“Everything hurts at the moment,” Copa Combate 2021 champ Frans Mlambo said days after his $100,000 tournament win.
Mlambo, 30, had previously fought four separate fights in four nights as part of the IMMAF World MMA Championships, a tourney he won in 2015. This time, he had to find a way to get his fight adrenaline going three times in less than 24 hours for the Hispanic-centered MMA promotion, and it wasn’t easy.
“I let go a bit more than I wanted to,” he told MMA Fighting. “Usually, when you fight off excitement, things get a bit messy.”
So, just the usual post-fight feeling of being a car crash, times three. This time, however, he returned to his adopted homeland of Ireland with a $100,000 check coming his way. Now, his anticipation isn’t the fights on the horizon, but what the final figure will be.
Before omicron came on the scene, Mlambo had a plan to take his girlfriend to his native South Africa to make a formal introduction. The prize money was his funding. Now, somewhere tropical will have to suffice.
“I know it’s not going to be the full 100k because Uncle Sam had a chunk of that,” Mlambo said. “But it’s great. I’m so excited to have done this. Looking forward to the next step.”
It’s been such a long road for Mlambo, the gravity of the moment hasn’t quite hit. A decade has passed since he gave up boxing for the promise of MMA, joining a little-known gym called SBG Ireland in Dublin. He was there for the gym’s explosion into a household name, and while he’s traded on the popularity of its ambassador, Conor McGregor, nothing in his career has come easily.
Once a member of the Irish national boxing team, Mlambo, a pugilist since 15, struggled to get his grappling up to snuff and traded wins and losses on the international circuit. A shot in Bellator didn’t pan out. He signed with Combate to represent Ireland on a global stage.
A big-show tournament win could put Mlambo on the ramp up. But he’s just a little preoccupied with soreness and all the mistakes he made on fight night.
“To be honest, I have to go back in see it,” he said. “But just going round by round, every time I was going back to the room, I was like ‘I could have done it better.’ Even in the last fight, I was like, how did I not put this guy away? I think that what the delay in the celebration is. Fair enough, I won, but I didn’t do it in the fashion I would have likened. That keeps playing in the back of my head.”
SBG Ireland chief John Kavanagh was in Mlambo’s corner through the trio of fights on Dec. 12. He helped “The Zulu Irishman” through some dicey moments, like when Kevin Cordero threatened with a choke midway through the final fight. Thankfully for Mlambo, judges valued his striking more than his opponents’ grappling, and a split decision won the day.
Copa champ David Martinez squared off with Mlambo after the Paramount+ streamed event. SBG Ireland now has a chance to collect another belt, and Mlambo senses more work is needed.
“[Kavanagh] was happy that I won and was telling me he was proud of me, but I feel like he had high expectations,” he said. “He didn’t say that to me, but I’ve been with John a long time, and I can read his body language good.
“I think everybody involved had the feeling that a better performance could have taken place. I had that in me to do that, but I don’t know if I got lost in the emotions. It’s bothering me a little bit, but we still won.”
Whether Mlambo gets his title shot sooner or later is of little concern. Until he’s able to buy his own house, until he no longer needs to fight, he considers himself quite a ways from success in the sport.
It wasn’t hard to remember that when he arrived back in Dublin from Miami. There was no crowd waiting at the airport in the middle of the week. His friends sent loads of Instagram messages – they just assumed he’d made it big.
“That’s not how I’m seeing this,” Mllambo said. “This is just the start of the reign of ‘The Black Mamba.’”