A bantamweight clash more than a year in the making between champion Demarte Pena and interim titlist Irshaad Sayed, the EFC 55 main event on November 11 is already being dubbed “the most promoted, hyped ... biggest fight in EFC history,” by president Cairo Howarth. And for Sayed, the fight represents an opportunity to collect a second national MMA championship, after claiming the Chinese title in 2013.
“It’s pretty special,” offers Sayed, who is in the final stages of cutting weight to make the 61 kg limit. “It’s actually not about the belt … if I was fighting somebody else for the belt now I wouldn’t be satisfied because I want to fight Demarte ... I feel I’m one of the talents from South Africa that can represent EFC and represent South Africa on an international level.”
That international standard is perhaps the only thing the 11-2 Cape Town native knows.
Taking his first professional kickboxing match at just 17 years old, Sayed traveled to Thailand before settling in Hong Kong in his early 20s. Fighting for promotions like #ONEChampionship and RUFF, he eventually won the Chinese belt before relocating to Singapore, where he trained alongside mixed martial arts champions #RafaelDosAnjos and #BenAskren at Evolve MMA.
Tired of the hectic pace of Asia, Sayed ultimately moved to New Zealand, but makes the 7,000-mile commute back to South Africa to compete for the EFC. It’s a whirlwind jetset for the 27-year-old Sayed, and he’s hoping his decade of travel will pay off in the EFC’s hexagon come November 11, and beyond.
“I’ve become the whole package over the last two to three years,” explains Sayed, who has won eight-straight bouts, including five in the EFC. “ I’ve brought a different type of aspect to South African MMA and I’ve definitely brought a new international standard to South Africa.”
For this most recent fight camp, Sayed has spent the last four weeks in Cape Town, his hometown. And while the early stages of preparation began in Singapore and at High Level MMA in New Zealand, he made the trek to South Africa a full month ahead of his scheduled fight date. He isn’t willing to leave anything to chance.
With his rivalry with the undefeated Pena dating back to mid 2015, Sayed is preparing to put the finishing touches on his promotional nemesis. The two have engaged in a yearlong, heated social media tete-a-tete that ultimately went public. And when Pena failed to show for an April 2016 title fight, the intensity of the verbal jabbing hit a fever pitch.
“I was meant to fight Pena in April and he pulled out and they replaced him with Cedric Doyle,” states Sayed. “Demarte didn’t come to the party.”
Sayed ultimately fought Cedric Doyle for the EFC interim title, capturing the belt via third-round TKO. And while Pena was excused from the previous bout to complete his university exams, “The Wolf” was given a mandate to face “The White Tiger” or be stripped of the title he never lost.
The rivalry has become a pivotal and key promotional boon for the EFC, as the champion vs. champion bout has elevated domestic and international interest in South African mixed martial arts. Sayed is not shy about why he believes this contest is receiving so much attention.
“It’s 99-percent because of me,” claims Sayed. “Nobody’s ever been this excited to watch Pena fight. It’s only because he’s fighting me … even my last fight against Cedric Doyle, people were more excited to see that fight even though I was meant to fight Pena.”
And just as they won’t pull any punches inside the cage on November 11, Sayed and Pena aren’t holding back their words of attrition, with the champion regularly attacking the level of the interim titlist’s ground game.
Ultimately, the words will mean very little, as five round of fighting will decide South Africa’s top 135-pound mixed martial artist. And for Sayed, it’s a chance to carry the MMA torch for his 55-million countrymen, adding those numbers to the billion and a half Chinese he’s already come to represent as a championship caliber fighter.