Fighter Afrem Gebremichael becomes first ever Ethiopian to win a sanctioned MMA championship title belt in Huron, South Dakota

By Zecharias Zelalem

It’s a bloodsport even the most hardened Ethiopian sports enthusiasts tend to express contempt for. Likening it to nothing more than a pure barbaric display of primal instincts, the punching kicking and all out fighting of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) tends to reel in very few Ethiopian viewers. This despite professional boxing appealing to a somewhat sizeable Ethiopian fan base. But things might change now. In 2014, Afrem Gebremichael Gebreanenia, based in Minnesota, turned quite a few heads when he became the first Ethiopian to ever compete in MMA competition. And last month, the twenty four year old’s stock rose considerably as at an elite fighting event organized by Knockout Promotions in Huron South Dakota, he was merciless in the cage, giving absolutely no room or even any time for his opponent, American fighter Jesse Mack to maneuver. It took the Ethiopian fighter a mere forty eight seconds of the first round to overcome his opponent, with the referee stopping the fight and awarding a technical knockout victory, certifying Afrem’s status as the 2017 Knockout Events featherweight Championships title winner for the 145 pound division. The video of the fight was released days ago.

Jesse Mack and Afrem Gebremichael at the weigh in, days before their title bout


Afrem Gebreanenia vs Jessie Mack championship fight

Before becoming an elite champion last month, Afrem was an inexperienced newcomer seeking fights just to garner a reputation. I interviewed Afrem back in 2014, when the young fighter had just broken into the ranks of amateur elite fighters and had started touring America for combat duels. Not forgetting his roots, he made sure to inform me that he honed his skills and talent training as an apprentice of one of the top Ethiopian kickboxing instructors, Adane Webeda at the Deru Martial Arts Club in Addis Ababa. He joined the Deru gym when he was thirteen and has since earned himself a certified Taekwondo black belt. A lot of his fighting technique is based on Taekwondo manoeuvres that he perfected while working towards obtaining his black belt.

 In the three years since, Afrem has adhered to a strict training regime and diet. The goal of becoming a professional and one day joining the ranks of fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Competition (UFC) requires this and total discipline in a sport where a single slip can be the fatal difference between being hoisted as the winner atop your coach’s shoulders, or having your face shoved into the ground as your supine exhausted body takes blow after blow to the face.    

    Afrem has since grown in confidence as his demeanor and tone would suggest. When asked about the fight, he was adamant that this title belt would be a first of many. “Let me put it this way, when it comes to my opponents, they already know about me, or they are going to find out the hard way because I’m coming up as a unique character in the MMA game!

  But one thing that hasn’t changed about him since I first spoke with him three years ago is his steadfast dedication to promoting his country through his craft. “I’m going to war!” He declared to me. “I’m going to war with the good intention of showing our true authentic self. We as Ethiopians can be beautiful and strong, and I feel everyone needs to know that.  

       Sponsors have come and gone over the years, and he’ll likely come into contact with more as news of the title belt coup makes its way around MMA circles. But as Afrem tells me, he is his own number one sponsor, pushing himself in the gym while working to accumulate the finances needed to forge a career in this sport. “I’m doing this on my own and it’s not easy with a full time job. I drive from work to the gym full time to pursue my passion. If anyone is willing to step in with material or financial assistance it would be greatly appreciated.

  And the fact that his athletic achievements inspire interest in his roots including his country obviously spurs him on.

“I’m doing this for no one but for our Mama Ethiopia and for the beautiful people of whom I am very proud to belong to.

   This motivation and spirit is what led him to spar for the title on November 5th in Huron. His opponent, Jesse Mack, 35, an experienced fighter whose fighting record can be traced on the internet to as far back as 2010, came into the cage giving his opponent nothing but a cold deathly stare. When the two were told to touch gloves by the referee in a sportsmanlike manner, Mack passed on the opportunity, ignoring Afrem’s outstretched glove and immediately incurring the wrath of the Huron crowd at the Nordby Exhibit Hall which booed him loudly in response.      

