I’m like a pint of Guinness; Black and Irish: Taka Mhandu on challenging racism and fighting his way to the UFC

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The 25-year-old moved to Dublin from Zimbabwe when he was five and is now just a couple of fights away from securing his dream move to the UFC

By Robert Hynes for The Irish Mirror

DUBLIN: Taka Mhandu’s latest stop on an incredible journey comes at the 3Arena later this month when he fights on a huge Cage Warriors show.

The 25-year-old moved to Dublin from Zimbabwe when he was five and is now just a couple of fights away from securing his dream move to the UFC.

Next up for him is a bantamweight bout with France’s Benoit Blanc at Cage Warriors 153, which takes place on Saturday, April 29.

And Mhandu is buzzing to fight in his home city for the first time in his career, especially as the bout takes place at “the Madison Square Garden of Dublin” just three weeks before Katie Taylor faces Chantelle Cameron at the same venue.

He told the Irish Mirror: “There’s a lot of buzz around this event and just the fact that it’s my first time fighting at home. I’ve never actually fought in Dublin so it’ll be my first ever time fighting at home. I’m looking forward to that energy and excitement that people are going to bring, especially because it’s so convenient for them to come and watch it so it’s going to be a big show.

“The 3Arena is like the Madison Square Garden of Dublin and Ireland. It’s one of those places where if you’re a fighter you want to fight there because there’s been so many cards and legendary events there.

“When Conor McGregor first fought there, I was actually there. That was my first ever MMA event like nine years or so ago. Looking back on it now and I’m fighting for Cage Warriors in that huge arena, it’s a little bit surreal for me but I’m loving it.”

But the UFC is the ultimate aim for Mhandu, who previously went viral for correcting a journalist who said he was from the UK, and he knows that a move to Dana White’s promotion is within touching distance.

He commented: “I’m literally living the dream now and the fact that I’m so close to the UFC, so close to getting my black gloves on and fighting against the best in the world , really makes me appreciate the work and the effort that’s gone into the whole process.

“It (Cage Warriors) is one of those platforms that is such an easily recognisable brand. You see someone wearing yellow gloves and immediately you know it’s Cage Warriors and the fact that there’s been so much Irish talent gone through it as well just makes it that much more special.”

Mhandu’s story began in Zimbabwe, with his parents moving to Dublin when he was child due to the rising inflation rates and increased cost of living in the African country.

He said: “I was born in Zimbabwe and there was a lot of stuff going on there in terms of inflation. This would have been before the recession, but in Zimbabwe the inflation rate and stuff was going up so there was no jobs.

“My mam and dad came to Ireland looking for a better life for me and my family. The place they settled on was Ireland. They were thinking about going to England, but I’m delighted they came to Ireland.”

He joked: “There’s no way I would have been happy walking around with a British accent. I moved to Ireland when I was five years old and I’ve been living here ever since.

“When I first moved here, it was obviously difficult the adjustment period and stuff like that, but after a while I found a group of friends that were good to me and helped me settle in. From then I haven’t really looked back. I’m still in contact with my family at home but trying to get back over there is a big operation so I haven’t been back home since.

“Being over in South Africa (to fight twice) was the first time I’d actually been down that part of the world in about 11 or 12 years so that was a great experience in itself, just being able to go down there. Never mind being able to go down there to do something that I love, which is something I never thought would have been possible when I was growing up.

“I’m just happy with the opportunities. My mam and dad left their home nation and everything they knew just to give me a better life and I’m hoping that I’m making my dad proud now because he passed away a couple of years ago.”

Given his story, Mhandu has a very good idea what Ukrainian people relocating here because of the war are going through and took part in the anti-racist Ireland For All march earlier this year to show solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other minority groups.

On the growing racism and far-right groups in Ireland, the fighter added: “I just think people are misinformed about where to put their hatred and where their allegiances lie. The people should be fighting together to create a better world for everybody, not just for people that are around here.

“Only the other day the government denied a vote to extend the eviction bill and that’s not due to refugees coming in, that’s due to the government.

