The road from Surinam to Amsterdam

It’s a sunny and very hot Wednesday in early May when we walk down the stairs to Allstars Training Center. Melvin is here to prepare for his upcoming title fight in Bellator against Brazilian Rafael Carvalho, on the 20th of May. He has just finished a grappling session when we arrive and a few of the younger fighters are taking pictures with him. We go with him to a more quiet area in the back and start by asking why he prefers to come to Stockholm and Allstars for his training camp. “The last time I had my training camp here I really trained my ass off and I learned a lot of new things. All the guys, Ilir [Latifi], [Alexander] Gustafsson, Finfou [Alan Do Nascimento], really helped me a lot. That time I won my fight against [Hisaki] Kato with a first round KO. The win gave me the opportunity I now have to fight for the title, so it’s like a winning recipe to have my camp here. The US is of course also good for training camps, but a big advantage with Sweden is that it’s so close to Holland, so I can go home and train with my own coaches at any time and then easily come back here again. That’s a very important thing for me as I don’t always have the time to go to the US, while I just need two hours to fly here.”

Melvin Manhoef was born 40 years ago in Surinam. His family was very big, and very big in this case means that his grandfather had 14 children who all in their turn have around five children each. That means he has around 70 cousins and he admits that he sometimes struggle to recognize all of them. Melvin’s family moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands when he was three years old as the father got a job there. When the family had settled it was soon time to move again, this time to Amsterdam. “I liked Rotterdam a lot and I had many friends there. When we moved to Amsterdam I was like 11-12 years old which is a sensitive age. I remember that it was tough to move when I had built up my life in Rotterdam and just leave all my friends. But luckily I quickly adapted to my new home and got new friends there. But the two cities are very different. In Rotterdam my friends were very, very close, almost like family, while the friendships I had in Amsterdam was on a more normal level.”


During his childhood Melvin had dreams of becoming a professional soccer player and martial arts wasn’t something he was very interested in even though he got into fights from time to time. “When I grew up I was always looking to push the limits of what was allowed to do. I wasn’t getting into too much trouble though, not more than what is normal anyway. I had a few fights during the pre-teen years but when I got older they occurred more frequent, during the period when the puberty kicked in with all the testosterone. I wasn’t training any martial arts back then but I managed quite well, I think I was only beaten once in all those fights. When I later on found martial arts I got much more relaxed, the training helped me to calm down and when I knew what my capability was in fighting I didn’t have to prove it to anyone. But before that I played a lot of soccer, I wanted to be a professional player and trained very hard. I was actually scouted by some good teams but then I broke my ankle and that was the end of it. The injury stopped me from getting selected to the best teams and that took away the fun and my motivation.”

Becoming “No Mercy”

Melvin was 18 when he quit playing soccer and his uncle had then already been training kickboxing for many years. His uncle had once brought him to a kickboxing training and he remembers how he didn’t like it at all. “The training was so hard, I can still remember it. It hurt a lot and I didn’t like it, so I told my uncle that it wasn’t for me. I liked to watch it but couldn’t really take the pain. Then my younger brother started training as well and I would later join him to try again. That time it went much better, I enjoyed it and gave it a serious try. My trainer said that it seemed like I knew a thing or two about fighting and only three months later I had my first competition. I had like 5-6 fights and was unbeaten. I quickly advanced to B class fights, which is semi-pro in Holland, and after three fights I went pro. It was a very fast progress and I was happy about it. I watched K-1 at that time but everybody discouraged me with the argument that it was only for big guys. But then I saw Stan “the Man” [Loginidis] who was about 178 cm tall, fighting all the big guys like Sam Greco and Mike Bernardo. So I said that if Stan “the Man” who is not so tall can do it then I can also fight in the K-1!”


“I was competing a lot but at the same time I did some stupid things and I wasn’t focusing 100% on my fighting. In 2002 I lost to Remy Bonjasky in K-1 and took some time off after that. The year after I saw Remy win the K-1 and the prize was 500 000 dollars! I realized that if the guy who I recently fought can win that kind of money it had to be possible for me as well. From that point I put all my focus on the fighting and was training extremely hard every day. I changed my team from Thom [Harinck] at Chakuriki Gym to Mike’s gym. Mike [Passenier] always made sure I was in the gym, working hard. He knew there was a risk I would do stupid shit if I would go out with my friends so he let me sleep in the gym and had me take care of the cleaning. This was great for me and nothing distracted me from my focus.”

