Jimi just finished a sparring session at Allstars and you can tell it’s been tough. He’s in Stockholm, Sweden to get in shape but also to help his friend Alexander Gustafsson for UFC Hamburg in September. With a medicine ball as pillow he lays down to rest the sore body as we start the tape recorder and begin talking about his turbulent life journey that took him from USA, via Nigeria and a couple of British prisons to the world’s biggest MMA scene.

A Nigerian American in England

”I was born 1980 in California, USA. My dad went to the university there but then we moved when I was only three years old. We moved to Nigeria where my parents are from and that’s where I grew up. My parents had some problems and after a few years my mother took my two brothers and moved to London while I stayed with dad. I’ve always been a daddy’s boy and I’ve always liked being with him. A year later we came after and I’ve lived in England ever since. Sometimes people ask me which country I consider my home and it’s difficult to answer. Nigeria has a big part of my heart, that’s where I grew up and I have only nice memories from there. England is my base, it’s where I live and at the same time I’m an American citizen with an American passport. Then you can add that I love Sweden! I love coming here, people are so nice and it’s great to get away from all the stress in London.”

When Jimi started school in London he was 10 years old and had some trouble to settle. He was very skilled in most classes and was ahead of his class mates, but it also bored him to not get stimulated. With his huge excess of energy it was hard for him to sit quietly in the classroom and behave. The positive side of it was his success in physical education, a class he loved. When he didn’t behave the teachers would always threat him by saying he wouldn’t be allowed to participate in PE, and most of the times it helped, at least until he got a bit older. When he became a teenager he started high school and due to the unstable situation at home he was constantly moving between his mother’s and father’s places which made him change school seven times. He started hanging out with the bad boys in school and his problem would grow in number and severity.

”I took off my belt, ran up to him and attacked him with full power”

”Dad kept moving around so I always came to a new neighborhood and a new school. Most schools I went to were for naughty kids and I got expelled from many of them. My nickname back then was “Temper” because of my short temper. I remember once when we had a break in school and everyone were in the playroom where there was a ping pong table. I was very small back then and I was in line waiting for my turn to play. There was an older and considerably older guy playing and when it was my turn he just pushed me to the side and kept playing, like if I didn’t exist. With tears running down my cheeks and anger was boiling inside of me I was waiting for the guy to finish. When that kid was later on leaving school, walking towards the city center, I followed. I took off my belt, ran up to him and attacked him with full power. Eventually the police came, there was blood everywhere and I got expelled from that school to.”

Behind bars

When Jimi was 15 he started getting his eyes on expensive designer clothes like Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton. Together with his best friend Carl he started thinking about how to get enough money to be able to buy them, and the answer was burglary and stealing computers. With big cash in the pockets the two new rich youngsters went out in the London nightlife with expensive clothes drinking champagne. They enjoyed the status and even though they soon got caught by the police they continued with the criminal activities, they had got used to earning easy money. At the age of 17 Jimi was sentenced to prison for the first time. “It was a youth offender’s prison and I had received two months. I was still a very small guy and all of the guys in there were gigantic compared to me. It was tough in prison and even if I only had to sit one month in the end, it felt like three years, time passed extremely slowly!”

The tough time in prison didn’t change Jimi’s behavior. The money was addictive and he would soon get involved in more organized crime. As a 21-year-old he had bought a brand new Range Rover but he only had it for two weeks before the police busted the criminal gang he had got involved with. They were 13 guys who got arrested and Jimi was sent to prison for three years. “My crew and I were like kings in prison, we ruled our wing. We had something called double bubble, which means I give you a pack of tobacco and next week you have to give me two packs back. I started off with only one package but soon enough my whole cell was full of tobacco that I could exchange for other stuff like phone cards, biscuits and drinks. My cell was like a grocery store!

