CAPE TOWN – Even before Demi-Lee van Zyl was awarded the gold medal at the Mixed Martial Arts South Africa (MMASA) Championship earlier this year, she proved to be a champion in life.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, most had to stay home and operate within the confines of their residences. For many, there was a drop in physical activity and an increase in food intake.
Van Zyl, though – who pulled out of the MMASA nationals in 2019 – made it her mission to fight any weight issues in 2020, not only for personal reasons, but also to improve her chances and performance in her mixed martial arts career.
“Unfortunately, it was not just about being unable to make the weight to fight, I was also dealing with a family issue at the time, but weight was definitely a big factor,” says the 19-year-old from Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal.
“2019 was my matric year, and I am a stress-eater … it’s a thing,” says Van Zyl with a nervous giggle referencing where part of the weight struggles came from.
“Due to my matric year being stressful, being compounded by the fact that I wasn’t at the gym as much, I gradually picked up weight.”
In 2020, she started taking her MMA seriously again, and soon tried out for the MMASA championship trials.
“It turned out that it’s a lot harder to lose weight naturally than one expects.
“So I dedicated the entire 2020 and lockdown to getting fit and back into the right mindset for the sport.”
She then had her debut MMA amateur fight in November 2020 where she met fellow debutant, and Gauteng’s Chelsea Hubner in the Alpha Mixed Martial Arts 11 event.
“I got whipped, lol,” says Van Zyl humbly after her opponent finished her via a technical knockout early in the first round of their bout.
After beating Londiwe Hadebe in the preliminary round of the MMSA 2021 Nationals in Edenvale, Van Zyl was lined up with her old opponent again. This time, things played out a lot differently as she locked in a rear-naked choke within 60 seconds of the rematch with Hubner.
“It was such a huge moment for me, overcoming that emotional and mental barrier. You know you’ve lost to someone, and you are thinking ‘if this is going to end the same way?’”
Van Zyl openly expressed her admiration for Chelsea, who also has an ‘amazing personality’ to boot.
“She is phenomenal. I completely admire her and I could not have wished for my debut fight to be against anyone else,” said Van Zyl.
“Our first fight gave me so much motivation to get stronger and better, and to get back into it and prove a point that I don’t want to start like that, so I am definitely not going to end like that. It is definitely something to overcome … the mental barriers of losing your first fight.
“You ask yourself ‘are you going to make a change and are you going to be mentally stronger in the moment to overcome your fears?’ And afterwards, I realised that ‘yes, I can do this, mixed martial arts is meant for me’.”
Van Zyl has been selected to travel with the South African team to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, for the Senior and Junior World Championship from November 27 to December 4.
She stated that she is doing various fund-raisers to assist with her fees (an estimated budget of R35 000) for the trip.
Van Zyl will compete in the junior lightweight division in Kazakhstan and is excited for the challenge ahead.
“I can’t wait to work with our coaches (William Oberholzer, Dallas Jakobi, Michael Mouneimne and JP Kruger) and my teammates. I am looking forward to learning so much more from them and growing further,” she added.
Van Zyl has already overcome many personal challenges, and if she can adopt that same mentality that saw her overcome her fears and obstacles, then soon the rest of the planet will get to know her name, too.
* You can watch the full video interview on MzansiMMA’s YouTube channel, Independent Media’s combat sport media partner.