By James Sweetnam
Of all the fighters in the 2022 IMMAF Africa Championships, perhaps none are more determined to win than Zimbabwe’s Lewis Mataya.
The formidable striker oozes class and charisma both in and out of competition. But despite his outwardly happy attitude, he has had to endure copious amounts of adversity to get to where he is today.
Born in a rural area, Mataya didn’t have much. He sadly lost his mother and father at a very young age. But he’s used those tragedies to help himself grow as a person.
He explained: “You know when you get hurt, new skin grows as scars, and it’s very strong. I feel that way about my personality. With everything that has happened to me, I could sit here and complain and say, ‘Oh yeah, Mum and Dad died at seven and six, and I grew up here and there’. I’ve had to learn from that and become strong.
“At some point, I had to change who I was, but I didn’t change. I just realised that I can do whatever I want. I’m free and don’t have anything holding me back. I can travel to wherever I want. I can achieve and work hard. Thankfully, I was blessed with a mind that looks to get better, so I feel free to do whatever I want in this world because I had nothing in the beginning. Nothing holds me back. I’d even give my life in the cage. I’m willing to go all out and hold nothing back.”
After losing his parents, the Zimbabwean found himself brought up by his sister in a house of 13 people. He still remembers having to act quick or miss out on eating food.
He recalled the experience: “The first thing that comes to mind is meal time because there are 13 plates, and they’re all dished simultaneously. It’s 13 people in Zimbabwe, so you know you won’t have a lot of food. My sister, bless her soul. She worked hard to provide for all of us and care for us. You have to be there on time because if you don’t, someone who’s had their share will eat your plate.”
As Mataya got older, he began looking for new challenges. One day, he took one that changed his life forever. During his high school years, he found himself sitting in the library and heard a weird noise. He went to check it out and discovered a taekwondo gym. He began training and instantly fell in love with the sport.
Although he wasn’t blessed with natural talent, that didn’t falter his belief system. He worked tirelessly to enhance his skills, knowing that one day he could make his dream come true. And eventually, his perseverance paid off, and he became the national champion.
“I visualised myself getting good technique and becoming a champion, and within a blink of an eye, I was there, being handed that trophy. It felt good to know that I’m on the right path. It made me want to take it further.”
Knowing he needed to broaden his horizons, the aspiring martial artist made the tough decision to leave his homeland in pursuit of further training.
During a trip to South Africa, he met his coach Steve Bazzea, whom he credits for turning him into ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. The trainer connected with his fighter and drastically improved his game by adding high-level Muay Thai and BJJ skills. All while acting as a father figure.
He reminisced: “I’ve seen many cultures, I’ve seen many gyms and styles, and I have an answer to everyone. I am a person who has overcome himself to a certain degree, but I still have a lot of work to do on myself. The main struggle in my life is fear, not a phobia. But I was afraid of everything. I had social anxiety. I was terrified of dogs because my brother was attacked when I was young, so I had that fear in me.
“Mainly, I had a poor self-image. I always looked down on myself as if I was nothing. So when I came to South Africa to train in jiu-jitsu for a bit, I was this little kid from Zimbabwe who was in this big world of Cape Town with these strange cultures. I met coach Steve, and he became a father figure. This is something I never had growing up. So it helped a lot.
“He’s the mastermind. He’s the one who puts the ingredients together and makes the magic potion. He is Frankenstein, and I am Frankenstein’s monster. I am but a lab rat that knows how to work hard.”
Throughout his life, Mataya has faced an array of hardships that many an individual would fail to overcome. During his travels, he found himself living on the streets. This situation would undeniably leave most people in complete disarray. But Mataya took it in his stride and used it as a valuable learning experience.
“When I was homeless, I lost my mind to my work. It made me realise that I love what I’m after. Because if I’m willing to sacrifice everything, then there’s no turning back or plan B. That’s what I’ve learnt about myself from leaving home and going into the wild of the world.
“You think the adversity won’t end. But then, a few months later, you find yourself in a home, you find yourself in a place where you’re out of the trouble you were in. That’s something everyone needs to learn, that adversity doesn’t last. So whatever I face, I always know I’ve been here before.”
Like most fighters, Mataya is always chasing the carrot on a stick. After becoming the African BJJ champion, he returned to the gym the next day. Since transitioning into MMA, he’s found a way to blend his tools into one to emerge as a very promising prospect. The power puncher is supremely confident going into the championships on April 28. Having knocked opponents out in the first round, he knows he has the tools to make an impact, and he can’t wait to represent his country.
He beamed: “Oh man, I am looking forward to letting out some aggression. It’s one of those big competitions where you can be as violent as you want. The more violent you are, the better. I need that right now. I haven’t fought in a while, and after this, it would be nice if the big organisations can see that they could make a lot of money from signing me up.
“Zimbabwe is a place that most people have given up on. And what better thing in this world than to take a broken thing and fix it like an alchemist and turn it into gold? I wanna be the guy who came from a broken home and made an empire.”
Following years of hardships, Mataya knows that his mind is his biggest weapon. But if the African wants to win the tournament, he’ll have to overcome a murder’s row of lightweight talent. However, he’s already setting his sights on the future. After conquering the sport of MMA, he intends to give back to those who grew up in similar circumstances to him.
He concluded: “I would like to earn the right to say that I’m the best fighter in the world and the greatest of all time.
“That’s the stepping stone to what I’d like to achieve. Afterwards, since I grew up as an orphan, I’d like to start my own orphanage. This is the first time I’m putting it out there, but it’s always been with me in my journals. That’s my goal, start an orphanage, be a father, be the best father. We all try to right our father’s wrongs. When they’re not there, we want to be there for our kids.
“I wanna be a family man, a father. Not just to my blood kids but to a lot of kids that are homeless back in Zimbabwe. And teach them the right path. I feel lucky to be the person I am today despite being orphaned at an early age. I know many kids out there are not very fortunate.
“Now tell me. Do you think I will allow anyone to take that away from me by getting their hand raised in a match?”