There was one particular thing that made him stand out from all the other fighters – his ability to knock people out. It was unusual that his fights even went to the second round and the audience loved it. Still today there are not many fighters who come close to his KO ratio. “It’s a gift I have got from God and I’m very thankful for it, I’m blessed being able to do that. I’m quite explosive but that’s nothing I have trained to become, I think it’s in my genes because my nephew is also really explosive. In my opinion the key to the knock outs is that I always come to fight, I go all in and I want to hurt people. It’s a mental thing. It is also the reason to why I lose sometimes, being reckless and always going for the kill is a risky business. When you’re only attacking you of course have openings and gaps, but if you just keep your hands up protecting your head you’re not going to knock anyone out and it won’t be a fun fight to watch for the fans. I’ve always wanted to entertain people so that’s what I do. Of course I don’t want to lose, never ever, but I have my aggression and temper inside which is the foundation of my fighting style and that’s what makes me Melvin Manhoef. In my next fight though there is a title at stake, so this time I want to fight smart and maybe protect my head a little bit more than usual. It’s important for me to show that I can control myself and do what needs to be done to win that belt.”

Manhoef the MMA fighter

The first experience Melvin had with MMA was quite early. His trainer at that time, Dennis Rock, told him that he should try free fighting, something Melvin had never seen but still gave a try. He was training with a Dutch fighter named Jordy Jonkers who at that time was preparing for an upcoming fight. With short notice Jordy’s opponent pulled out of the fight and a suggestion came up that Melvin would take the fight instead. He hesitated since he didn’t have any ground game experience what so ever, while Jordy was quite skilled in that area, but in the end they decided to do it anyway. Fortunately Melvin’s stand up game was stronger so he beat him by palm strikes TKO. In those early days they fought without gloves and punched with open hands. From that point Melvin was competing in both Kickboxing and MMA.

“The UFC was starting to appear on my radar and after a while they offered me a contract. Due to the fact that I didn’t have any ground skills I wasn’t comfortable getting in there risking to be taken down and beaten, so I turned their offer down. I only focused on my stand up fighting back then because I frequently fought in K-1. I wasn’t at all motivated to train any grappling, but now 20 years later my ground game is finally starting to get better. It’s never too late!” In 2014 Bellator contacted Melvin and offered him a contract which he signed. The Bellator CEO Scott Coker had gotten Melvin into Strikeforce some years earlier and now wanted the entertaining knock out artist in his new organization.


After a couple of wins the Dutch star is now going to face the current champion Rafael Carvalho and he knows what he needs to focus on during his preparation. “Carvalho is a tough fighter and he’s much taller than me. From what I’ve seen he is a complete fighter with both good ground game and good stand up. Since it’s a title fight it will be five rounds and I’ve never done so many before. Normally my fights are three rounds but most often they end in the first round. I think I only have two MMA fights that went all three rounds so I can’t say I’m used to it. The championship rounds, four and five, will be very hard and it’s key for me to prepare well for it. But Carvalho actually also has only like two fights or so that went to decision, so I think he faces the same challenge. The important thing for me is to fight like Melvin Manhoef, which means that if the KO will come when it comes, I can’t try to speed it up. But if I would happen to win by decision or even by submission that’s fine as well, all that matters is the win.”

The back side of MMA is the fighters who cheat by taking performance enhancing drugs. Fortunately with stricter controls more and more of them are being caught, but sometimes it’s not until after the damage is already done. In February 2015 Melvin faced Russian Alexander Shlemenko and was knocked out in the second round. In the post-fight tests Shlemenko tested positive for anabolic steroids and the result was changed to No Contest. When I ask Melvin what he feels about Shlemenko today I’m surprised by his attitude. “It doesn’t matter if he used PEDs or not, he still knocked me out. Of course I consider it cheating but the fact is he still found the spot to hit me. He confused me with his spinning kicks and back fists in addition to that the things I had trained on didn’t work out at all, so in my opinion it was my own fault that I lost. Now the fight is considered a No Contest so he gets his punishment from the Athletic Commission, so it’s not up to me to judge him. I always say that when you lose you lose and then you should shut up and accept it. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a chance to fight him again one day.”

Looking in the rear-view mirror

It is only one week left until Melvin turns 40 which is statistically quite a high age for a title contender, and the question is if he wants to take the chance to retire on top if he wins the title on the 20th of May. “First of all, it’s not if I win the title, there is no doubt I will do it. Secondly, I will not retire after that fight; I need to defend the title as well. I think I will be a great champion for Bellator and I will defend the title until the day I retire. There is a lot of fighters that I have thought would be fun to fight, so we’ll see how many of them there is time to face.”


