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Why MMA fighter Jimi Manuwa has a shot to make a name for himself

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Jimi Manuwa
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Jimi Manuwa prepares during his open training session in London. (Getty Images)

It's odd how things work in mixed martial arts. In September, a few days before Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title against Alexander Gustafsson at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, UFC president Dana White was telling a throng of reporters that, indeed, the Swede was a worthy title contender.

There were skeptics in that media gathering who didn't have faith in Gustafsson's ability to successfully compete head-to-head with an all-world talent such as Jones.

Now, though, six months and a near-miss later, Gustafsson is suddenly a big name giving another virtual unknown a chance.

But Jimi Manuwa, that relatively anonymous 14-0 fighter, insists he's not overcome by the moment. He'll face the best opponent of his career by a long shot when he meets Gustafsson in the main event of a card Saturday at the O2 Arena in London.

Manuwa has never gone to a decision and never been into the third round in a fight. Though Gustafsson is heavily favored, Manuwa laughs it off easily.

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Alexander Gustafsson, left, is a major step up for Jimi Manuwa. (Getty)

"Let them say what they want to say now," Manuwa said in his soft-spoken manner, "because I know that on Sunday, they will be saying a very different thing. I have 100 percent faith in myself."

Rarely, if ever, will one hear a fighter espouse anything but the utmost confidence in himself or herself prior to a bout. Listen to Manuwa for a few moments, however, and it's clear that this isn't simply a guy whistling while walking past the graveyard.

Manuwa's confidence is born from his past, when he overcame great trouble in his life to make something of himself.

He was born in the U.S., moved to Nigeria and then grew up in London, where he was a street tough who was constantly in and out of trouble.

He spent a year in jail from 2002-03 for being part of a ring that stole electronics. It was the latest in a string of issues that led him to being a familiar name with the authorities.

As he sat in jail for the last time, his thoughts turned to God. He realized he'd made a mistake. He was tired of living the hoodlum lifestyle and wanted to do something better. He vowed that if he were given one final chance, he'd make something of his life.

He was released from prison in 2003, and a few years after that he pursued the opportunity that would change his life.

He had thought of taking up boxing and walked into a London gym one day, telling the manager he wanted to become a world champion. He was 28 years old.

The gym manager scoffed and told him that no one starts to box at 28 and wins a world title. That was all Manuwa needed to hear.

He saw a friend competing in a mixed martial arts event. He was instantly hooked. MMA would become his life and his path toward salvation.

"There were a few events in my life that changed me and made me focus on a different path," he said, not eager to talk about the dark days of his life he believes he's forever left behind.

His competition level hasn't been close to the kind of durable, smart, effective fighter that Gustafson is, but Manuwa is undeterred.

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Alexander Gustafsson gave Jon Jones all he could handle in September. (Getty Images)

"For whatever reason, I've always been able to hit very hard," said Manuwa, who has naturally heavy hands. "And I took to fighting very well. I'm a fast learner, and I needed to learn quickly. I knew this was what I wanted to do and I put everything I had into it."

He's in position to become a legitimate title contender with a win. He's a 4-1 underdog and there are plenty of people who think Gustafsson should be favored by a much greater margin.

Gustsafsson's reputation as an elite fighter is deserved, as he's defeated the likes of Matt "The Hammer" Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko, Thiago Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua en route to the title shot against Jones.

But it was his performance against Jones, one of 2013's greatest matches and one many believed Gustafsson deserved to win, that cemented his reputation as a star.

Manuwa isn't concerned, though.

"People all over the world watched that fight with Jones, a big title fight," Manuwa said. "And they know him because of that."

He pauses for a second. He's not really the boastful kind, but his confidence is such that he believes in his ability to succeed no matter the obstacle.

He's good on the life turnaround, too. He's training at-risk kids in the Crydon section of London and living the kind of inspiring life he wishes he had led all along.

And now, it's time for him to seize an opportunity and prove that his decision to learn how to become an MMA fighter was the best choice he ever made.

A win over a notable contender like Gustafsson will do that.

"He made people acknowledge him by the way he fought against Jones," Manuwa said. "And when people see me fight [Gustafsson], they'll be talking about me the same way."

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