Themba Gorimbo sat on a stool in the middle of a cage at MMA Masters gym in Miami. He wore a red shirt with the word “Zimbabwe” on it, a shoutout to his home country 8,000 miles from where he sat.
A few feet away from that cage was Gorimbo’s home at the time: a sofa in the corner of the gym. It was late July 2023, almost two months to the day after the African fighter’s first UFC victory and about four months after he traveled to the United States with essentially just the clothes on his back.
In front of Gorimbo was a camera. He believed he was being filmed for a video by Project Rock, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s apparel line through Under Armour, which has a sneaker contract with the UFC. That was true, but there was more to come.
While Gorimbo was talking to a producer with the camera rolling, a well-muscled, 6-foot-5 figure sneaked into the cage to Gorimbo’s left, just inside his peripheral vision. Gorimbo turned and saw Johnson. Shocked, he put his head in his hands, got up and gave Johnson a bear hug.
That was a big surprise for Gorimbo. But it wasn’t the surprise.
When Gorimbo enters the Octagon at UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Las Vegas to fight Pete Rodriguez (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET), he will not be doing so as a nomad making his way alone in a foreign country away from family with barely enough money in his bank account to afford a Starbucks coffee. Johnson hooked him up that day in July with a palatial home in Miami, where Gorimbo lives with his wife and two children.
Life has completely changed for Gorimbo, who grew up in squalor, was orphaned as a child and worked as a blood diamond smuggler in his teens before finding MMA. Financial concerns aside, his main focus is on becoming a UFC champion and paying it forward, to help others like Johnson helped him. Gorimbo has already built water wells and helped treat people with cataracts in his native Bikita District, Masvingo Province, in Zimbabwe.
“I’ve been a hard worker before this,” the 33-year-old Gorimbo told ESPN. “And can you imagine what has been happening now leading up to this fight? I mean, I’ve been working so hard that sometimes I wonder where the energy is coming from, and it’ll come to show when the night comes.”
The Rock surprises an emotional Themba Gorimbo
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson surprises UFC fighter Themba Gorimbo, who gets emotional in the gym.
Gorimbo was training in Colorado with bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen after a win under the Fury FC promotion in June 2022. Sandhagen was heading to Las Vegas for International Fight Week, the UFC’s annual summer celebration, and had an extra ticket. He invited Gorimbo, who jumped at the opportunity.
One night that week, Gorimbo texted his manager, Jason House of Iridium Sports Agency, and asked where he was. House was at the nightclub XS with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. Gorimbo made his way into the club and found their table. He sat down next to Shelby and essentially told him his life story, House said.
Gorimbo grew up in a rural area of Zimbabwe. His mother died when he was 9 years old and his father passed when he was 13. At 16, Gorimbo dropped out of school and started working, mining for blood diamonds — diamonds dug up in war zones and sold to finance more violence. Once, he was caught digging by law enforcement and was attacked by five police dogs.
“You could see my whole body is full of scars,” Gorimbo told MMA Fighting in 2021. “Funny enough, I almost got killed; I think it was on a Tuesday. The following Sunday, I was back again digging the same dams in the same dangerous field.”
Eventually, the military cleared the fields, and, at age 17, Gorimbo fled to South Africa, where he discovered MMA. Hearing this story in the Las Vegas nightclub amid the booming bass of electronic music, Shelby was floored. He told Gorimbo he would work on getting him on “Dana White’s Contender Series” that coming fall.
Gorimbo returned to Africa with that hope, but visa issues could not be cleared in time for that season of the show. It was the second straight year that Gorimbo hoped to get on Contender Series, yet his dream was dashed again. But House continued to work with Shelby, and late summer in 2022, the manager FaceTimed Gorimbo with the news.
“I literally tell him like, ‘Hey bro, you’re not gonna be on Contender Series, you couldn’t get the visa,'” House said. “He starts to tear up. And I go, ‘Because you’re going straight into the UFC.’ Then he like flipped out. He threw his headphones, went crazy.”
