Volcanoes, killer snakes, and gunshot wounds: A conversation with GLORY 16 heavyweight Zack Mwekessa

GLORY Sports international/Scott Hirano

MMAmania.com caught up with South African boxer-turned-kickboxer Zack Mwekessa ahead of Saturday's fight against Pat Barry at the 1STBANK Center in Denver, Colorado. "The Black Warrior" shared several of his inspirational stories that led him to the world's leading kick boxing promotion.

DENVER -- The story of Zack Mwekessa is indeed a unique one, if not remarkable. The 30-year-old fighter has seen things that can never be erased from his memory and has somehow been able to keep moving forward in his life. He witnessed a civil war that ripped apart his native country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), survived a volcanic eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo that devastated his town of Goma and forced his family to flee, before his journey eventually led to finding peace and settling down in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he embarked on his fighting career.

"I've been living in Johannesburg for a decade now. It's great," said Mwekessa, who faces Pat Barry in a tournament reserve bout at GLORY 16: "Denver" on Saturday (May 3, 2014).

"It's been lovely. It's awesome to sort of rebuild yourself. My country was torn with civil war and all that. They took it away from us. They destroyed everything we had. I have witnessed quite a lot," he continued with emotion creeping into his voice; the memories still very fresh in his mind.

"It's very easy to say 'I've been through a lot,' but I have been through a lot. I have seen people get killed, get shot, I've seen women scream because they are being harassed sexually by the military. I've seen horrifying things. I'm just glad that I'm sane, I'm glad that I'm fine, that none of my family was directly effected, but a lot of friends and close people that I knew were really affected."

"I was there during the volcanic eruption. I saw what it was, not a movie, I was there. I've been bitten by snakes. I've been poisoned three times, I'm still here. I've been shot and I'm still here. I'm very glad. I just think God's got a purpose for me and GLORY was definitely part of it."

The former WBF Intercontinental cruiserweight champion was just finishing his pre-fight photo shoot at the Westmin Westminster Hotel, before having this conversation with MMAmania.com. He was in a reasonably good mood for a man who just flew 16 hours. A physical specimen, he is impossible not to notice while he walks to the nearby table alongside the hotel pool. Accompanying Mwekessa were EFC heavyweight Bernardo "The Black Panther" Mikixi and his trainer from Fearless Kickboxing, Shane Labuschagne.

The tournament reserve fight against Barry on Saturday's card is being billed as boxer vs. kickboxer, since the 14-4 fighter has never fought in a pro kickboxing bout. However, that is actually where the fighter who was once called "The African Tyson" started his career in combat sports.

"Before I actually, really turned professional boxer, I was training as a kickboxer with the well known trainer, Steve Kalakoda -- who trained Mike Bernardo, and Francois Botha," Mwekessa revealed. The South African also mentioned he was Botha's main sparring partner for his fight's against Jerome Le Banner, Musashi and Remy Bonjasky.

"Steve was my first trainer, and at the time my aim was to perhaps have an opportunity to fight in K-1. Things didn't work out as we planned, so I chose to take the route of boxing. Life has its own ways, destiny as well, and now I get to fight in GLORY."

"The Black Warrior," who received his nickname because he was covered in ash after saving a three-year-old girl from a building that was hit by a rocket during the war in the DRC, admitted getting back into kickboxing from having only boxed the last several years wasn't easy.

"It's been a challenge," Mwekessa says. "I can't even say that it wasn't. The first day was obviously very difficult for me with my boxing mentality. I needed to readjust, sort of forget about the ducking and bobbing and weaving and trying to think differently. But, yeah, it came back very quickly, muscle memory I guess, it came back very quickly. I have a very dynamic team that I'm working with that's always there to try and correct me and fix the mistakes that I make. So I feel good, I feel very good about this fight."

The brand new GLORY heavyweight said Pat Barry has "very good technique" and has "proven himself to be a good fighter in both kickboxing and MMA."

"I like challenges," he said. "Pat Barry will be a good one."

Many will point to Mwekessa having the advantage in the boxing area, with Barry having the kicking edge in their upcoming match up. Mwekessa says they "each have them in certain areas" and it will ultimately come down to how they are able to utilize them when the bell rings.

"Saying that I have advantage specifically in one area, I think it's not really fair," he says. "I think we both have advantages in certain areas and it's all about applying them. Pat Barry, of course, comes with a strategy on how to fight a boxer. That's a well-known strategy I guess, for people in combat sports for many years: how would you fight a boxer? I came with a strategy of how would he fight a boxer? I think it's going to be a very interesting fight."

