Robert Nabatson embodies the fighting spirit. His passion and a never-give-up attitude is what has propelled him this far. The 23-year-old is a Muay Thai kick boxer, a type of martial art known as the art of eight limbs because it combines the use of the legs, hands, shins, fists, knees and elbows.
From the narrow streets of Katwekera in Kibera, Robert has fought his way out of the ghetto to become a role model for many young people. So far, Robert has eight fights under his belt, having lost only one. His greatest victory though, is that over poverty, drugs and crime that have claimed many of his peers.
I watched my mother struggle to raise us single-handedly and promised to make her proud of me, he says.
Where I come from, young people are heavily into drugs and crime, but I was determined not to go down that path. I wanted to do something that would change my community – that’s how I ended up learning Muay Thai Boxing.
He started his primary education at Charity school in Makina, Kibera, before joining Toi Primary School where he sat his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams. It was while waiting to join high school that he came face to face with the negative influences that haunt his peers. To run away from this ugly face, Robert took refuge at Colosseum fitness Center, a gym that has been his fortress ever since. Karate (Goju kai) was his first interest.
When I joined the gym in 2010, I was sparing with the best, and they would beat me mercilessly, he recalls.
One day a friend told him about Muay Thai and he gave it a try. Muay Thai proved to be a tougher form of martial arts, but he persevered because he saw better prospects in it.
My mother was concerned when I started coming home with bruises and other injuries, but when she considered the alternative, she let me go on with the sport. You see my peers were addicted to drugs, many gunned down by police because of taking part in crime.
When Robert was forced to drop out of school in Form Three due to lack of school fees, he immersed himself in Muay Thai, which became his saving grace.
This ancient art, which originated from Thailand, dates back to the 16th Century where it was used in war to conquer and in peace to entertain. Fighters use their fists, elbows, knees, and feet as precision weapons with force, speed and accuracy. Trained fighters can deliver knee strikes with two-and-a-half tons of power and kicks with the same force as a baseball bat. This combination of agility and trickery makes Muay Thai an absolute thrill to watch.
Robert says; My Coach Andre Leenheer has played a critical role in my journey, he has taught me everything I know. My friends resented me because I chose a different life; my vision wouldn’t allow me to sink into drugs and crime. Every time I hit the gym, my eyes are focused on the life I want for me and my family; I want better, that’s what I fight for.
His first fight was held at a hotel in Lavington where he was playing the undercard as the curtain raiser. Undercard is the boxing event before the main match. He took down Ugandan champion Richard Damulira during his second fight at the same venue. His third victim was another Ugandan, Sam Bole whom he took out at Nyayo Stadium.
There was no belt on the table, but Robert went home Sh25, 000 richer; which at the time was more money than he had ever made at a go. His fourth appearance was at another undercard bout at Nyayo Stadium where he was the curtain raiser. His fifth appearance was at Charter Hall, (in the CBD) against Tanzanian Steve Nathan, where he clinched the East Africa belt. With five wins under his belt, he took on South African champion Tabo Chuke in 2014 at the Safaricom indoor Arena.
It was the first of three Africa Kickboxing title fights where he was hoping to dethrone the reigning k-1 welterweight continental titleholder. Unfortunately, the Kenyan champion suffered his first and only loss, with one point standing between him and the continental belt. The other fights have been undercard bouts against Kenyans, but he still dreams of continental and even global glory.
My dream is popularise this sport in Kenya,â€ Robert explains. If we train hard and secure corporate and government support, we can get to the Olympics. This sport pays, from the Sh25,000 in my first fight, today I can get make Sh100,000 per fight.
Robert has been picked by Safaricom in their ongoing Blaze Kenya nationwide campaign as one of the youth mentors.
The platform has really boosted me. We need more sports academies to nurture young people in Kenya: our talents are going to waste. My ultimate dream is to start a gym where I can train future champions, he says
As he has done for the last six years, Robert continues to feed his dream on a steady diet of hard work and discipline. Starting out as something of a human punching bag, Robert has earned a position as a gym instructor at the Colosseum Fitness Center. A typical day involves a one-and-a-half hour Muay Thai work out before hitting the weights for muscles toning. Between 4pm and 6pm every Tuesday and Thursday, he takes his class through the paces, pushing them into body fitness.
Preparing for fights is a whole different ball game; he hires a coach, dietician and a manager to handle the business end of things. At that point every move he makes is monitored, from amount of sleep, type of food he eats to the training regimen.
It’s a team sport at the end of the day, I may enter the ring alone, but it takes a team to get me there. When the proceeds come, I share them with my team. It doesn’t leave me with much, but it’s the right thing to do; it encourages them to push on, he says.
How Popular is Muay Thai in Kenya?
In Kenya, Muay Thai is largely practiced for self-defense and health benefits. A growing number of enthusiasts are signing up gym memberships to get the training. Its intense work out regimen has made it attractive to people who want to stay in shape. This upsurge has increased job opportunities for Muay Thai trainers such as myself. A class of professional fighters is slowly emerging, but fights are far and in between. Many of my friends have really succeeded in Holland. The sport really pays there, and I hope to go there one day. For now I am training hard and picking my fights wisely.
Muay Thai seems like a very aggressive sport, do you get injured a lot?
Injuries are a major concern for Muay Thai fighters. The sport is extremely aggressive and opponents do not wear any protective gear, further increasing the risks. In the local scene, fighters are forced to carter for not only transport and accommodation, but also medical expenses in case of injuries.
My worst injury was a shoulder injury; it was really bad. I could not compete professionally for a year. My prize money was not enough to cater for my needs or even cover my hospital bills. I hit rock bottom. To make ends meet, I had go back to work barely two weeks after leaving hospital. I have learnt to push through the pain and to endure to the end.
So what drives you?
I set out to be an example to my community and in more ways than one I have been successful. I am a role model for many youth in Katwekera, Kibera; parents bring their difficult kids to me for advice. I visit my hood regularly to interact and motivate the youth to strive for more. Over the years, my efforts have borne great fruit with many young people turning away from drugs and crime to engage in productive activities.
What is your ultimate dream?
I want to become a K-1 champion like Saenchai PK and Buakaw Banchamek from Thailand. I also admire boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao, who rose from poverty in The Philippines to conquer the world. He fights not for silver, gold or glory, but to see his community transformed. Success means nothing if you don’t share it with those closest to you. At least I have been able to move my mother from the slums, but I hope to do much more. I may not be able to give everyone in Kibera a better life, but I plan to do my bit.
Never undermine talent. We Kenyans value education above all else, but talent can open doors you never thought possible. It can even fund your education. God has given each one of us a gift that can make way for you and ensure you don’t have to beg to survive, so find your gift and work towards making it a success. It won’t come easily, you have to keep going irrespective of the road block you find along the way.
This story first appeared on Daily Nation, Lifestyle Magazine, Friday, August 5, 2016.