“Homeless people aren’t on the streets because of refugees coming in, but at the same time people have to look at their own ignorance.

“I think that was one of the first things when I first moved to Ireland was I think people didn’t just understand or people didn’t know about other cultures and stuff like that.

“But obviously I can see now that Africans and black people have been well integrated into Ireland now so that’s not much of a problem. I just think it’s a matter of people looking past the ignorance and just opening up a conversation instead of just trying to berate people for them wanting to live a better life.

“I know a couple of hundred years ago, even a hundred years ago, there was segregation. The world was just white and black. I can understand the fact that it’s not long removed from that time so people’s minds haven’t been able to adjust to the way the world is going to be, but at the same time there’s still no excuse to be going around trying to bully people that don’t even have a home.

“They’re here to escape a war, they’re here to escape famine or here to escape whatever and that’s one thing that I thought Irish people would understand. If there was going to be any reason to come here, I thought trying to escape poverty and war would be one of the main reasons for people to understand why they’re coming here.

“The Irish are known for being all over the place. It’s a bit ironic how the people that are spread all over the world are the ones moaning about people coming here.

“At the same time, loads of my friends, loads of young Irish people are moving out of the country because there’s nothing here for them. They’re looking at things and saying I can’t afford a house here, I can just about afford to live on a day-to-day salary just to go out and get my food and stuff.

“They (the government) are driving young people out and they’re bringing more people in, but they’re not trying to keep the people that grew up here because the price of everything is getting driven up just for the sake of taxes and I think people really need to just sit down, start pointing the fingers in the right direction and I think the problem would get solved a lot quicker if we stand together rather than try to divide each other.”

Blanc will be Mhandu’s fourth opponent since turning professional and his first fight in over a year, with his record standing at two victories and one loss.

On his upcoming opponent, he said: “I’ve been talking to my coaches and we know he’s going to come out early swinging, trying to take me down. He knows he doesn’t stand a chance on his feet, he only has one win by knockout but he wasn’t fighting someone of my level and pedigree on their feet.

“I know he’s going to go in, try to take me down and try to submit me but I think he’s going to be in for a rude awakening when he realises I won’t be anywhere to be found, he’s going to be throwing shots, swinging shots and he’s going to be missing every one of them. Then he’s going to be shooting for a takedown and he’s just going to get sprawled on.

“As the fight goes on, it will just gradually pick up in terms of pace and accuracy of our shots. That’s literally just how I see it. So for the first three minutes, there might not be anything going on, it will literally be him swinging shots, missing and me just staying in his face and then the last two minutes is going to be me picking it up and really turning the heat on because I know he’s going to be panicking and looking for a way out by then.

“It’s going to be a big finish and it’s going to be my first fight back in a year. Everything that could go right has went right. I’m fit, my body is in great shape, my mind… I was working with a sports psychologist there for awhile just to get my mind and mental side ready in terms of preparation and stuff. I’ve been ticking all the boxes and I’ve been really just setting my mark from the very beginning to get a big win for Dublin.”

So what does the future hold?

“My main aim after this fight is going to be to stay active,” admits Mhandu. “I want to keep my name fresh in people’s minds and the best way to do that is obviously to keep fighting.

“After I get through this one, I’m going to look to get another one organised within the following two to three months. I want to get four fights if I can in this year, but I think three is looking more likely and then next year my goal is to get signed by the UFC.

“That’s my ultimate goal now and I know I’m not too far away from it. Three big finishes this year and then another two or three fights next year and then I know by the end of next year, the UFC is going to be calling because I’m going to be putting on some very good performances.

“Because everything happened for me so quickly in the adjustment period changing from amateur to pro, I didn’t really have time to realise that in my own head. I was like ‘oh s*** I’m nearly here’ so that was one of the craziest things about it when I sat down at Christmas I was like ‘you’re not far away. keep the head down, keep going and keep believing in yourself, you’re very, very close’.

“So for this camp I’m just going to realise my potential and throw it all out there.”