Phumi Nkuta was done fighting.
He never fell out of love with training and went as hard as anybody in the gym. Passion was not the issue, but elements outside of his control were at play that made him think MMA might not be the right path. He struggled to find willing opponents.
The uncertain feelings strengthened when Nkuta broke metacarpals in his hand in half – a devastating injury made worse when the healing process went awry. A re-break was needed.
In July 2023, Nkuta didn’t intend to make a fighting return, a shocking admission considering his status as one of the most highly touted pound-for-pound prospects on Earth.
Just when he was out, MMA sucked him right back in.
“I had other pressing things in my life that I had to take care of,” Nkuta told MMA Junkie. “I wanted to take care of those things. At the same time, I found another passion in professional wrestling that I definitely planned on taking advantage of. But eventually it just ended up making sense to come back. I’d helped Aljamain (Sterling) a little bit for his camp with Henry Cejudo. I had the pleasure of helping the champ and trying to do whatever he needed me to do. I was sparring with a lot of guys in the gym anyway. I was cornering a lot of the fighters and still training like I’m in camp basically.
“At one point, my manager Oren Hodak kind of hits me up and goes, ‘There’s a fight in Nashville. It’s the day before the UFC Nashville card.'”
Nkuta said yes, choked out Cleveland McLean, and then followed it up with a win up a weight class over Hunter Starner for CFFC. Now at 7-0 as a professional, Nkuta is rejuvenated and motivated like never before.
Spend five minutes in a room with Nkuta and you’ll realize the confidence comes from deep within. Despite his passion for the world of pro wrestling, Nkuta’s promos come from a place of authenticity. Nkuta thinks he’s the best in the world – and more than anything he wants to prove it.
“I’m going to say the same thing Longo says: We can run an experiment right now,” Nkuta said. “Put me in that ring with Alexandre Pantoja as an experiment. Let’s see who walks out with the belt. I’m telling you, you could put me in there with any of those guys. Especially if you give me a camp, I’m walking out victorious. Put me in there against Alexandre Pantoja, I’ll out-grapple him. I’ll out-strike him. I’ll get on the microphone and then out-talk him. For the hell of it, I’ll get in the commentary booth and talk about how I did all of that anyway. I just bring something different to the table. It’s a different level of confidence. It’s a different level of technique. It’s a different level of skill. On top of it, when I get on that mic, especially when I get on that camera, there’s a different level of swagger, a different level of charisma. I’m the best, man – not top 15, not top five. I’m No. 1 with a bullet.”
A major boost to the confidence is the company he keeps. Nkuta, 28, is a longtime friend and training partner of former UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling.
He’s trained at Longo and Weidman MMA for years. Originally from New Jersey, Nkuta long had MMA on his mind during youth, but his mother ensured an education coincided with the athletic dream. Nkuta initially planned to go to college in Montreal and train at Tristar. When a last-second pivot landed him at Hofstra, Nkuta’s neighborhood gym happened to be one of the fastest-rising in the world.
Nkuta walked a mile to Longo’s and paid for a gym membership with the pocket change he had. He hasn’t looked back since.
“A couple of these guys I had already seen in there, in the UFC. But Aljo was the first one I saw get the call,” Nkuta said. “So to see his journey is humbling. It’s really dope. I’m happy for the guy. He’s a champion inside the ring and out of the ring. He’s an influence, too. He’s whooped my ass so many times, it makes me comfortable saying I’m one of the best in the world, especially at flyweight. That’s because I go with guys like Aljo.”
Despite his dominance on the regional scene and CFFC title clinch in 2021, there hasn’t been much interest from the UFC quite yet. Nkuta says all he needs from Mick Maynard is a chance – and the performances from there on out will speak for themselves
“No disrespect to Pantoja. No disrespect to Brandon Royval. That wasn’t a world championship-level fight,” Nkuta said. “These guys don’t have world championship-level charisma. I just bring something different to the table. You watch me out there and you say, ‘That guy is a star and he deserves to be in the spotlight.’ I’m not saying these guys are bad fighters but I’m just saying these guys don’t deserve that spotlight. They don’t have that championship charisma I have. It’s a little bit of sauce, a little bit of swagger I put on it.
“… If they have an opening at 125, Mick Maynard, hit my line. … For me, 125, 130, 135, screw it one day maybe I’ll go up to 145 and 155, and be a four-weight class champion. Champ champ champ champ, do you know what I’m saying? We have big goals over here. If I just get one opportunity, all those goals will come true. The whole world will see.”