Behind Port Elizabeth’s Toughest Fighters: Cedrick Mbala

"Few people last once they see what it really takes to fight like a pro.”

Riaan Marais |

“Many people walk through the door, thinking they are the next Conor McGregor. Few people last once they see what it really takes to fight like a pro.”

Chris Bright looks on as his charges are pushed to the limit of their physical capabilities.

“We don’t have any secret recipes. Here we stay humble. Here we work hard. Nothing comes easy at PESFA,” he adds.

Related: Behind Port Elizabeth’s Toughest Fighters: Shane Higgins

In recent years, PESFA (Port Elizabeth Submission Fighting Academy) has cemented itself as a breeding ground for fighting talent, and head coach Chris Bright is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the South African MMA (mixed martial arts) scene.

PESFA fighters (from left to right): Cedrick Mbala, Luthando Biko, and Shane Higgins. Shot by: Riaan Marais

Walking to his first amateur MMA fight Cedrick Mbala’s face was blank. He seemed devoid of emotion and kept his gaze to the floor. When the fight began he attacked his opponent ferociously, ending the fight within two minutes.

“I was very angry, but I don’t know why. I just wanted to finish my opponent. When the referee pulled me off and stopped the fight my mind cleared. I realised this was not what I had anticipated,” he says. “This is a sport and I need to change my mindset before I fight again.”

Related: Behind Port Elizabeth’s Toughest Fighters: Shane Higgins

Mbala, 30, has come a long way in the short space of time since that first rage-fuelled fight. In little more than a year the Congolese fighter has racked up eight wins and now stands on the verge of landing a professional contract with a well-known international organisation.

Port Elizabeth based fighter Cedrick Mbala. Photographer: Riaan Marais

Raw athleticism, brute strength, 20 years of judo and ever-improving boxing has made him a force yet to be beaten in the arena, while his roguish charm, booming voice and quick wit helps to grow his fan base wherever he competes.

Related: Earn Your Muscle The Hard Way With This MMA Workout

Mbala left school at the age of 16. His father travelled for work, sometimes for years on end, leaving his mother Sophie to care for him and his six siblings. She sold fresh produce at a local market and money was tight, so Mbala started working as a taxi driver to earn some money. But he knew leaving home was his best bet.

Port Elizabeth based fighter Cedrick Mbala. Photographer: Riaan Marais

Speaking to him now, it is hard to believe that five years ago he came to South Africa with no prospects, unemployed and unable to speak even basic English. He had left his Nduidi Street home, in the poor neighbourhood of Synkin in Kinshasa, following his sister to Port Elizabeth in hopes of improving his life.

“I came to South Africa to escape the poverty and struggles back home, but it was not easy. Local people don’t like foreigners, and I only spoke French, so I had to learn very quickly.”

He secured a position at a logistics company, working mostly nights as his days are dedicated to MMA and the dream of fighting professionally.

“Looking ahead, I want to train young fighters. I want to give them the same opportunity my coach gave me. But that is still far away,” he adds.

“For now I just want to earn some money to visit my mother. I have not seen her since I left home, and I miss her very much. Or maybe she can visit here. For now, that is my dream.”

READ MORE ON: fighting mixed martial arts mma South Africa sport

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