”When I started lifting the second time I felt a bang in my chest”

A couple of years later there was a beef between two different groups on the streets of London. The rival group was looking for Jimi which led to them going passed his mother’s house and starting shooting. That night Jimi wasn’t there but his little brother was, and he got hit by one of the bullets. This was a dark period of time for Jimi and he was wanted for several crimes. When he came home from a trip to Dubai he got caught by the police and went back to prison. He decided for himself to change his life and use his brain for legit business and never end up in prison again. During the last couple of years he had started to lift weights, a passion for weight lifting grew and his body got bigger and bigger. “It was during my time in prison I started lifting and when I got out I was more than twice the size I was when I came in. I competed in weightlifting and I remember dead lifting 300 kg when I was 21. I trained hard and one day I was up for two max reps in bench press, it was 180 kg. First one went fine and just when I started lifting the second time I felt a bang in my chest and right after it felt like when you tear apart a piece of clothes. My whole pec muscle was torn apart!”

Mixed Martial Arts

A close friend of Jimi’s had started training MMA and when the doctors prescribed six months rest from weight lifting Jimi got talked in to testing some jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. “I didn’t have any actual skills in martial arts, but I was a tough motherfucker and I knew how to fight on the street. In kickboxing I basically came out swinging and the first time I tried jiu-jitsu I got caught in a triangle and felt how everything got black. But I liked the training and kept on doing it almost every day. After two weeks of training I asked my coach to get me a fight, so he booked me for one that would be in ten days. During those ten days I sold a crazy amount of tickets, everybody wanted to come and see me fight!” Jimi finished his opponent with ground ‘n pound in the first round. After the fight he realized that he loved MMA and it was what he wanted to do!

”I still don't even know what I'm doing!”

The fights kept coming and Jimi finished whoever they put in front of him. He earned good money by selling loads of tickets as he had a 50/50 deal which meant he could keep half the money for all the tickets he sold, which could give him around 10 000 pounds. After a few fights he was booked against Ryan Robinson for the Ultimate Challenge title. The fight was a two minutes short a violent show with total dominance by Jimi and he now had a belt. When he later on defended the belt successfully the name Jimi Manuwa started to spread to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and UFC got in touch to sign him. “I told my coach that I still don’t even know what I’m doing! I had trained for about two years and I didn’t know any wrestling and just a few submissions, all I had was raw strength and power. I’d seen several English fighters who got to the UFC, lost and got kicked out. My reply was that when I’m coming, I’m coming to stay, but right now I’m not ready.”

A few wins later UFC approached him again with another offer and Jimi was more temped to accept this time but still claimed he wasn’t ready. Around the same time he left the Ultimate Challenge and signed with BAMMA. He knocked out the first opponent BAMMA gave him, French BJJ black belt Antony Réa. With the money Jimi had earned so far he opened up his own gym in Croydon outside London.

Fighting with the best

After his win in BAMMA the UFC tried for the third time and this time Jimi said yes. To boost his training he flew over to San Diego, USA and the Alliance Training Center. “I hated it. The plan was to stay for broth weeks but I went home after only ten days. Phil Davies and a few other great fighters were there and I remember how much I got beaten up, taken down, submitted. I really hated it. I wasn’t eating correctly so I lost a lot of weight. I missed my family, my home and my dog. Just before I came there Alex [Gustafsson] had left and we texted about me coming over to Stockholm to train together.” Jimi’s UFC debut was against Kyle Kingsbury in September 2012 and was finished by Jimi after the second round by TKO.

”I remember I tried to find a reason to hate Alex prior to the fight”

A late night when Jimi was at a nightclub to meet up some friends his phone rang. By now he had won his second and third fight in the UFC, again by TKO. It was his manager on the line who asked him a straight forward question: “Nogueira has pulled out the fight with Alex, do you want to take his spot? It’s the main event in the O2 Arena in London!” Jimi was reluctant at first since he saw Alex as a friend of his, but his coach got him to realize that the opportunity was too big to pass on. If he would beat Alex he would go straight to the top of the division. “I remember I tried to find a reason to hate Alex prior to the fight, but it was impossible! He’s such a nice guy. I was undefeated and my confidence great, even if I of course had great respect for my opponent. Due to a rib injury I hadn’t been able to spar anything leading up to the fight but instead I had to focus on conditioning. It was the first time I would have a five round fight and I was worried about my cardio. The worrying made me fight different than I normally do; I took a step backwards to take a breath and save my energy instead of just going forward like I normally do. In the second round I remember I switched off, just for a second, but it was enough for Alex to hit me with a big uppercut. Suddenly I was on the floor and the ref was screaming that the fight was over. It was a very tough loss for me.”