Gorimbo, a welterweight fighter, made his UFC debut on Feb. 18, 2023, a loss to AJ Fletcher via second-round submission. After the fight, House took Gorimbo to dinner with House’s family in Las Vegas and had a hard talk with him. The next fight, House said, was almost a must-win, because if he goes 0-2 in the UFC, there’s a chance he’ll be cut. House advised Gorimbo that he needed to make a change to get more high-level training.
Gorimbo agreed, despite not having the financial means to make a move outside South Africa, where he was living. A training partner had trained at MMA Masters in Miami, so Gorimbo reached out to the coach there, Daniel Valverde, via Instagram. Valverde told him that the dorms at the gym were full, so Gorimbo would not be able to live there.
“I’ll sleep on the floor, I’ll sleep in the cage — I don’t care,” Valverde recalled Gorimbo telling him. “I just need to train.”
Valverde consulted with his gym partner and fellow coach, Cesar Carneiro, and the pair agreed to have Gorimbo come over if he was willing to sleep on a couch in the corner of the second floor of the gym. Given his circumstances as a child and teen, the couch was more than Gorimbo could have asked for. Gorimbo said sometimes growing up, he and his brother would sleep on the floor or in a bed made of reeds, a grass-like plant.
“It’s super comfortable,” Gorimbo said. “C’mon, bro. I come from Zimbabwe.”
Gorimbo used all his money to travel to Miami. A friend sent him $200 for expenses. His coaches and teammates helped, including former UFC interim champion Colby Covington, who brought Gorimbo food at the gym. But when his second UFC fight came, on May 20, 2023, Gorimbo woke up with a flu, and after purchasing medicine, he had just $7.49 left to his name.
With his back against the proverbial wall, Gorimbo won, beating Takashi Sato via unanimous decision. The victory potentially saved his job, earned him a win bonus and made the gamble to move to a sofa in Miami worth it. In his postfight news conference, Gorimbo mentioned how little money he had left going into the fight, and he later posted a screenshot of his Bank of America checking account statement, showing the paltry total and writing that if it weren’t for the free UFC meal prep he got when he booked the fight, he would “probably be singing a different story.”
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 22, 2023
Johnson caught on to Gorimbo’s story when the ESPN MMA account on X posted about it. Johnson famously had only $7 to his name before he made it big in WWE and then Hollywood. It was a figure so meaningful to him that he named his TV and film studio Seven Bucks Productions in honor of how he overcame poverty.
Johnson reposted Gorimbo’s story with words of his own: “This is f’n crazy to see and brings back many emotions and memories. $7.49 in this fighter’s bank account. I once had $7 bucks too. I’ve been there on that grind. Got your back, brother. I’ll help. You got this. I’ll be in touch.”
Gorimbo had a feeling Johnson would show up in July 2023 on the day of the Project Rock shoot. He texted House, writing as much. House, who knew the plan, deflected. House was with one of his other clients, UFC fighter Andre Fili, visiting Italy right after Fili fought at UFC London.
“If he was coming, do you think I’d be in Italy and miss the opportunity to meet ‘The Rock’?” House wrote to Gorimbo.
Of course, Gorimbo’s intuition was correct. Johnson showed up at MMA Masters to meet Gorimbo in person. That was a cool gesture. House, who flew from Italy to Miami in time for the meeting, said Johnson spoke with Gorimbo for about an hour. At the tail end of the conversation, Johnson said he wanted Gorimbo and House to meet a friend of his, someone who had connections in Miami and could help the fighter.
So, they got into a car and drove to a home, supposedly where Johnson’s friend lived. They entered the house, but no one was there. Gorimbo looked around and saw a picture frame with a photo in it. The photo was of him and his family. There was another one a few feet away, of him and his son and daughter.
“So, Themba, I don’t know anybody who lives here,” Johnson said. “I wanted to come here, I wanted to bring you here, I wanted to look you in the eye and tell you, ‘Welcome home.'”
Johnson handed Gorimbo a key, and an extremely emotional Gorimbo thanked Johnson and hugged him. The home was fully leased with the utilities paid and stocked with Project Rock apparel and all of Gorimbo’s favorite snacks.
