the beginning of Africa’s biggest MMA promotion. I gave it my all, you could hear it, the excitement in my uneducated voice at the time. It was fun, it was a real high and worth it despite waking each morning at 4 am for 5FM Mornings and then heading straight to SuperSport from a shift that started at 9 am and ended at 5 pm. Those days, EFC was on a Thursday night and often ended well after midnight.
Mixed Martial Arts is a sport I love and as I continue to share my story as an outsider coming in, I hope to shed more light on how MMA has changed my life and why I will always be a fan of the sport that has come so far since its infancy. I can say I was there.