Out of the many wins in Melvin’s career, I’m interested to hear which ones that stand out for him. Many people would probably say the knockout of Mark Hunt on New Year’s Eve 2008, which shocked the world. Melvin agrees that it’s a win he will never forget, and he also admits he was as surprised as anyone else when he won. “You can see my reaction right after I knocked him out, I run around like crazy from happiness and surprise. When I was told I would fight Mark Hunt I thought ‘shit, what should I do?’. I took the fight on very short notice, like two days before. I had just won a fight against Paul Slowinski a few weeks before and was planning to go watch the New Year’s event anyway since Badr [Hari] was fighting Alistair [Overeem]. Then my manager said that if I felt ready I could have a fight at that show, which I wanted, but when he said it was against Mark Hunt I hesitated. He then asked me what I would do if someone would touch my wife in a bar and I responded that I would kick his ass of course. My manager smiled and said ‘good, let’s say Mark Hunt just touched your wife, we’re taking the fight!’ I’ve met Mark afterwards and he’s a great guy who I respect, I mean he has done a lot and now he’s also doing a great job in the UFC.”

“Besides from the Mark Hunt win I also remember my wins against [Kazushi] Sakuraba, Cyborg [Evangelista Santos] and [Rusland] Karaev. But I also remember losses, especially the ones where I did a good fight and was almost winning, like against Robbie Lawler and Paulo Filho. But if we talk about the toughest fights I would say it’s the ones when the preparation went shit, and I’ve had plenty of those. When I was fighting Dae Won Kim I had to pump out two litres of blood from my lungs just 5-6 days before. But I didn’t cancel the fight and I ended up winning by first round KO. It’s really hard for me to cancel a fight. When you’re in a war they might shoot off your hand, and when you see the enemy coming towards you, what are you then going to do? Of course you use the one hand you still have and shoot as much as you can, you’re still fighting and not giving up. I think the same way about the fighting business, things will happen but you still fight the fight and don’t come with excuses that you didn’t train enough or that you were injured. I lost fights and I don’t come with excuses, you can’t take away the shine from your opponent.”

Melvin has been a well-known fighter for many years so he is used to people constantly coming up asking for pictures and autographs, and his kids thinks it’s awesome to have a famous dad. “Yes, I’ve always had a lot of attention, but now it’s getting more and more. Bellator is now a days on Spike TV in Holland so more people can see the fights. MMA is also getting more attention in general in Dutch media, so the awareness and interest in our sport is growing. It’s ok for me but I do also appreciate my privacy, especially when I’m home. My kids like it of course, that their dad is a celebrity, and they’re proud. We are all proud of our family name, that Manhoef went from nobody to somebody in the fighting business. My legacy will be taken over one day by my kids and my nephew. But one of my sons is playing soccer on a very high level so I hope he can do what I couldn’t in that sport. Hopefully he can get a contract with a pro club and be an inspiration to others.”

Another astonishing fact about Melvin is that he’s not only a full time fighter, he has also been a gym owner since five years plus being a father of six. Recently he also started his own fighting promotion called WFL, World Fighting League. “It was when K-1 got bankrupt and I had just bought a big house and was depending completely on fighting. I realized that I needed a backup plan so I started my own gym. Sometimes I’ve felt that it was a bad choice because it’s so much responsibility and difficult to combine with being a full time fighter. You can see it on my record from those times which isn’t so strange because it was very distracting and I had to do a lot for the gym when I was really supposed to train. That’s also a reason why I come to Sweden to train, to reduce the distraction. Together with my promotion WFL I have a lot of stuff to continue with the day I stop fighting.”


Melvin is scheduled to help one of the Swedish fighters with her preparation for the Muay Thai World Championship, but before we conclude the interview I ask what fighters he has been inspired by during his career and who he would like to read an interview with. “I had a lot of favorite fighters, like Mike Tyson, Wanderlei Silva and Fedor [Emilianenko]. Those guys really came to fight, they wanted to kill and there was never any bullshit. I liked their styles and they inspired me. Regarding an interview it’s difficult to say who, but what fascinates me is how some fighters think, the mental side of the game. Especially the ones that go down and still achieve to come back all the way to the top.”

FighterInterviews thank Melvin Manhoef for the interview and wish him good luck in his upcoming title fight.
Also – big congratulations on his 40th birthday!