After the fight against Alex, Jimi took a few months well-deserved vacation with his family. He was told that his next fight would be in Poland against Jan Blachowicz and he decided to have his training camp at Allstars in Stockholm. “It was the first time I trained at a real MMA gym with a good schedule and elite fighters. I trained with Ilir [Latifi], Herdem [Alacabek], Alex and many other great fighters. After my visit at the Alliance in San Diego I decided to never live in a gym again, I need comfort to like it. I get home sick easily and it’s much easier to handle if I stay in a nice hotel where I can relax properly. After that camp I’ve come back to Sweden many times, I love it here!”

”That's when I realized it would be a war!”

Jimi defeated Blachowicz by unanimous decision and then had two surgeries, first the hand and then the knee. Just as he was coming back from the injuries in July 2015 he once again received an important call from his manager. “We had discussed the opportunities of getting me on the Ireland card in October but when my manager called he said that I could have Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson 5th of September in Las Vegas! That meant 5-6 weeks of preparation and I hesitated at first, but once again the thought about going straight to the top if I would beat him was stronger. I also wanted to revenge Alex who had been knocked out by Rumble earlier. When the fight started I tested the waters with a jab and he came back fast with four hard punches; that’s when I realized it would be a war! The first round was pretty close and in the end of it I think he was more tired than I was, so I had good confidence going in to the second round. I remember a point where we were staring at each other, waiting for the other one to attack. I threw a kick at him exactly at the same time as he kicked me. His landed first and he followed up with two fast punches before I got my balance back. Just like in the Alex fight I was suddenly on the floor hearing the ref saying the fight was over.”

The future as a fighter

Jimi explains how tough his two losses have been but at the same time both opponents have been ranked number one in the division at the time of the fights. Just recently Jimi changed his training strategy by focusing more on heavy weights. “In my last fights we’ve focused so much on conditioning and fitness, but now I’m going back to basics. I lift heavy weights to get my natural core strength back, that raw power that got me here in the first place. I make sure to stay in shape as you never know who gets injured and needs to be replaced for a fight. My life is very hectic at the moment with my family, a car rental business I’m running, my gym and a whole lot of other stuff, so it’s really nice to come here to Allstars and just focus fully on training. Even if they beat me up good and I most often just want to have a day off, I like it here.”

When it comes to future opponents Jimi thinks someone in the top 10 would make sense, maybe Shogun, Corey Anderson or Lil’ Nog. When this interview is being published he has just been booked to fight Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 204. When we discuss his age, 36 years, and how many fights he believe he still has in this sport he says he will continue as long as the passion is there. He still has a hunger to be the best in the world and as long as he feels that way he will not stop.

“This is fighting, a gladiator sport, and no one of us has asked to be a role model to anyone!”

We end by discussing other UFC fighters and who have inspired Jimi. “Jon Jones was a big inspiration for me, but I’m disappointed after everything that’s come up lately with doping. Not the cocain and weed stuff because that won’t help you in a fight anyway, but everything that is performance enhancing, it has made me feel disappointed. Anderson Silva has always been a favorite, and Jose Aldo with his striking. When it comes to reading an interview with someone I’d say Conor [McGregor]! We have the same manager and we’ve met a couple of time. Some things he says are just incredible, things that I wouldn’t think of in a 100 years! Even [Nate] Diaz, he’s so different in his interviews. The reporter asks him something and he responds on something completely different! He’s wonderful to watch and I can relate to him. This sport is not about have the perfect personality, it’s about being the best fighter! People talk about us as role models, but fuck that! This is fighting, a gladiator sport, and no one of us has asked to be a role model to anyone! Sure, I’m trying my best for my kids, but my main job in this sport is to fight!