By James Sweetnam
After overcoming a plethora of life’s toughest challenges, Lewis Mataya rose from the ashes to conquer the 2022 IMMAF Africa Championships.
The Zimbabwean lost his mum and dad at an early age, which resulted in him growing up in a house of 13 people. The youngster, who was raised by his sister, learned how to survive hand to mouth. With so many people under one roof, he had to act fast in order to eat. But while the tragedies he endured would leave most in the dust, Mataya showed incredible mental fortitude to channel himself towards a worthy goal.
During his teenage years, he began training in taekwondo, and although he had little natural ability, he fell in love with the sport. Mataya dedicated every fibre of his being to improving, and against the odds, he became the national champion. But this only furthered his desire for success.
However, he couldn’t achieve his dreams in his home country. Knowing his future lay elsewhere, he made the heartwrenching decision to leave Zimbabwe. Mataya travelled all over the continent until he settled in South Africa under the tutelage of Steve Bazzea. His relationship with the coach blossomed, and together they won the African BJJ Championships.
But his journey wasn’t without problems. He spent an extended period of time living rough on the streets. However, thanks to his remarkable willpower, he used the experience to bolster his character and has taken that sense of belief into MMA.
On April 28, Mataya took part in the opening round of the 2022 IMMAF Africa Championships and instantly caught the attention of the fans by producing a masterful decision win over Allistar Kunene. After the contest, the clinical striker reflected on the victory and acknowledged that he left the fans clamouring to see him again.
He said: ‘It’s one of those rare masterpieces which cannot be replicated. I was not holding back because I was going against a tough opponent. I had to put everything in there and make sure there was no doubt. The guy was tough, so I had to hit him with every shot that I had, and every time my goal was to put him out of there. He took all that and survived.’
‘To be honest, people were spoiled. They did not have enough. Put me on the world stage because there is plenty more of where that came from.’
After his dominant performance, Mataya moved on to a semi-final collision with Geraldo Bok. Despite the step up in competition, he rose to the occasion and stopped his adversary in the second round. The war of attrition left the 155-pound star with a lot of respect for his opponent.
He said: ‘I hit that guy with some of the nastiest ground and pound shots I’ve ever hit anyone with. Looking back, I kind of feel bad for the guy. At the same time, I’m happy, because he was a tough dude. He took all of those shots, and man, I have no idea how he was still standing after that. Any normal human would’ve been put on a stretcher and carried out of there. But he stood his ground.’
With his hand raised, Mataya had officially qualified for the final. His life’s work had come together. However, preparation for the biggest moment of his career couldn’t have gone worse. The supremely-gifted fighter opened up on the tragedies that occurred during his camp.
‘My grandfather passed away back in Zimbabwe. I could not go to the funeral because I had to prepare for the fights. Then my nephew fell ill, and on April 1, my scooter was stolen. I woke up one day, walked outside and my mode of transport to get around, train clients and pay rent was gone.
‘I still needed to pay for the medicals for IMMAF, get food for myself, train, live and pay rent. You can imagine how that made me feel. A week after, my nephew passed away. He was gone. I grew up with him, we ate from the same plate and slept in the same bed. We were very close. He was young, two years younger than me. It was like losing a little brother, if not worse. I was lost for about a week. I was so angry at the world. It was unfair, he was young, and I could not go to his funeral. I just had to wipe my tears every time before walking into class.’
No matter what has happened throughout his life, Mataya has found a way of turning tragedies into fuel for his fire. When he competes in the cage, he isn’t just fighting for himself but for the family members that he lost along the way.
Mataya entered the tournament in terrible circumstances. Without a second coach in his corner, Benjamin Bush stepped up. Furthermore, he had to anxiously await the arrival of a friend who had a multitude of problems getting to the venue. Mataya’s supporter went through an attempted burglary before his bus driver abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. This resulted in him having to travel in a jam-packed truck to make it to the championships.
But despite the hardships of getting to the event, he knew it would be worth it. His friend was about to prove himself as one of the brightest talents in the sport. However, having never operated on a stage as big as this, the martial artist unsurprisingly felt nervous. But regardless of the pre-fight jitters, he found a way to win.
‘It’s the finals. You’re going against someone who has been beating people up just like you’ve been doing. You want to throw down and see who remains standing. That’s enough to make any sane person feel concerned. When I get concerned, because it’s the story of my life, I become very cautious. So that was the story of the finals, extreme caution, where I watched out for every technique. I did my homework on the guy, and I had an answer for everything that he did.
‘That guy was one of the strongest humans, if he is human, that I’ve ever fought. First-round, I knew what he was going to do. Yes, I do my homework. So it was easy to stop him from taking me down. My goal was to create doubt in his mind, so when he saw he couldn’t take me down in the second and third rounds, he doubted himself. You never want to doubt your game plan, and that’s when I knew I had him.’
After enduring an incredible road of heartbreak and devastation, Mataya made his country and, more importantly, his family proud. Despite the obstacles placed in his way, the future star kept finding a way to clear them, and after defeating Ken Nyaondo, the emotion of losing his nephew came to the forefront.
‘At the end of the tournament, after winning the final, I broke down in tears. I fell down thinking about him. That we did it. To me, it was an apology that I could not make it to his funeral, and I had not seen him in four years. I could not see him when he was sick, in his final days on his death bed, so that was why I broke down at the end of the tournament. I do hope he rests in peace. That was the main challenge. It was losing so much in a few weeks.’
Mataya felt an overwhelming sense of pride as he heard his national anthem blast from the speakers. But a week removed, he is already back to work and has set his sights on winning the IMMAF World Championships.
After producing the new lightweight king, the Zimbabwe Mixed Martial Arts Association hopes his success will inspire the next generation. However, the federation wouldn’t exist without Wayne Kademaunga and the organisation’s president, who pumped their own money into the project. The pair financed their champion’s travel, food, accommodation and much more. And now, all their sacrifices have been made worthwhile.
However, Mataya’s journey is far from over. He has the skill level and determination to achieve untold glory in the sport. But his biggest passion revolves around helping others. He wants the people of Zimbabwe to hear his story, and he won’t rest until they do.
‘There are people who are struggling out there, and I can guarantee you that the intended audience hasn’t heard my story yet, because they do not have access to phones or TVs. Those people who’ve heard my story. If they get inspired by this, I’m grateful, and I urge them to keep going. That said, the people who I intend to lift with my story are yet to hear it, and they will most likely hear it from my own mouth as I say it to them and I show them that I did it.’