Behind Port Elizabeth’s Toughest Fighters: Shane Higgins

"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: Luthando “Shorty” Biko

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): Shane Higgins, Cedrick Mbala, and Luthando Biko. Photographer: Riaan Marais

Dozens of people fill the mats at PESFA on any given day – teachers, lawyers, builders, bankers – come in after their 9-to-5, looking to stay in shape through MMA training. However, the bulk of Bright’s time goes into a small pool of highly talented individuals, training up to six hours every day to prepare themselves for the moment the cage door slams shut behind them.

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But before they enter the arena, and after they leave, they still deal with a multitude of personal trials that set them even further apart from every other person that wanders into the gym.

In November 2018 alone, at least nine people were killed as gang violence reached a new high in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas. Over the last two decades, gangs like the Spotbouers, Dustlifes and Upstand Dogs have claimed hundreds of lives while fighting over drugs and turf.

“I want to get my family out of this place. Not only for their safety, but because of the negative mindset that has taken control of our neighbourhood,” says Shane Higgins as he wraps his hands, ready for another gruelling session of sparring with his teammates.

Port Elizabeth based EFC fighter, Shane Higgins. Photographer: Riaan Marais

Higgins, 34, is one of the newest editions to the EFC roster, and is anxiously awaiting the call for his second pro fight on Africa’s biggest MMA stage.

Growing up, Higgins was obsessed with Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. He started karate at the age of 10, and by 20 he had three national titles to his name.

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However, his road to professional MMA took some difficult detours – dropping out of university after two years, losing his job as a security officer, unemployed for two years while struggling to put food on the table for his wife, Sergine, and their three children. All the while seeing his community being swallowed up by violent street gangs.

“But my faith in the Lord has never faded, and now there is light at the end of this tunnel,” Higgins says.

Port Elizabeth based EFC fighter, Shane Higgins. Photographer: Riaan Marais

He found an ad for PESFA in a small community newspaper six years ago, and was hooked after his first training session with Bright. His first amateur fight, which he lost, was only one week before his wedding.

“To say Sergine wasn’t thrilled would be an understatement,” he laughed. “But she was the one who picked me back up and motivated me to keep going. Her, and my coach who always believed in me.”

Related: How This Man Lost His Belly And Built The Biceps Of A Boxer

In the past year, Higgins, who now works as a supervisor at a logistics company, had six fights in the past year, once again putting massive strain on his personal life.

“I was almost divorced five times this year. I left my wife to hold down the fort at home, missed important dates with my kids, and I felt selfish for doing it.

“But this fight, and the pay cheque that came with it, justified all these months of hard work and sacrifice.”

Port Elizabeth based EFC fighter, Shane Higgins. Photographer: Riaan Marais

In November, Higgins faced Benjamin Mangala in his pro debut, and after dominating the first two rounds he landed a head-kick that spelled the end for his opponent. His calm demeanour and stylish striking made him an instant fan favourite, and now Higgins is looking at returning to the cage as early as possible in 2019.

For Higgins, this is his way to a better life. “This is a way for me to provide my family with the home and life they deserve.”

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