Inside Fights Interview: Jimi Manuwa

Having achieved notable success on the UK MMA circuit the UFC came calling for light-heavyweight Jimi Manuwa in 2012. The South Londoner has managed to transition his fearsome style and keep his perfect record intact since signing on with the world’s biggest promotion.

Manuwa made his UFC debut at UFC on Fuel TV: Struve vs. Miocic in September 2012 with a TKO victory over TUF veteran Kyle Kingsbury in highlight-reel fashion. Cyrille Diabate was up next for the ‘Poster Boy’ in February 2013 at  UFC on Fuel TV: Barao vs. MacDonald, where again he scored another TKO victory to leave him 2-0 in his UFC career so far.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to sit down with Jimi Manuwa at his own gym, Lions Pride MMA in Croydon, South London to discuss his work at Lions Pride, his early MMA career, his time spent with the UFC so far and the state of UK MMA.

Take a look.

When did you open Lions Pride?
Late 2011, I think it was September of that year.

Was having your own gym something you always wished to accomplish?
When I first started training I didn’t know a lot about gyms and used to travel round Keddles gym, Nova Forca and Metro Flex in Sydenham so I was going to three or four different places to get the training and I always thought it would be better to have everything in one place. It was a couple of years after training that a long-time friend of mine who runs FX Power gym in Croydon said that a space at the back of his gym became available. I took a look at it, liked it and so we went in to partnership and made Lions Pride MMA.moving in to a ready-made facility with an already establisheddonbetter to have everything in one

At Lions Pride you do some of the coaching yourself, when you finish your career as a fighter is coaching something that you can see yourself moving in to?
Possibly, I just like to pass on my knowledge to up and coming fighters as this gives me a sense of satisfaction, showing them something that works for me or doesn’t work for me. At the moment because I am running Lions Pride I am coaching but I don’t know about being a coach full time once I finish. Who knows.

It’s known that you do dedicate some of your time to helping out local youths who have perhaps run in to a bit of trouble and you try and get them back on the right track through MMA, is this maybe a result of your own experiences growing up?
No, it just came as an opportunity. When I opened the gym someone I knew from the local authority who deals with kids asked if this was something I would like to get in to and I said “of course”. So I ended up working with a centre that I went to as a naughty kid so it’s a bit ironic in a way but it’s great to give kids another option in life, because I know if I was at that age I would have loved to have come and done MMA to burn off some of that energy.

Just to move on to your early MMA career in the UK, what was it that first sparked your interest in MMA?
I’d watched it for a couple of years but never thought about training for it I just liked to watch it because I’m a sports person. I hated football but always liked watching boxing and the odd bit of kickboxing when it was on, but it was mostly boxing I liked watching. When I first saw the UFC I was drawn to it but never really thought about training in MMA but one of my friends started fighting. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it but then I had a weightlifting accident in the gym. When that happened, I went down to a gym where a friend of mine would train in MMA, where I used to do my weightlifting. There was gym downstairs where you could do MMA and I started training with him a couple of times and from there I got my first fight and that was it.

Did you enter your first fight with specific goals in your mind or was it just a case of seeing if you could do this as a profession?
When I had my first fight, my friend had already had a few fights and I could see that he was starting out a career in it. Once I started training it, I thought that this would be something I was good at and after my first fight I decided I was going to stick at it and the rest is history as they say.

Whilst at UCMMA you managed to capture the promotion’s light-heavyweight belt and defend it on five occasions, more so than any other UCMMA title holder in any of their divisions. Is this something you look back on with immense pride?
I don’t think about it because I’m still quite early on in my career but when I do think about it I am proud of what I have achieved so far but I am still a long way from where I want my skill level to be and what I want to accomplish in my career now but I do look back and think I’ve done alright.

For my first seven fights I was the underdog, fighting people who had more experience than me or former professional boxers or former title holders so it wasn’t until I got the belt that I became the favourite going in to a fight. I am pretty proud of what I have done so far in the sport.

As of right now you have a perfect MMA record and have never been to the judges’ scorecards, is this something you are keen to maintain or for you is a win, however you achieve it, all the same?
A win is a win but for me, I’m always looking to finish because that’s what I’m known for and that’s what the crowd wants. I’ve seen a few really good fights lately that have gone to a decision but when a fight goes the distance sometimes looking back you can’t really remember who won, you know. I’m always looking for the finish; I train for the finish so that is a record that I want to keep.

Apart from the notoriety your finishing ability achieved on the UK MMA scene, perhaps what you used to be best known for was turning down the UFC on two separate occasions. Most fighters jump at the chance to get to the UFC as soon as possible but you saw this UFC offer a little differently.
The first time I was approached was way too early, I think I was 6-0 and it was just an offer not directly from them, but I was approached about having the one fight with them. The second time was coming off a 14 month layoff after dislocating my shoulder in training and it was either defend my UCMMA belt against Nick Chapman or go to the UFC. It was a hard decision to make but I needed to get a bit more experience in training and just get better as a fighter because I know that I would stop whoever they would put it front of me, so it wasn’t going to be the last time the UFC come calling.

We haven’t seen you in a little while or really heard you linked with a fight which is normally customary for a fighter in your position and recent performances, is there a reason for this or has the right fight just not come up or clearing up an injury etc?
No, no. I am fit, just waiting. I’m not rushing or anything. I’m just taking my time and I am going about things in the right way, I think. I am not trying to rush anything or call anyone out, the way I see it, no matter who I fight they may as well all be the same. Now that I’ve beaten Diabate, they’re all relatively the same, that’s the way I see it. Every fight is going to be tough against a fighter who is good at this or good at that, that and that. I’m just taking my time, not rushing. I will be ready.

