Politics in South African Mixed Martial Arts: The Henri Eksteen story

By Makhosi Tshipa

The word ‘Politics” in South Africa always conjures up images of pot-bellied, feisty individuals sitting in some lofty buildings making false promises to the masses to achieve their own selfish goals. Very rarely do fight fans realize the amount of political wrangling that goes on behind the scenes of some of MMA’s biggest (and smallest) events, and the profound effect that it has on the athletes and fans alike.

Below is the story of a Mr Henri Eksteen, the president of WIMAO in South Africa and the organizer of the WIMAO mma events in South Africa. Mr Eksteen made headlines a few weeks ago when a picture (below) of two young boys fighting at an event his organization sanctioned, went viral.

Thereafter Mr Eksteen came under the strongest censure from south Africa’s national mixed martial arts governing body, MMASA, which claimed that his events were illegal and downright dangerous, and threatened to take legal action against him and his organization.

So we decided to interview Mr Eksteen to let our readers see his side of the story, and this is what he had to say:

(Editor’s note: none of the views or opinions included hereafter reflect, in any way, the views or sentiments that we hold at southafricanmma.com. We simply presented Mr Eksteen with a platform to defend himself on and we would like our valued readers to form their own opinion on the matter).

My name is Henri Eksteen. I am 53 years old. I started training in martial arts in 1978 and have over the years managed to achieve a 1st Dan black belt in Shukokai and WAKO Kickboxing, 3rd Dan Shotokan Kase ha, 4th and 5th Dan Shorinjiru, 8th Dan WUKO, 9th Dan WIMAAO & 10th Dan Wakazamarai Martial Arts Association amongst other styles. 23 years ago I finally made the transition from student to trainer, and from as early In 2009, in line with the evolution of the sport, I began training MMA to my students, and a few months thereafter WIMAO, in Dublin Ireland, endorsed me as their representative in South Africa, to promote the sport of MMA as defined by their rules and constitution (which, by the way, are universally accepted and have been used for the last two decades in promotions worldwide).

Grandmaster Henri Eksteen after receiving honorary certificates in Algeria for his work in spreading Martial arts in Africa last year.

When I started hosting events, on behalf of WIMAO my aims were simply to grow the sport of MMA in my (small) sphere of influence, and to allow athletes from all the various martial arts disciplines a platform on which they could compete without any having an unfair advantage over another. That, to me, was the real aim of MMA as envisaged by Royce Gracie in UFC 1, and by providing such a platform it would also allow the different fighting styles a chance to improve off of each other. My first event was held in early 2010 (Under WIMAO rulesets) and I have strived to host at least 3 of these events every year ever since. To date we have hosted a total of 18 events, without a single career threatening injury to any of the participants, young and old, or a fatality (or anything near to it). Many fighters have lost fights on my platform, gone back, trained harder and returned to emerge victorious in subsequent events, and it is this growth, in the true spirit of martial arts, that I enjoy fostering, and always strive to create.

Mr Eksteen with some of his young fighters who triumphed at the SA Championships in October.

It was only after my last event that I managed to make headlines, but after 23 years in South African martial arts I was shocked to find that the first time I made headlines I was being labelled a misogynistic, sadistic, racist maniac whose primary aim is to make money off fighters by putting their lives at risk in unsanctioned, dangerous events for my own benefit. My staff and family have consequently been harassed by so- called MMA bloggers and keyboard warriors from all over the place, violating our rights to privacy and calling us all sorts of derogatory names.

And my only crime, daring to be a small fish in an industry full of bigger fish, and refusing to conform.

I have always believed in diversity. This very nation is founded on the principle of peaceful coexistence in a multi-cultural environment. My troubles began in the realm of south African Karate where attempts were made to align all the various karate styles into one body with one set of rules. This was never feasible. Different styles have different scoring systems, different ring and cage sizes (in fact traditional Karate has no cage at all), and so to expect them to all compete under one set of rules will always leave the other at a disadvantage. Besides that, WHO gets to decide the rules, for everyone?

