iafrica.com’s Rob Peters spoke to local MMA fighter Chett ‘The Threat’ Meyer about the sport’s status in SA, what it takes to get into the Octagon, and his plans to ultimately fight under the UFC banner.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is not new to South Africa. But in the last couple of years, the sport’s popularity has soared, thanks in no small part to the success of the Extreme Fighting Championships Africa (EFC), and if the television figures are anything to go by, it is on the precipice of breaking out to the mainstream.
The sport’s growth in SA has not been lost on the global players either, with UFC president Dana White declaring that a broadcast deal was imminent, which would undoubtedly provide local fighters and promoters alike with a massive boost.
But before we get too carried away with the intricacies of the sport, what exactly is MMA and how did it get started?
“It started a while back when all the different martial arts like Karate and Judo, and Jiu Jitsu – all the martial artists – were interested to find out which was the most effective in real world situations,” explains Meyer.
“They started going up against each other and the leaders came out of that – the martial arts that counted and that could really be used on a functional basis. What’s happened now is that guys have covered all their bases and taken the effective stuff from every single martial art and put it together.”
The UFC is ultimately what put the sport on the map globally, much like the EFC is beginning to do on a local level. But how does one get involved in the sport in SA?
“South Africa is still pretty new on the scene – it really only started in around 2000,” admits Meyer.
“Previously there were the karate gyms, the Brazilian Jui Jistu, the Tae Kwon Do… then seeing overseas what was happening with the UFC, guys started focusing on mixed martial arts and offering them all at one gym.
“There are quite a few gyms [in SA] at the moment now where you could start. Usually a gym will offer a ground fighting technique or a standing fighting technique – the best combination are Brazilian Jui Jitsu, which is submission fighting on the ground, and Muay Thai, where you can use your elbows, and your knees and then you need to mix it together.
“But what has come out especially in the States and here is that wrestling is the actual skill to have, so it’s like a mix of everything, but the main ones are those three.”
Remarkably, of the five years Meyer has been training, he has been a professional for three. Initially a South African ice hockey player, it was boredom that got him started in MMA.
“I started with Brazilian Jui Jitsu and took it from there. I didn’t get bored of it, I just wanted to cover all the bases, particularly with the stand-up.
“I played ice hockey for South Africa for 16 years, but got bored of it – I went overseas every year for world championships, but found myself looking for something new… and to be honest, for my curiosity, these okes who said they could fight, I wanted to see if they really could – and they can! You see movies and that, but it’s very different in the ring.”
We have all seen the movies as well… but what is it like to go blow-to-blow in the Octagon?
“In my experience – look everybody is different – I don’t get nervous, I don’t go in there all aggressive, I go in there purely from a professional sport point of view. It’s like playing a match for me. I don’t go in there to rip the guy’s head off and all this smack talk. I worry about my technique and my skill. I’m pretty calm actually. The more you prepare for the situation, the more confident you are in your abilities, the less you worry about it.
“We work out a gameplan – all your opponents are different – we practice what we are going to do. We visualise a lot so it doesn’t seem like it’s new to me, because literally when I walk in there, I know which way I am going to circle at the start, I know what I am going to do first, what I’m thinking, what I’m processing… you don’t have time to be nervous.”
Meyer’s next fight is 27 July and when we spoke to him, he was well into his training regime for the big night. The amount of work that goes into a fight is as extreme as the sport itself, it seems.
“We work in three-month cycles,” he explains.
“I started preparing for this fight three months ago. As a pro fighter, we train twice or three times a day and on Saturdays. When we don’t have a fight coming up we go through all the technical stuff so when you have a fight coming up, you step up your training focused on the fight and your opponent.
“The beginning stages of that will be conditioning, but you never want to be totally out condition, because you don’t want to have to start from scratch. We start on the fitness side of things, to build a base, and then towards the end – like I am at now – you increase the intensity.”
So what do Meyer and his fellow fighters feel about the UFC’s desire to head into SA?
“We focused on that being our goal [moving to the UFC]. The pro guys are focused on going overseas. That’s what we are preparing for… this [EFC] is preparation for that. Most of our guys are belt-holders. We train overseas once a year in Canada – we’re going to Brazil this year – we go train with those guys.
“It’s fact that Dana White and UFC are interested in coming over here, so what they will likely do is put some of our guys in under-card events.”
The UFC is the goal for most fighters – in SA and all over the world – but how do the standards in SA compare to those in the UFC?
“I didn’t go to the camps last year in Canada. They trained with GSP [UFC welterweight champion Georges St Pierre], and about eight or nine other UFC guys, and the comments I got back were that we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves here,” says Meyer.
“Our coach is the best coach in SA at the moment and he constantly revises our training like the UFC guys do it… so training-wise we are there – maybe even a little bit better – it’s very reachable.
“The difference is they have depth. We will train with one black belt in our class, while they will have 20. They have got so many training partners and they are quality, while we are a little bit limited – we are about 10 years behind. They were very surprised how we have progressed and some of them are probably going to come and train over here in their off-season.”
Meyer admits that the UFC is a goal, but it is a long-term one, because for now he is concentrating on dropping down a weight division in an effort to get a title fight.
“I was in light-heavyweight and ranked number one. I wasn’t getting fights, because there wasn’t a guy on the other side of the fence who was winning all his fights to challenge me, which left me in a bit of a predicament,” explains Meyer.
“I got a bit frustrated and I told them if I couldn’t be guaranteed a title-fight, I was going to go down to middleweight, which is a much busier division, which has five or six top guys there, so I would be guaranteed fights.
“My goal is to go to middleweight – this will be my first fight – and get the title there. Once I have that then we will see how this UFC pans out. If they come to Africa, then yes, I would definitely want to give it a shot, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.
“To fight in the UFC is one thing. To get a title there is another thing entirely! But my main goal is to have an opportunity, to have one fight under the UFC banner.”