Your first two fights in the UFC have seen you look very impressive against Kyle Kingsbury and Cyrille Diabate but on both occasions it was the doctor who brought proceedings to an end. Has this frustrated you in any way that you’ve been unable to secure a conclusive finish in the UFC so far?
The way I see it is a win is a win. Out of both of those, the Diabate fight was probably a bit more disappointing as I was just getting warmed up after the first round but who knows what could have happened in the second round. I think I dominated that fight, I had his number and it was just about waiting for the perfect time to catch him and finish him but what happened happened, he said he hurt his leg and he couldn’t continue but for me it was another win.

There was an event recently in Sweden with two top light-heavyweights headlining in Gustafson and Mousasi, when Gustafson was forced off with injury just days before the event your name was brought up as a possible opponent. Was that fight offered to you at any point or was this just pure rumours?
My twitter was going mad for that situation! It was just rumours though. My manager has Mousasi as a client as well so if anything was ever going to happen with that I’d have known first but nothing came of that. But that would have been interesting.

The light-heavyweight division is stacked for talent and after recent performances you are knocking on the door of the top ten in the division. There are also a number of legends of the sport at 205lbs, is there any one that you really hope or want to fight in the near future?
I wouldn’t say I’d like to fight anyone, I don’t care who it is, it’s just whoever gets put in front of me. I have to take it seriously, I can’t be “oh I really used to like this guy” you know, it’s business. I’m a fan of most of the fighters that get in there because they’re one of the world’s best. I used to love Shogun, Henderson, Machida, Rashad; I’m fans of all of them but now I’m there, I’m amongst them and the love is out of the window. I’ve worked with Phil Davis before and got a lot of experience out of training with him and Joey Beltran as well over at Alliance MMA, so I’m fans of these people but I’m in their weight division now, you know.

So far in your career you have fought exclusively in England, now that you’re in the UFC is fighting abroad or in the US a personal goal or are you not too fussed about where you step in to the cage?
Yeah, of course. You’re fighting in the UFC and you’ve got to fight anywhere they put you in the world but I always love fighting in the UK, it’s where I live and so I’ve always got a lot of support from the fans. I don’t think it would affect me wherever I fight because once I am in the cage I get in to the zone and everything else gets blocked out.

Like you said before, you’ve trained in America over at Alliance MMA for a time, is this something you’ll still continue to do or now with Lions Pride are you focussing more on training here?
My training is always based here and over at Nova Forca in Epsom, down the road, but I think to get better sparring you have got to go to America because that’s where the best sparring is. It’s hard to find big guys who are good at all things MMA in the UK. I’ve got big guys who are boxers or kick-boxers or train in jiu-jitsu but to have a full MMA package in a fighter it’s hard to find here. The best place for me to go is Alliance MMA, they’ve got some of the top light-heavyweights so it makes sense for me.

We’re starting to see more and more notable British fighters heading out to the US to train full time in order to reach the next level or fully exploit their talent and credentials, do you think this is a necessary move for Brits wanting to succeed at a higher level or do you believe that you can hit those heights training exclusively in the UK?
In a way, yes. I don’t know it’s kind of like a double edge sword because… I don’t know, I think it is for the sparring and the wrestling as well, but then again you’ve got good wrestling clubs over here. I don’t see it as that necessary but I can see why with the good sparring and everything. Each to their own.

While on the UK MMA circuit you had the MTV cameras document your preparation before a fight. On the whole though, the coverage of MMA in the UK is quite limited. Does it bother you that your talents and dedication to the sport goes relatively unnoticed in your home country or do you understand the lack of attention that MMA receives from mainstream UK media, due to its relatively short history as a reputable sport?
Yeah it does bother me a little but I’m just happy to be where I am, I’m UK’s no.1 light-heavyweight, I’m fit, I’m strong and I’m training and getting better but it should get a lot more coverage. The UFC is working on that though with the new deal with BT Sport and that…

… and there is only really a few of the mainstream newspapers that offer any kind of coverage to the sport…

… yeah I think it needs to get in to the mainstream papers more because there is enough shows to cover, normally at least two a month. I think though that over here it is still a little underground, there is no governing body, drug testing but I know that UCMMA are taking steps to make MMA more mainstream with the Safe MMA scheme.

We’re starting to see quite a few more UK and Irish fighters making an impression on MMA in their divisions, do you feel that this is the start of something special for UK MMA and something that may eventually lead to a British or Irish fighter holding a UFC title?
I  think I’ll get the belt, I’ll be the first UK fighter with a UFC belt. Ross Pearson is looking good at lightweight, McGregor looked impressive in his debut. Bisping and Tom Watson have a tough division with Anderson Silva there…

… with Dan Hardy we’re not sure what his situation is.

I think I’ll get that belt; I’ll be the first UK titleholder. I believe that.

How far away do you think you are from being in a position to challenge for the title?
I’m not trying to spark anything here, but the way I see it, I think it could be quite soon. I’m not talking this year but maybe in the next couple of years I could be fighting for the title…

… I thought I might have had an exclusive there for a second…

(laughs)

I’m training hard and upping my skill level all the time and looking better every fight so I think I’ll be the first UK title holder.

We’ll end on that positive note but lastly do you have any shout outs for any one or any one of your sponsors?
I want to shout out my team Lions Pride and Nova Forca, also Reach Fitness Gym. All my fighters, you saw me training Moe Las earlier who is turning pro in a couple of weeks with his first fight at UCMMA, all my training partners, coaches, friends and family. My sponsors, Rockstar Energy, Piranha Guard, Vita Coco, Smuggling Duds, One Stop MMA and Official Watches.

Thank you for your time Jimi, I really appreciate it and good luck in the future.

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