If you ask Jimi Manuwa who his hero was growing up, he's more than likely going to answer with "Mike Tyson" – and that's an adequate snapshot into what people can expect to see when the light heavyweight KO specialist steps into the Octagon.
Injury has meant that it's been over a year since South London's finest MMA export donned his fighting gloves. In March 2014, Manuwa stepped into the Octagon with a UFC name of such stature that he's on the cover of the video game franchise, Alexander Gustafsson, at a sold out O2 Arena in London. Despite a disappointing second round loss on the night, the bout was broadcast live on BT Sport and signalled Manuwa's arrival as the UK's best UFC prospect since Michael Bisping.
This weekend, 'Poster Boy' Jimi Manuwa travels to Poland to face a man so far unbeaten in UFC, Jan Blachowicz. We spoke to him about being in the hunt for a UFC belt, his opinion on CM Punk's potential in the Octagon and why MMA isn't ready to kill off boxing just yet.
Interview: Corey Pellatt
Both you and Jan Blachowicz are in London as we talk – in fact you're just a few walls away from each other – what’s the atmosphere like between two fighters before the bell sounds?
It’s calm for me. There’s no animosity or anything like that – he seems like a nice person but that doesn’t matter to me, we’ve got to fight in a few weeks…we can be mates after.
Are you looking forward to fighting in Poland?
Yeah, definitely. This is actually going to be my first time fighting outside of the UK so I’m looking forward to that experience but to me, in all honesty, it’s just another cage, it doesn’t matter where it is – I’m going to go in there and give the same performance.
I suppose it’s a reversal of roles from your fight with Alexander Gustaffson at the O2, where you were the home favourite. Do you think a hostile environment could get to you?
Nah, it doesn’t play on my mind at all. Whatever the crowd is – cheering, booing or whatever – it’s not anything I bother to think about. It’s me and one other person in a cage. I mean I hear it [the crowd] and that, but you’re focussed – the spotlight’s on you and you’ve got to perform.
What’s your opinion on grassroots MMA in the UK right now?
I think it’s come to a bit of a stalemate because a lot of organisations don’t know what they’re doing – they’re competing against each other and stuff, which might not be the best thing to do long-term. The fighters are getting better, slowly.
Do you think MMA gets enough shine in the UK?
No – definitely not. The mainstream media aren’t that supportive of the fighters and sponsorships aren’t anywhere near the level that they should be. Some of the fighters are finding it hard to just get clothing sponsorships, even supplement sponsorships. It’s ridiculous. I don't even think the BT Sport deal has helped, actually.
You're basically saying the difference between boxing and MMA is that boxing still gets support from press and broadcasters – do you think debates about competition between the two sports are still relevant?
I think they can co-exist, it’s two different sports. The problem is the financial gains for boxing are totally different to UFC – that’s not the way it should be. Jon Jones and Anderson Silva are fighting and their purse is maybe £500,000 – and they’re the absolute best in the sport – but the world best in boxing are fighting and earning upwards of £30 million, £40 million, £50 million…there’s no comparison.
Speaking of Anderson Silva – there’s the PED scandal that’s rocked UFC in this year– what was your reaction to that?
[Pauses] That kind of hit me hard. I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t believe it – he was the one person who I thought would never, ever do anything like that. Now, nothing surprises me.
Has it hit your faith in this sport?
In every sport you get cheats. The bad news spreads faster than the good news and there’s been a few high profile cases of fighters getting caught with PEDs but in response, the UFC are starting a new drug testing regime and I think that’s really good for the sport. It should be totally clean – it’s what the sport needs to establish growth.
One of the biggest success stories of UFC has been Ronda Rousey. Why do you think female fighters have worked so well for Dana White, and is boxing’s reluctance to accept them holding it back?
Do you know why boxing hasn’t allowed it? It’s because boxing is repeated blows to the head and people don’t like seeing females getting punched and punched and punched. MMA doesn’t see the same repeated blows – it’s maybe a little more tactical – it’s a bit easier to watch women doing it. That’s my opinion on it.
I don’t know anything about CM Punk. I’d never even heard of him until he was mentioned in UFC. I wouldn’t know him if I walked past him in the street...
Every UFC fighter since the start of the year has been asked their opinion on CM Punk being signed – what’s your thoughts on an unproven fighter being signed for their celebrity status alone?
I don’t know anything about CM Punk. I’d never even heard of him until he was mentioned in UFC. I wouldn’t know him if I walked past him in the street, I don’t know…he might be a good wrestler but there are people in the UFC who are just good wrestlers. I don’t think he’ll have a chance in getting anywhere near the title – once he comes up against a good striker he’ll get beat.
You quite famously turned down a UFC contract twice before finally signing – would you give the same advice to the fighters you’re training?Yeah, definitely. A lot of people think they’re better than they are and it can be very hard to get found out when you come up against a good fighter, getting dominated in every single way – every area you thought you were good in. some don’t come back from that. I think people should work on certain stuff before they can compete with the best fighters in the world.
Finally, what should Jan Blachowicz expect on April 11th?
My record is TKO – TKO – TKO – TKO – TKO – KO…it’s not hard to predict what’s going to happen.
Watch UFC Fight Night 64 on Saturday 11th April on PICK TV at 11pm, available on Sky (152), Freeview (11) Freesat (144) and Virgin Media (123) and UPC CH 133 in Ireland.