I feel strongly that any board or organization which purports to unify all forms of martial arts under one competition platform must be formed after careful consultation with clubs from all the major forms of martial arts. A conference (or something of the sort) must be held, a set of rules and standards proposed and agreed upon and an all-encompassing constitution drawn out. That was never the case with MMASA, and now that the sport is growing, this is beginning to show. MMASA was built to favor an American type MMA kleptocracy (based on the UFC in America), where only the ‘sharks’ get to swim. Small, remote martial arts clubs are left to die or swallowed up by the bigger clubs that are willing to suck up to MMASA’s shallow statutes. Now you have global promotions like Last Fighter Standing (LFS) being driven out of South Africa after only one year in the country simply because they are presenting a challenge to the big establishments like the EFC, which are the breadbasket of MMASA. Apparently LFS’s form of MMA does not conform to MMASA’s rules, but ask yourself this, WHO LAID THESE RULES? One honestly cannot expect LFS (or my promotion for that matter) to compete against EFC based on a set of rules laid down by persons who have vested interests in the said EFC. Does that mean that because our rules are different from those of the EFC, then we are endangering athletes and killing the sport? Personally I think not.

I could go on all day about why diversity is good for the sport, about how the fighters are exploited and how they suffer because of greedy organizations which are not formed with the fighters’ best interests at heart, or that of the fans.  The current situation with my good friends Danie Van Heerden and Fanie Prinsloo are a prime example of this. I refuse to dignify the slurs that have been brought up against me by defending myself from them, I will rather allow my years of experience in the sport, my unwavering dedication, and the thousands of skilled martial artists, young and old, from all walks of life, that have passed through my hands over the last two decades and have become shining examples of true martial arts in society. As for the controversial photograph in question, I would like to say 3 things:

  • There is nothing racist about two young athletes competing, nothing racist about one mixed martial artist having the other in a chokehold of any sort. This is the reality of the sport, and I for one refuse to arrange matches with divisions based on race, so that white athletes can only fight other whites, and likewise the black athletes. That is the very racism that we are trying to break down through sport
  • It is true that these young men do not wear head guards when they compete in my events. However, it should be noted that for the younger athletes full contact strikes to the head are forbidden, and the fighters can only go full force to the body and legs.
  • Further to the issue of the head guards, I feel strongly that it is not feasible to have these young athletes compete in MMA with head guards on. It obstructs their view and makes them even more susceptible to getting hit. And when they wrestle on the ground, those head guards are a big distraction and can even suffocate them when they slide across their faces during the clinch
  • 18 events later, with no fatal or career ending injuries to the MANY young athletes that compete in each of my events… I think my safety record speaks for itself?
  • Each of these young athletes has signed letters from their parents/guardians agreeing for them to fight in these rulesets. I do not think it is fair for any keyboard warriors sitting on their lofty pedestals can claim to have the best interests of these children in mind more than their very own parents?
  • The primary aim of the martial arts that I teach is self defense. Its primary application is in the streets against bullies and criminals. The young athletes that compete in my events have enough confidence not to scurry away in search of their head guards when they are confronted by bullies in their respective schools.

I stand proud of my life’s achievements. I am, and continue to be, as I have been for the past four decades, an advocate for the rights of all martial artists, young and old, rich and poor, all races creeds and kind. They all deserve a right to compete, the right to express themselves through martial arts, and those who choose to make Martial arts their only source of income (like Danie Van Heerden) deserve the right to do so without unnecessary harassment and free of any distractions outside of the cage/ring. Any organization or body which will oversee such should do so to protect the fighters, and not to protect any corporate agenda.

Four decades after I began my journey into martial arts, in the midst of all adversity I choose to remain true to the true spirit of martial arts

True karate is this: that in daily life one’s mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility, and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.”.

Gichin Funakoshi, Founder of Shotokan Karate Do






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