“I got 3 years when I was 22 and that’s when it opened my eyes. Prison is full of drug addicts, murderers and tramps; I hated it so much. I promised myself I would never go back again”,
Expectation. This word can illicit countless emotions. Your expectations can be matched, defied, crushed, raised, exceeded, fooled. Throughout every facet of Jimi Manuwa’s life there has always been objective and subjective expectation.
From his youth where he struggled to meet his expectations, to his early 20s where he realised his own expectations, to today where he has not only exceeded expectation but has gone on to expect nothing but the very best from himself.
It is 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I am waiting for Jimi ‘Poster Boy’ Manuwa. Open and receptive I watch hundreds of people stream in and out of Carnaby Street – no sign of the 6’2, 205lb UFC fighter. In anticipation of meeting him I had briefly watched a few of his fights on YouTube – I had absolutely no clue what to expect of this physical, ruthless machine. I check my watch, 2:10pm now. I look around once more and as if conjured out of thin air Jimi Manuwa appears directly in front of me. Disbelieving momentarily I am rooted to the spot, 6’2? 205lbs? These stats are an understatement! Performing the usual formal introductions, I extend my hand, Jimi Manuwa looks at me with a subtle confidence – his eyes distant yet calculative as though his brain is working in overdrive analysing me, my words, my gesture, my expression.
“I’m going to write a book about my life one day – it will be a bestseller” he claims in an idyllic quaint coffee shop tucked away in Central London. Manuwa sits back, arms spread comfortably, dwarfing the chairs his arms lay upon. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until the age of 27 that Manuwa had his first competitive fight after just two weeks training. Now at the age of 34, Manuwa is not only a top 10 fighter within his weight-class, but he is also signed to UFC – the most lucrative MMA league in the world. However, things weren’t always so simple for Manuwa – from a troublesome childhood to several jail sentences in his late teens, it took a few life lessons for Jimi to gravitate towards the greater good.
Born in Sacramento, California, before moving to Nigeria where he was primarily raised, Manuwa was born to Nigerian and English parents. It wasn’t until he moved to London that he admits, “That’s where it started going wrong”. The unfortunate separation of his parents led to constant moving around leaving Manuwa unsettled and troublesome. Academically a year ahead of his peers, Manuwa epitomised the restless intelligent teenager with too much energy for his own good. Unsurprisingly, PE was the only class Manuwa excelled in, as Jimi reflects “When we got here I was more advanced in school than the other kids I was with, so I was restless as I knew everything they were teaching us, I was bored. I really excelled at sport, they used to threaten me with not being able to participate in PE if I didn’t behave”.
Unfortunately, despite moving through a total of seven different schools, Jimi wasn’t able to settle-down and eventually dropped out of school entirely when he was 14. A life of petty crime and misdeeds awaited him, “I got chucked out of school and then I discovered money and designer clothes. We used to do things and get in trouble but I was never into gangs, more close friends having fun”, Manuwa tells me with vivid directness. But for all of Manuwa’s confidence and clarity of thought, he could not put his finger on what led him down this path. Citing he was from a good family and acknowledging knowing the difference between wrong and right, Manuwa shrugs his broad shoulders and shakes his head. What I find intriguing with Jimi Manuwa is his composure, as he leafs through anecdotes and memories his face remains utterly placid, his voice monotone and his sentences slow and contemplative but always with an underlying assuredness.
Manuwa launched himself into a life of crime serving several small jail sentences throughout his teens, but it wasn’t until his early 20s where he was sentenced to 3 years in jail that he finally realised the trajectory to-which his life was headed. “I got 3 years when I was 22 and that’s when it opened my eyes. Prison is full of drug addicts, murderers and tramps; I hated it so much. I promised myself I would never go back again”, Manuwa states firmly, revealing a little passion in his voice for the first time, only emphasising his disdain and resolve. Still, this was the turning point Manuwa’s life had been waiting for. On leaving prison, Manuwa started trading cars before opening a car rental business with a friend of his, “I did that for a couple of years and that was satisfying for me, after that I got into MMA”.
