Viyusile Colossa runs white-collar MMA programme
Boy from a South African shantytown becomes a winner in the ring and now gives back through charity based on a white-collar fight project
The boxers claim their corners, nervously punching the air while staring into the middle distance, focused on the fast-evaporating moments before the battle erupts.
They are professionals, but of the white-collar, not leather-glove, variety. They have trained for months to engage in the brutal pursuit of discovering what they are made of.Tonight is the first of three preliminary matches in boxing, Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu from which 20 fighters will progress to the White Collar MMA (mixed martial arts) championship in November. A charity event now in its third edition, the championship has raised HK$698,000 so far.
Across the room stands Viyusile "The Cheetah" Colossa. He is a Muay Thai champion, mixed martial arts fighter and the mastermind behind this event.
"Vusi", as he's known, grew up in a humble shack in Welkom, South Africa, with his parents, two brothers and three sisters. There was no electricity, no running water. Violence and crime were the norm within the struggling community.
At 15, he stumbled upon an advertisement for free Muay Thai boxing classes and, being an avid Jackie Chan fan, decided to have a go. That day he changed his life.
"Martial arts is a metaphor for life," he says. "When you're in the ring, you're on your own. It all boils down to you. In team sport you can always shift the blame to someone, but not in the ring."
Training started out as way of keeping the young Colossa out of trouble. But he was a natural and after a string of successful bouts, became the South African middleweight champion at 20, giving him a profession and a chance to build a better life. But he wanted more.
His quest led him eventually to Hong Kong, where he has been working for the past five years as a professional fighter and instructor. Colossa, 31, instructs at EpicMMA studios and, with the success of his white-collar event, adds "budding entrepreneur" to his list of pursuits.
His story has captured the eye of the South African consulate, which has thrown its weight behind the event, providing administrative and logistical support.
"He's an ambassador for South Africa," says consul Bryonie Guthrie, a Muay Thai fan.
"Unfortunately, too many South Africans come from a background where they have so little in their lives, which can lead them to perpetuate the same cycle of poverty … If you're starting from that point, it's very difficult to get out of it. Vusi found a way to get out and he didn't stop."
Guthrie first met Colossa six months ago when he approached the consulate to nominate a South African charity to benefit from the White Collar MMA Championship.
"He has used all his opportunities to build his ties with South Africa and build his country," she says. "He's a hero back home. Among the community, he is very well known." Colossa acknowledges how different life is for him now. "I could never have imagined it. You cannot explain [what life is like in South Africa]. There is no escape from it," he says.
His career has also enabled him to pay for his brother and sister to go through university and build a home for his parents.
Despite its brutality, MMA is exploding in popularity worldwide. The opportunity to train and compete like professionals has proved a major hit among the driven and focused white-collar types of Hong Kong.
"I thought to myself, for [my students] to really understand what I'm going through, they need to fight, too," Colossa says. "These guys don't want to be professional fighters, they just want to get fit and learn to fight."
The event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities in Asia and South Africa, and Colossa hopes it is just the beginning.
The beneficiaries of the third edition are still to be determined. Colossa's brother has established The Colossa Foundation in South Africa to provide bursaries to budding students and support talented athletes.
"I want to create opportunities that were never given to me," Colossa says.
"They say anything is possible, but out of context it doesn't mean much … If they see someone like me, who has come from the worst part of South Africa, they realise they can make anything happen."
"He makes people more determined and focused to achieve their goals," says fellow Muay Thai fighter and EpicMMA instructor Mostafa Abdollahi, who met Vusi three years ago on the competition circuit. "[The White Collar MMA Championships] is life-changing for so many people. It gives them a goal."
"There are not many fighters like him. He draws from something inside his soul. He fights from the heart."
Colossa smiles again. He just fights in the only way he knows how. "My success in the ring is my success outside of the ring," he says.
"I need to be the greatest athlete I can be if I am going to influence the world and the people around me.
"I like to think I'm a success story from South Africa. I am one of those guys who exercised freedom. Many people don't know what it means - they think it's about getting rich. Real freedom is thinking and then doing. Exercising choices. Making decisions, the ones that change your life."