Anthony Njokuani only started fighting because he wanted to be a better b-boy.
As an angry Texas teenager from a Nigerian immigrant family, Njokuani found an unlikely cultural refuge and new friends in breakdancing. His avid pursuit of the hip-hop art led him to a kickboxing class to improve his athleticism.
About 15 years later, Njokuani is among the most exciting prospects in mixed martial arts, with a new kickboxing coach who has honed his skills while reimagining his training regimen. Yet Njokuani sometimes still wonders whether he should be working on his airchairs and hollowbacks rather than his muay thai and wrestling.
"Now when I see everybody else that started with me back then, they're all professional dancers," Njokuani said. "Sometimes I think, 'Hey, that could have been me.' I didn't even get to perfect my skills, because by the time I started perfecting everything, I was getting into this other stuff."
That other stuff turned into a lucrative career that has put him on the verge of a lightweight title shot. Njokuani meets Chris Horodecki in a 155-pound bout at WEC 45 in Las Vegas on Saturday night, when he's expected to move up another rung on the ladder to rematches with WEC 45 headliner Donald Cerrone or Ben Henderson, the only fighters to beat him.
"I think he's right on the verge of breaking out," trainer Nick Blomgren said. "Before his first fight for me, I told him he was going to get worse before he gets better. In another six months, guys should be worried about going into the cage with him."
Although Njokuani has been fighting since his youth, he only does it for fun and profit these days.
Njokuani's father decided his family needed to leave Nigeria during civil unrest in the early 1980s. He moved to Texas, where he drove an airport shuttle bus, worked as a janitor and went to school, sending for the family three years later.
Njokuani's parents eventually opened a catering business and a restaurant, but their children found life a bit tougher: Anthony was sent to school in dress pants and button-up shirts, while his sisters wore floor-length dresses. Teasing followed, and Njokuani eventually fought back, leading to plenty of trouble and few friends.
Although he aspired to be an architect, Anthony was the only Njokuani who didn't do well in school, and he quit playing football because it bored him. When the family moved from Denton, Texas, to Garland, he began hanging out with kids who breakdanced in the school hallways at lunchtime.
He danced fervently until kickboxing became irresistible, mostly quitting his b-boy career in his junior year of high school to focus on muay thai - all with his parents' approval.
"My family just told me to follow my dreams," said Njokuani, whose father died in 2003. "My family wasn't like your typical Nigerian parents, who if you don't do what they say, they'll disown you. If I had seen that when I was younger, I might have been a different person. ... The road they took was to get behind their kids 100 percent in what they wanted to do."
Njokuani outgrew the coaching he received in the Dallas area, and his kickboxing career stalled until he met Blomgren through a mutual friend. They began working together about 18 months ago, when Njokuani moved to Las Vegas to get serious about his sport.
Blomgren got Njokuani into the WEC, the lighter-weight promotion owned by UFC, where he lost his debut to Henderson last January.
Njokuani rebounded with dynamic knockout victories in April and October, seemingly improving each month.
Blomgren has revamped most aspects of his kickboxing, notably persuading a natural muay thai fighter to bend his knees more. He also put his unhealthy eater on a new diet and conditioning regimen, trimming his 6-foot frame - quite tall for a lightweight - to bulging muscle.
"He listens to what you say," Blomgren said. "He tries very hard to put together what you show him. He's a real thinker, you know? He tries to analyze everything, but sometimes I just want him to react. We're getting there."
Njokuani enjoys living in Las Vegas, mixing in an occasional trip to a karaoke bar with his girlfriend when he isn't training. He also put his younger brother, Chidi, into martial arts, where he's another rising prospect.
"He was the smallest kid in middle school, so a lot of people were picking on him," Njokuani said. "I didn't want him becoming an angry person like I did. This is a better way to get that out."
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