MMA is the abbreviation for Mixed Martial Arts, a collective of fighting disciplines that has now gravitated to the fore of world sport. Fighters have to be all-rounded – fast, strong, ruthless, intelligent, to compete you have to be a complete athlete. The fact Jimi Manuwa only began fighting professionally when he was 27 is awe-inspiring yet alien to an art which takes so much dedication and training. Puzzled, I asked him how he fell into the sport so easily, Manuwa told me about a friend of his who was involved in the sport that once invited him down to watch a fight. “Everyone knew I was a good natural fighter from street fighting, so when I used to go watch him everyone used to ask when was I going to get involved. I wasn’t interested in it but after an injury I suffered at the gym I went to a few training sessions with him. I enjoyed it so I said to him if you get me a fight then I’d fight. He came back the next day with a fight for me in 2 weeks”. Manuwa oozing belief relayed to me just how he won the fight, having only had 2 weeks full training in the sport before his professional debut. The level of belief and assuredness it must take to manage such a feat must be unimaginable, yet as Manuwa speaks me through the early days of his career it is hard not to get swept up in his confidence, which is enchantingly undeniably certain. He goes on in his typically monotone expressionless voice, “…within a year and a half I was ranked no.5 in the UK and had just won the title” – no big deal then.
Today Manuwa is signed to UFC, the global flagship brand for MMA and the most competitive fighting league in the world. He talks me through his training camps, the build-up to marquee fights, a step-by-step walkthrough from changing room to ring on fight night. – I got a buzz just from listening. Very much in the moment I asked Manuwa the cliché question of what makes him a good fighter, “My willpower, my aggression and my self-belief. I’m not outspoken, I’m not loud, I do my talking when I’m fighting. That’s who I’ve always been”, Manuwa replied instantly and assertively. When relaying fight nights and training, Jimi Manuwa seems typically blasé, but it is lined with a belief so pure that it is infectious – you hang onto his every word.
Well past his darkest days, Manuwa now runs his own gym outside of UFC, working and training with kids. There’s almost a sense of redemption to his deeds, “it feels good to be able to steer them away from trouble. It’s better to be smart. If they can get into martial arts then that’s a career option for them”. I absorb that perhaps he wishes there was a person offering the same kind of escape for him when he was growing up. His selflessness doesn’t stop there as he reveals to me he has performed talks at his old schools – something he didn’t feel overwhelmingly comfortable about yet he knew it was the right thing to do.
The modern Jimi Manuwa is a virtuous family man, devoted to his partner and his daughters. He believes firmly in the foundations of family life and raising a family unit, “Although I’m hard-headed, I see myself changing more and more as they grow up”, Manuwa states fondly. Sweeping through his Instagram account there are various endearing photos of his daughters adorably sitting in on his training, spotting him and supporting him. Although he tells me they have never been to a fight, it is quite evident that their existence alone further fuels Manuwa’s quest for dominance.
With Jimi Manuwa, I expected a character arrogant and flippant, obnoxious and outspoken ala Mike Tyson. I did not expect to meet a character humble, determined and as black and white as Manuwa was. As with every fighter it is almost the fear of losing that drives their unshakeable confidence. The pride of these men is immeasurable yet Manuwa was frank with every answer given. He didn’t answer tender questions regretfully or carelessly, yet he didn’t answer nervously nor shamefully either. It would seem he channelled his pride at the right moments and I felt our exchange was all the more vivid for it. Having reinvented himself through his own process of error and improvement, Manuwa simply learnt how to control and master his demons. I spoke with a behemoth sipping herbal tea relaying his darkest hours without so much as a flinch or a bowed head, yet inside the octagon Manuwa brings his demons and his rage to the fore. A champion, an established fighter ruthless and formidable, yet a man altruistic, fatherly, and ambitious. Ultimately, Jimi Manuwa is a man who mastered his own expectations and became a human richer for his own mistakes.
Words by Charlie Allen
Photography by Robin Bharaj
Retouch by Aidan Cochrane
Styling by Edith Walker
Grooming by Josie Chan