Mwekessa had one boxing match in the U.S. Back in 2009, a loss to Paul Jennette in North Carolina, while the rest of his fights were all in South Africa. He has been to the states several times and doesn't consider America "alien or strange territory" and said "I've fought in areas where I was the stranger. I've fought guys in their backyards. I know what it takes and I am 100-percent prepared for this."

As far as being on Spike TV and in front of an American audience being added weight on his shoulders "The Black Warrior" said he learned throughout his career that "every fight should have pressure."

"If there isn't pressure, you are not going to perform," the fighter from South Africa says. "If there isn't pressure, something is going to go wrong. There has to be some kind of pressure to keep you on your toes, to keep you on track. There has to be some sort of pressure."

Being in a tournament reserve match, both he and Barry are only an injury away from entering the night's four-man heavyweight contender tournament. Mwekessa said it would be "awesome" if he ended up in the tournament and he and his team have "prepared for any eventuality and all possibilities."

"I've had all these years through kickboxing, boxing, and sparring some of the best fighters in the world has giving me the wisdom that I needed to really put myself not at ease, but enough pressure on myself so I can perform at my peak," he said.

Based on what Mwekessa has been through in his life, it would seem like fighting isn't that big of a deal for him comparatively. Not that fighting on a professional level is simple by any means, but the hardships that he's endured living in Africa are seemingly a lot more serious than getting inside the GLORY ring could ever possibly be.

Mwekessa was careful to not discredit fighting, before putting it into perspective in the terms of bravery and courage.

"Fighting is very tough, it's a very difficult business but it doesn't scare me," he says sincerely. "I'm not afraid of it. How much more can I fear if I have experienced all that: volcanic eruption, war, killings, poisoning by snake bites. I've survived all that."

Overcoming the odds appears to run in his family, as he shared yet another unbelievable chapter of his story: this one was about his mother and how he almost wasn't even born, but her perseverance and insistence led to that becoming possible.

"Before I was born my mother was in a car accident," Mwekessa said like he was telling the story for the first time. "She broke her hip bones, her femur, broke multiple bones. She was pregnant actually and the doctor said she had to abort. She went for an abortion and after that the doctor said she wouldn't conceive anymore.

"But, several years after that she got pregnant again," he continued. "The doctor said 'you won't conceive anymore. You need to go for an abortion.' She said to the doctor 'you said that I wouldn't conceive anymore, biologically it wasn't possible, but I am pregnant.'"

"Before she had me she had the dream somebody was helping her and she asked that person 'what is your name young man? You've been so helpful.' The man said 'my name is Zachary' and she told my dad 'I'm not going for an abortion, my son's name is Zachary.'"

To know about his mother's story and to go through what he has gone through, it was more than obvious that Mwekessa has a heavy heart and is a very emotional human being. The stories are both shocking and heartwarming. He wishes to "inspire people in some way" and says "You can come from nothing and be something and that's my story. I'm blessed to be through that."

The American audience on Spike may be seeing the South African fighter for the first time, but back home in Johannesburg and in the DRC, he has received a swell of support for becoming a GLORY heavyweight and for his upcoming fight against Barry at GLORY 16.

"I have received a lot of support, I must be honest," Mwekessa says modestly. "Throughout my boxing career I've had a lot of fans and lot of supporters. I've had a lot of support. But this time around with GLORY I see tremendous, tremendous number of people that I've come to me through different social media, sending me private messages, liking my posts, encouraging me."

"A lot of people never believed that I could ever try to do something such as GLORY and they were like 'hey man you are another breed. All the best to you.' That's another level of motivation. I am very motivated for this fight. I know a lot of people aren't giving me credit. They think I am coming to lose. No, I am not coming to lose. It's going to be a fight. I'm very glad to be in Denver. I think Saturday night will be an awesome night. I'm bringing with me a lot, a lot, so I think it's going to be a great night."

Mwekessa calls himself a "fighter of life" and whether he gets his hands raised on Saturday or not, the resilient fighter lets it be known that he will be okay, and he will keep moving forward. He has overcome so much in his life already, and he lives to let others learn of his story and be a positive influence on them.

"We win fights and we lose fights, it doesn't matter what happens," he says. "The bottom line is this is my story, and my story is not just about positive things all the time. It's about the struggles, it's about the difficulties, the things I've gone through, the things I've experienced and I believe my purpose is to inspire people in some way. I think I've been through a lot already and I just carry on. That's my world. I'm just going to carry on through my world and see where it takes me."

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