by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
Until he walks to his dressing room, Anthony Njokuani is a guy getting better all the time. He’s made peace with his family. He’s getting respect as a mixed martial artist. He smiles a lot.
Then, backstage, he thinks about his childhood. “The Assassin” emerges.
Njokuani, 29, is an up-and-comer in the WEC lightweight division. Guided by his idol, Anderson Silva, the six-foot native Nigerian stumbled in his debut against contender Ben Henderson, but racked up two straight victories in subsequent appearances this year.
The promotion is excited about his future, but it’s his past that’s driving him ahead.
Njokuani says he fought almost every day as a middle-schooler in Dallas. His well-meaning parents, who’d moved the family from civil war-torn Nigeria to the Longhorn State in the early eighties, dressed him for school in shirts and slacks, his sister in nightgowns. They were suburban sore thumbs.
After taking years of abuse, Anthony started fighting back. If you looked at him wrong, you’d be up against a locker, or defending blows on the blacktop.
The constant teasing left him angry: at his parents for putting him in that position, at his peers for being cruel. He rolled on a well-worn path, hanging out with other angry kids who preyed on the weak, a sure ticket to jail.
Or maybe he would have turned it around, like his three sisters, who are on the way to becoming a doctor, lawyer, and teacher, just like mom and dad wanted.
He tried football and basketball in school, but he was undersized and got hurt easily. But he was athletic; he tried in-line skating, then found break dancing, where his agility was evident. As fate would have it, his dance class was in a kickboxing school.
He took kickboxing classes to improve his dancing, not to become a fighter. There, he met a Muay Thai trainer from California who had other ideas: stop pop-locking and start skull-knocking.
A year later, Njokuani got into his first fight not on school grounds or the street. He found the perfect outlet for his athleticism, and one that would heal past wounds on the way.
He would probably be another statistic if the sport hadn’t found him.
“I would have been (expletive),” said the buoyant Njokuani at a gathering of MMA reporters in Las Vegas.
Njokuani’s father passed before he picked up steam as a professional fighter. Anthony went back to Nigeria for the first time with his mom and sisters for the burial service, and says the experience encouraged him to have a better relationship with his remaining family.
Like all fighters, he’s chasing a title shot, but he’s not rushing it. He admits his wrestling and jiu-jitsu are not where they need to be to face guys like Henderson or Donald Cerrone. He’s still got a ways to go before he blends Anderson Silva’s striking excellence with a dangerous ground game.
“I’d really like to slowly and gradually get there,” he said. “I don’t want to rush into it. Those two are really good, especially on the ground. I want to get to their level in jiu-jitsu before I want to challenge them.”
Dave Sholler, the WEC’s Manager of Public Relations, thinks he’ll get to Henderson eventually.
“We have a good, young core of fighters who we think can one day be champions,” he said. “You looks at guys like Dave Jansen, Anthony Njokuani, Kamal Shalorus… that’s certainly a fight Anthony would like, and it’s certainly a fight that we would like to see down the future, so I would never say never with that.”
His next opponent, International Fight League (IFL) and Affliction veteran Chris Horodecki, was once one of the sport’s youngest and brightest newcomers before losing luster in a bad knockout victory to veteran Ryan Schultz in late 2007. He’s rebounded with two subsequent wins, though, and will look to establish himself in the lighter weight promotion.
It’s a “next level” opponent for the lanky fighter.
“I know exactly what he’s all about,” said Njokuani. “I know he’s a great striker. He has limited jiu-jitsu, but I think I can capitalize on that.”
Njokuani lacks no confidence going into the fight.
“I’m not taking anything away from his trainers, but I think I’ll have this fight in the bag,” he said.
He has his tormentors to thank for his success.
“I still keep all of it to help me in the gym,” he said. “From what they put me through, it’s made me into a stronger person, so I’m happy that that happened,” he said.