UFC light heavyweight standout Jimi Manuwa steps into the UFC Octagon March 8 at UFC Fight Night 37 to face Alexander Gustafsson in what is the most high-profile fight of his life.
But the British powerhouse has already won his greatest battle.
A troubled childhood left Manuwa directionless, a renegade born through the struggles that life sometimes unkindly tosses our way. Regularly fighting and defying the law, Manuwa eventually found himself locked up in prison in 2002 for conspiracy to burgle.
He was released in 2003, and he soon after found MMA, a sport which gave him hope, a goal and, unbeknownst to him at the time, a productive, limitless future.
"MMA has improved my life leaps and bounds," Manuwa told Bleacher Report. "As soon as I found MMA, I knew that this is what I wanted to do, and it gave me focus because I was good at it anyway, and it gave me a goal to reach. I kept winning my fights, and it's given me a goal and a career opportunity. I am who I am today, and who knows what could have happened if I didn't find MMA."
As an undefeated professional fighter boasting a 14-0 record with all 14 wins coming inside the distance, Manuwa has developed a reputation as one of the most feared finishers in all of MMA. Taking on the No. 1-ranked light heavyweight in the world at UFC Fight Night 37, Manuwa feels little pressure, and he knows that his past has prepared him for this crucial moment in his life.
"I don't think there's anyone who strikes like me in the world," Manuwa said. "I've seen a few of his [Gustafsson's] fights and everything, but I don't really study him...I was a fan of Alex before I had to fight him, but his skills have no bearing on what I think is going to happen Saturday."
Compounding the pressures of taking on one of the world's top 205-pound combatants, Manuwa finds himself fighting in the main event slot at London's O2 Arena at UFC Fight Night 37, a prestigious setting for one of the most acclaimed British fighters in the sport.
Still, Manuwa sees this stage as an opportunity, not a concern.
"I've got a good skill at blocking things out and concentrating and everything, so I won't feel any additional pressure," Manuwa said. "It makes no difference. I've just got to fight and get the win, and all I'm aiming for is the title. That's all I'm aiming for, so I don't care where I fight or who I fight. What I'm aiming for is the title."
As Manuwa continues his journey toward the top of the UFC's 205-pound ranks, he is reminded of his past, of the hardships and the mistakes.
After opening Lion's Pride MMA two and a half years ago, Manuwa is taking this past and turning all the negativity it contains into lessons, learning and positive futures—like his own—for the area's youth.
He's righting wrongs, and, as he has in his UFC career, he's finding success doing so.
"I invite them (children, troubled teens) down to the gym, and we got kids' classes and teenage classes, after-school classes, and now we have disabled kids," Manuwa said. "It's just about giving back and trying to not make them make the same mistakes that I did when I was their age. I wish I had started when I was younger. I didn't. Now it's time to give back and give some of these kids something to do when they're teenagers."
Maunwa's life course culminates March 8 at UFC Fight Night 37 as he steps into the Octagon to face Gustafsson in the night's main event. Beyond this fight, he sees mountains ahead, but he's ready. He's already overcome so much, and he's prepared to continue the trend.
"When I beat Alex, I'm going to have to fight someone else, whether it be Jon Jones, whether it be [Glover] Teixeira, [Daniel] Cormier, whoever," Manuwa said. "I feel that I'm ready to take on the best in the world, and I'll be doing that Saturday night."