An MMA fighter at the top of his game, Ronald Dlamini’s life took a tragic turn when he lost his sight. But his belief that he could win any fight – even those within himself – helped him carve out a new path, and change the lives of those around him.
He’s listening for your breath. It tells him you’re tired. That you’re just a few steps away. A sharp intake? He knows you’re getting ready to throw a punch, and he steels himself to dodge and fling you to the ground. Ronald Dlamini fights in darkness. He wants you to know that. He wants you to underestimate him. He wants you be surprised. And by the end of the fight, he wants you to start believing:
This guy can actually see.
In 2012, Dlamini was in a coma. He’d recently hung up his gloves to focus on personal training – it seemed like the logical next step after he was crowned a mixed martial arts champion back in 2009, and then went on to win a series of fights under the moniker ‘Black Mamba’ – but he was plagued by chronic and often incapacitating headaches. By the time he was admitted to hospital, he was in severe pain. He was given injections to manage the pain – and then suddenly, the world went black: he was in a coma.
Dlamini was gone for ten days.
“The doctors told my family and friends that I was going to die,” he says. “I was going to see the light, there was nothing they could do for me.” Miraculously, he woke up. But his mind was in chaos. His mom would later tell him that he’d been crazy: “I didn’t even know my own name, or understand what anyone was saying.”
It was only thanks to a friend, who patiently sat and spoke to him, filling him in on the blanks, all the details of his life, that he was brought back to reality. Eventually, his memory returned; his sight, however, did not.
He remembers the moment he was told he would never see. A fork seemed to open up in the road in front of him. On the left, his family, distraught and sympathetic, stood silently; he could feel their concern, that he would never be the same again. If he walked down that road he would give into pessimism, depression; he would give up on life. On the right was a path on which his family was smiling, where he was walking tall, where he had adapted and risen above. Where he was proud.
“There was only one choice,” he says. Back when he first got into MMA, Dlamini had adapted almost overnight – from Muay-Thai one week, to winning a fully-fledged MMA fight just a week later. Adaptation was a way of life for him. It had been his entry point to success, and he knew now that hard work would seal the deal.
It’s an attitude, he says, that many have mistaken for arrogance.
“But I never talk, I just do – and the proof is in what I’ve accomplished,” he remarks. His positivity had a ripple effect on his family. Their questions shifted: it wasn’t about what he couldn’t do anymore, it was about what he could. And as he took his first steps as a blind man, he realised he still had a lot left to give.
Dlamini started training again. “It was difficult,” he says.
In many ways it felt like those first days doing karate as a kid in KwaZulu-Natal (his older brother had encouraged him to try the sport). It was hard work, he felt off balance, he felt unfamiliar with the familiar:
“I was learning a new way to fight, to put trust in my other senses,” he says.
At the same time, he was trying to adjust to new challenges a home –ironing his clothes, taking care of his kid. “I think I just had this attitude that I would work it all out.”
And it did start to fall into place. He jokes now that he can do everything he used to be able to do. “Except drive a car, of course.”
Dlamini credits a lot of his success to his own outlook. But he’s also quick to add that his friends have been an integral part of the nucleus holding his new life together. One is his former mentor, Rhyne Hassan of the Gorgeous Boyz Hardcore MMA Club (who helped engineer his transition from Muay Thai warrior to MMA all-star). Hassan had been one of the first to see the potential in the fighter, says Dlamini, setting him on the road to become the first black MMA champion.
“He helped teach me how to fight on the ground, something I had no idea how to do before I switched,” says Dlamini. “He’s one of the original fighters – he fought way back, when MMA was stilled called ‘No Rules’.”
When Dlamini spars these days, he aims to get his opponent down on the ground. It’s there that he feels in control – where the senses he has left put him at an advantage. He isn’t waiting for his brain to decode visual data before he reacts; he’s flying on instinct and experience. It makes him a formidable opponent, and dangerous.
Dlamini now teaches his own classes, where for part of the session, participants are blindfolded and forced to fight in the darkness too. He’s also written a book, Light After Blind, and is finishing his studies at the Umfolozi TVET College in Esikhawini.
“I want to show the world that I’m not disabled,” he says. “That I am, and we are, just like everyone else.”
He has also begun mentoring others, and wants to continue giving motivational talks, hoping that his story can empower and encourage those around him.
The bottom line: Dlamini loves his life.
He says he doesn’t feel depressed; and despite his misfortune, he doesn’t feel like a victim. He feels like a man who will always have opportunities, as long as he keeps creating them. And he feels nothing like that guy who woke up in a hospital bed.
“I want to wake up every day, just to show everyone what I can do,” he says.