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Fishing and Krispy Kreme doughnuts: How MMA fighter Joe became a world champion

By Jack Averty | In-depth | Published:

As the UK sat down to indulge in its traditional Saturday night takeaway, half way across the world Joe Cummins was making history.

Joe Cummins

The mixed martial artist, who grew up in Oldbury and now lives in Great Barr, was stood arms aloft in a cage in Pretoria, South Africa, having been crowned a world champion after just seven competitive fights.

The speed in which he clinched a crown is astonishing – some fighters do not get a title chance until 20-plus fights – and it makes him the first Black Country fighter to lift an MMA world title.

But at 32, Joe's path to becoming a champion has been nothing like straight-forward.

Born in Birmingham, he was whisked off to Ireland at a young age and grew up in Dublin, before returning to the UK as a teenager and settling in Oldbury, getting his education at Oldbury Academy.

His love for fighting had grown ever since his mother – a devout Irish Catholic – took him to karate classes. From there he started to attend other classes – wrestling, boxing, Thai boxing – and his skillset grew.

Leaving school at 16, Joe became a doorman and regularly found himself in scuffles with rowdy revellers come the weekend. Perhaps not surprisingly, he never lost.

But as is an all too familiar story for youngsters in the West Midlands, Joe fell in with the wrong crowd and wound up in prison. Sentenced to four years for assault, he was out in two after an experience inside he described bluntly as: "not good".

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Back on the outside, he kept up his casual martial arts training while also playing as a semi-professional footballer for Kidderminster Harriers. Eventually he had to make a choice between the two – and MMA was the clear winner.

But true to his nature, Joe continued to put other people first. Instead of putting his heart and soul into becoming a world champion, he helped others achieve their goals. He set up two gyms – UTC Birmingham and UTC West Bromwich – and helped train other fighters. He watched as some of his friends and sparring partners went on to bigger and better things while Joe stayed humble and local, raising his two little girls – now aged three and 13.

As the years passed he had the occasional professional fight in the Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC), a fighting organisation based in South Africa.

He had been convinced to join the organisation by a close friend, who wanted to road test Joe to see if he would make it in the UFC – the premier fighting organisation which has produced the likes of Connor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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But as the EFC grew in size – drawing millions in TV audiences – Joe stayed loyal.

Between 2014 and 2018 he had fought six times across South Africa, including the likes of Cape Town and Johannesburg, winning five and losing just the once to a contentious decision.

Then, with the belt vacant, the opportunity to fight for the EFC's lightweight title came along. This was Joe's time.

After five gruelling rounds, including two questionable refereeing decisions, Joe won the bout unanimously after a judges' decision.

"This fight was the first that was really for myself," he explains elegantly from CoreFit in Sutton Coldfield, one of a handful of gyms he trains out of.

"I fought someone who had had 39 professional fights to my six. I was coming in as the big underdog and to the outside world on paper it was mad. The guy had 29 wins, 26 knockouts. So on paper for me, in my seventh fight, I had no reason being there.

"But I spent 11 years training. I knew my skill level and my ability, I just never had the chance to properly showcase it to the world because of work and the lifestyle I led. My coaches told me this was the first fight I was going to do in my career for myself and that I was capable of beating him – and dominating him – which is exactly what I did, and now I am lightweight champion of the world."

The grin when he utters those words is unmistakable.

"It is surreal saying it out loud to be honest," he continues. " I am just a normal kid from a mixed path. I am a bit of a geek, I love fishing, I fish all the time. I do normal things, chill with my mates, and so it is just surreal to say that I am a world champion.

"I can always turn around to my kids and my grandkids and say your dad was a world champion. It is mad to think that this is where I have come to, especially when you think I never thought I would take it as seriously as I do now."

Joe's success, he says, is down to two very simple things – the people he holds closest, and fishing.

"I love fish and water," he says giddily, knowing the shocked reaction that will follow. "I've got my own boat so me and the lads just head out down rivers and catch some fish. It helps get away from city life as well.

