Phumi Nkuta need not look far for motivation in his journey as a mixed martial artist. There’s a wall in the gym with oversized posters of those who already are or have been where he wants to go.
"Every day," Nkuta said about looking at that wall at Longo & Weidman MMA in Garden City.
And when his head returns to normal eye level, Nkuta can find more motivation, knowledge, experience and confidence from two of his training partners, both of whom have three letters attached to their names: U, F and C. Having Aljamain Sterling, the reigning UFC bantamweight champion, and Merab Dvalishvili, a top-ranked contender, as training partners has helped guide Nkuta on his path, a short one thus far in terms of fights but one that has led to the Cage Fury FC flyweight championship belt strapped around his waist.
"It just shows you that, one, it's possible, and two, if you just work hard and stick with it, you're going to get there," said Nkuta, who lives in Massapequa. "I’ve seen the roadblocks Aljo has had to go through, and I’ve seen the different roadblocks Merab has had to go through, and every single time, they keep steamrolling over them. So as long as I just keep doing the right thing, I follow on the same path as those guys, I should end up where they are."
The next stop on Nkuta’s journey comes Saturday afternoon when he makes his first flyweight title defense at CFFC 101 at Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Nkuta (3-0) faces Miguel Diaz (3-1) in the main event, which will stream on UFC Fight Pass.
Nkuta discovered the sport as a teenager growing up in South Brunswick, New Jersey, first seeing MMA and WWE on television. It meandered through kickboxing classes, jiu-jitsu classes and wrestling in high school. Nkuta attended Hofstra and quickly discovered the university’s proximity to an MMA gym that has produced three UFC champions.
"He came in with minimal experience, but from Day 1, I don’t remember him ever looking bad," trainer Ray Longo said. "He could do everything from Day 1, it’s just putting it all together."
Saturday's bout against Diaz will be a different fight for Nkuta. He'll walk last, and do so as the man atop the throne, the one fighters want to beat to make a name for themselves in the hopes of getting from the regional scene to the upper echelon of the sport’s promotions. Still, the 5-4 Nkuta will walk tall and confident toward the cage to face his challenger. His experience, his team, and yes, that CFFC belt, help.
"The fact I'm coming in with this, it almost gives me a little bit more confidence going in there," Nkuta said. "I don't have to prove I’m a champion anymore. Now I know it. So I already reached this bar. Now I have to prove I’m better than this. Now I have to reach the next bar. So the hunger is still there but the confidence is just even greater with this belt."
Nkuta, 26, brings speed and pace to his fights. Hence the nickname "Turbo." But he also says he carries more belief and self-assurance in his improving jiu-jitsu, honed on the mats of Serra BJJ in Huntington.
"Defensively, I was good. But now, I can actually start being aggressive, now I can start getting the positions that I want to get and keep them," Nkuta said. "Now if I get somebody’s back and I get that body triangle, I'm finishing the fight. I want to be able to almost solidify myself as a finisher, top to bottom at this point."