House said when he was first contacted by Johnson’s team, the plan was for Johnson to give Gorimbo a Ford Bronco Raptor SUV. House told them that it would be amazing and Gorimbo would have been incredibly grateful for a meal prep sponsorship or a free gym membership.
“And they came back and they were like, ‘Hey, you know what, we were talking with The Rock, and he wants to get them a place to live in Miami,'” House said. “And at that moment, I was just blown away. Like, at a loss for words that they’d be willing to do such a kind gesture for Themba and his family.”
Gorimbo said he doesn’t like watching the video of that day back, because every time he does, it makes him cry and he’d prefer to focus on his fight Saturday.
“Can you imagine if they told me everything that was gonna happen?” Gorimbo said. “My man, I would’ve collapsed or died that day. Because it’s just like surreal, you know?
“It’s something out of this world.”
Gorimbo getting the home from Johnson has had a domino effect on his life. Gorimbo has been able to get more sponsors, and with that money, he got his wife and kids U.S. visas. They now live with him at the home in Miami, making it much easier for him to live and train there. He has family around him.
“This is f’n crazy to see and brings back many emotions and memories. $7.49 in this fighter’s bank account. I once had $7 bucks too. I’ve been there on that grind. Got your back, brother. I’ll help. You got this. I’ll be in touch.”
The Rock to Themba Gorimbo on X/Twitter
The gesture has also allowed Gorimbo to give back. He was already active in philanthropy, helping finance four water wells in his village in Zimbabwe to counteract the spread of illnesses due to dirty water. One of the illnesses he’s helping with, cataracts, has affected his 92-year-old uncle.
Many people in Zimbabwe suffer from schistosomiasis or bilharzia, including Gorimbo himself. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), schistosomiasis is an infection acquired when people come in contact with fresh water infested with the eggs of parasitic blood flukes, a kind of flatworm. The body’s reaction to the blood flukes, called schistosomes, entering the system “can cause massive damage,” per the WHO.
One of Gorimbo’s next initiatives is helping the next generation of fighters from Africa and Zimbabwe specifically.
“He’s one of one,” House said. “And I’m very blessed that he happened to come in contact with me. Him and I are very close. We love each other. And I’m grateful to be a small brick in his foundation of success. He’s an inspiration.”
Winning Saturday and beyond is integral to Gorimbo’s goal of becoming a UFC champion. However, emerging victorious and climbing the ranks also would have the benefit of more high-profile fights and more awareness for Gorimbo’s causes. He usually auctions off his fight kits to fund something philanthropic.
In December, Gorimbo won the Fighting Spirit honor — awarded to those within the sport that demonstrate the true character and spirit of martial arts via their actions either inside or outside of the cage — at the Fighters Only World MMA Awards. He gave a moving speech about his life and the issues people in his village face. Afterward, UFC star Dustin Poirier approached him and pledged $10,000 from Poirier’s The Good Fight nonprofit for medical care in Zimbabwe.
“It’s nice to see Themba changing his life and lives of others,” Valverde said. “And with The Rock giving him his whole platform, he knows he has a big responsibility. He has to go there, he has to prove to people that he deserves the attention because of his skills as a fighter, not just because The Rock came here. He appreciates everything, but he wants to show the UFC that he belongs there.”
Gorimbo is not taking that responsibility lightly. He said he remains in contact often with Johnson, who DMs on Instagram. Johnson always finishes those conversations with a reminder that “you have to put in the work,” and that idea is “always in the back of my head,” Gorimbo said.
“For me to be in the ‘seven bucks’ position, too, is rare,” Gorimbo told ESPN. “So, it’s just like God put these two puzzles together, and for [Johnson] to be in a position where he helped me so much, I don’t think it’s a normal situation.
“It’s been nothing but a blessing to be here right now. And that’s why I’m always grateful for the good and the bad. I was in a bad situation where I was broke, but look what happened after that, because of that certain situation. And one day at a time, I hope someone can get inspired by my story.”