The senior fighter ignored the younger fighter’s friendly glove touch. I initially thought the chip on Mack’s shoulder was perhaps due to his being haunted by Afrem for much of the year. Mack and Afrem have tangled previously, at an event in Watertown South Dakota organized by Fury Fights Promotions. It took a minute and a half for Afrem to win that bout by submission courtesy to a well executed “guillotine” hold choke. That was back in February of 2016. Afrem has since gone on to compete in three more fights, winning two of them.

     But as Afrem told EthioSports exclusively, his trash talking antics are probably what ticked the veteran off. “The fact that he didn’t want to touch gloves wasn’t surprising, I got on his nerves!” the Ethiopian fighter explained. “I was antagonizing him the whole time, especially on the day of the weigh ins.”

“I had beaten him in under two minutes the last time we faced each other. So before this fight, I went up and said “Hey Jesse! I hope you don’t tap out on me quick this time because I’m trying to put a show on for the people watching!” He was obviously mad by the time we were supposed to touch gloves.

  Despite his antics, a normal feature of MMA used to intimidate opponents, his focus on the goal wouldn’t wane. It would be a second go at taming Jesse Mack, but this time round there would be much more on the line, a title winning belt which could open the door to more lucrative fights. Afrem was seeking to rebound from a loss back in March to Todd Mcwhorter and would do so emphatically.

Afrem walked into the Nordby Exhibit Hall carrying a giant Ethiopian flag with an Ethiopian Gurage music single, Ker Yehun by Feleke Maru, playing as his entrance song. He danced his way to his corner in a performance that was eaten up by the crowd. But he promptly showed he could entertain in and out of the cage. Barely ten seconds into the fight, the pacey Afrem had the American fighter on the back foot, as Mack was barely able to deal with the barrage of punches and kicks to the head and abdomen thrown at him. A poor attempt by Mack at tackling his opponent, saw him lose his footing and the slip up sealed his fate. Mack, subdued, and unable to get up, was now at Afrem’s mercy and had to shift around from prone turtle shell pose to supine position on his back just to get his opponent back in view. An attempt at standing up saw Afrem toss Mack back down. Mack, a horrified look in his eyes, lying on his back in a desperate defense from the blows of his eager opponent towering over him, made a third attempt to get back to his feet. This time, Afrem grabbed him by the shoulder and with Mack’s head totally exposed, the American offered no response to a flurry of punches to the head. Mack, pinned down on the ground by the head, had nobody but the referee to come to his rescue. After Mack, trapped, limp and barely moving, absorbed around a dozen unanswered chops to the side of the head, the referee, having seen enough, waved Afrem away, ending the assault and the title fight at forty eight seconds into the first round.

  Mack, who had just taken a severe beating, lay sprawled out on the mat, motionless and in need of assistance. The euphoric Afrem Gebremichael, clearly buoyed over by the crowd cheering his every move since his sportsmanlike pre-fight gesture was rejected by Mack, added a cherry to top a perfectly baked cake, running off and performing a backflip worthy of a ten score. The Ethiopian fighter’s heroics before, during and after the fight, certainly made the spectacle worth the ticket money.   

With the win in Huron South Dakota, Afrem Gebremichael Gebreanenia improves his amateur elite record to 3-3-0, with a championship title belt to boot. He has now won three of his last four fights. With the way he closed out 2017, 2018 looks to be a promising year as the former student of Addis Ababa’s Deru Martial Arts School continues to mature as a fighter and establish his name in America. On his Facebook page, it’s clear that Afrem’s heroics have clearly won him many fans, as hundreds of likes, shares and comments congratulating him or expressing amazement would testify to his increasing popularity. Despite this, Afrem still appears to have his feet on the ground. Upon my reminding him that he is now the first ever Ethiopian to win a MMA elite championship title, his sense of duty and dedication to his roots are the sentiments that flare up before any sense of accomplishment.

    “To get the belt as the first Ethiopian MMA fighter is a sign of my promising to continue representing the culture and the way of life we stand for. Also I hope to expand martial arts among Ethiopians and push others to try MMA. I’m trying to show the possibilities despite the obvious risks I face.”

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