"I need that balance. If I did not have it I do not think I would enjoy fighting – or fishing – as much as I do. It is one extreme to another and the balance helps me appreciate them both."

Asked about the influence of his mother and his partner, Joe added: "I've got the soft side from being brought up by a female but my mum is Irish and she is really fiery. She always used to tell me to stand up for myself, if you are ever in problems you only go forward, never back. The best way of defence is attack, no matter what.

"She always used to say to me that she would rather visit me in a hospital bed after I have defended myself rather than having walked away. She knew with my heart and how I am I would not be able to live with that mentally. S

"She always taught me please and thank you, manners no matter what, anybody who is older you respect 10 times as much. I owe everything to her, although I would not bring her to a fight as she would probably try and jump in the cage. She is barmy."

He added: "My partner has been telling me for 11 years to do it for myself rather than helping other people. She sees how far some of the lads have gone career wise who I have trained because they have been selfish and done what is best for them. She has been trying to tell me to do my own thing for years."

Despite common misconceptions, MMA is not just a case of being punched in the head a lot and then collecting a cheque at the end of a fight. It involves gruelling training, and a massive team that help to prepare you for all eventualities.

Joe explains: "What people do not understand with that fighting is that although you are the one putting your body on the line, it puts pressure on everyone else who loves you and supports you. That's why you need to have good people around you.

"The whole team needs to be as one. It is not an individual sport, you will not get to a good position in the game without a good team. To me, it is more of a team sport than football. Without your team, the people you spar with, you cannot get anywhere."

Asked about the training, Joe added: "Mentally it is really tough. I might be in decent shape but I love food, I love cake, I have got a proper sweet tooth. We normally have 10-week training camps so if you fight twice a year that is half the year you are spending in training. I train three times a day, six times a week, sometimes up to two hours each session. That obviously includes dieting, weighing your food, weighing your water – you have got to measure everything.

"I started the camp before my last fight at 83kg, and the weight I needed to be at in 12 weeks so 70kg. That's me muscular at 83kg so to get down to 70 is seriously difficult. Without my nutritionist, my strength and condition coach, my head coach getting on my back checking I've eaten this and that, it would not have been possible. Cutting the weight is more dangerous than the actual fight itself because you are putting your body under so much pressure.

"In camp I am waking up at 4.30am and training at 5am, 11am and 6pm for three months."

But Joe, who uses gyms in Stafford and Wolverhampton for his training, wouldn't change it for the world. In fact he sees martial arts as a force for good, and a way to get the youths of today off the streets in a bid to tackle knife crime. He talks about wanting to go into schools to try and help steer children away from the path

He said: "Even thought it is a violent sport it teaches discipline and determination. You learn nothing but manners and respect for people, you treat everybody how you want to be treated.

"MMA shows young kids friendship, unity and a healthy way of life. When everybody steps on the mat regardless of their ethnic or religious background, you are all the same.

"I feel that a lot of the kids that involved with knife crime all spurs down to them being bored. If you are out on the street carrying a knife then it means you haven't got anything better to do. Why are you bored? It is because you can't get a job. Why can't you get a job? Maybe because things aren't in the right place. So you're looking to get money and you're drawn down the illegal avenues.

"MMA is a way of channelling anger and stress and making people want to help others. A lot of kids feel like they aren't part of something which is why they end up in gangs, but MMA gives you that. When you become a member of a gym you're part of a family. If you've got a problem at home or whatever you can come and speak to your coach about it. It is more than a gym, it is a family.

"I definitely believe MMA is the way forward for the youth of today."

Next up for Joe is the defence of his world title, probably later this year, and he also plans to open a new gym with his head coach Adam Boyce – either in Birmingham or Great Barr – after his previous two had to close.

The ultimate end goal is simple however: "Fishing and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, that's the good life."

Jack Averty

By Jack Averty
Senior Reporter - @javerty_star

Reporter with the Express & Star, based at head office in Wolverhampton

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