Fight life: Yannick Bahati on his childhood escapes from war torn Congo to headlining at Bellator Milan against legend Melvin Manhoef

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Yannick Bahati tells his remarkable story of survival in Congo to become a Bellator fighter  - Lucas Noonan/Bellator
Yannick Bahati tells his remarkable story of survival in Congo to become a Bellator fighter - Lucas Noonan/Bellator

'Whoever has the courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves, and put up his hands’. 

So wrote Virgil in The Aeneid, the Latin epic poem of the legendary story of Aeneas, the famed Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. The poem's second half tells of the Trojans' ultimately victorious war upon the Latins, under whose name Aeneas and his Trojan followers were destined to be subsumed.

Yannick Bahati knows all about keeping his hands up, and surviving in a war zone as a child. No wonder the 29-year-old mixed martial artist from the UK but born in the Congo smiles his way through every day, enjoying being paid to be a prizefighter in a searingly challenging environment. The early life he experienced - harrowing to hear - is a far cry from his life today, although both have involved conflict, though of a different dimension.

"There’s a long history of war in the Congo," Bahati told The Daily Telegraph as he prepared for battle in modern Italy, headlining in Milan against one of the modern greats of striking, the Dutchman Melvin Manhoef, the main event here to be shown on Channel 5 on Saturday night. 

"I grew up in Congo from 1996 to 2003. I was just a kid then. I went through three wars. I’ve seen men being killed in front of my eyes. My grandma even got taken away from our house and killed in the jungle."

It was a period of tribal, ethnical cleansing in a civil war under then President Mobuto Sese Soko, who was being overthrown and came as a direct result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and involved several African countries at loggerheads. 

"As a youngster I saw my grandma, my mum's mum, Penina Nabizani Muzuka, get killed. You just see people get shot and killed in the war. That was Congo. The army were collecting people from a certain tribe - the Tutsi - and my grandma was from that tribe."

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"It was ethnic cleansing. She knew they were going to come for her. They came in those vans where the back is open. They’d go house to house grabbing women. I remember my family tried to hide my grandma when they came. But my grandma wasn’t scared. She felt it was her time and she waited for them in the living room."

He continued: "They came to our house with guns and grabbed her. She didn’t fight. They stuck her in the back of one of those open-caged vans. I remember it all vividly. I was holding my cousin’s hand. There was a bike right next to me. They drove them to the jungle and killed them."

"I saw all of that that as a young kid. Life has always been difficult. I embrace all the chaos, and it is the same with the fight game. Eventually I moved to the UK, I believe I was 12 years old. Life wasn’t easy there either. Coming to a new country as a foreigner and not being able to speak the language was difficult. I got into a lot of fights in school. I’m a fighter at heart, so I didn’t mind the fighting."

But back to that early life. With his family, and escaping the troubles in his homeland, his parents fled with him and his sibling to Goma, another Congolese city, when he was two years old. 

"That was where the war refugees went. That was when the war started, in 1996. At that time I had one younger sibling. We went in a boat. We moved many, many times. It was a bad city. It was all refugees hiding from the war, but eventually the war came there too. We moved again. I remember one day we were all in an open bus trying to get away."

Then another remarkable tale of a lucky escape. "I actually got lost once, when we were fleeing on buses. Imagine thousands of people running at once. I got lost in it all. I went on the wrong mini bus. Luckily the bus I was on went to the same place my family went. They were waiting there. It was just luck. I was there in that bus with strangers. They looked after me. I was four or five."

"Life in the Congo was not normal," he recalls. "You’d be having dinner and guns would start, so you’d hide under the table or the bed. You’d wait for half an hour and if it didn’t stop they’d evacuate the city. Fighting to me is nothing. This is the fun part of life for me now."

"When I left the Congo I went to Kenya for two years, mainly with my mum. She had five young kids by then, it was difficult. From Kenya we moved to London. We lived in some shitty apartment somewhere. I’d say that was 2001. After travelling a lot I missed a lot of school. I didn’t really go to school in London. All I did was stay in the house and out of trouble. I couldn’t speak the language and kids are cruel. Eventually we moved to Manchester to Wigan. I started judo there. Eventually went to Birmingham where I started doing MMA."

Telegraph correspondent Gareth A Davies meets Yannick Bahati for an exclusive interview   - Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator
Telegraph correspondent Gareth A Davies meets Yannick Bahati for an exclusive interview Credit: Lucas Noonan/Bellator

There must have been some mental, and emotional trauma through all of this, The Telegraph asks this huge, softly-spoken, smiling, muscular man about to have his 14th professional MMA contest ? "I guess so. But I had loving parents. They’re both still alive. My dad lives in Argentina working with Oxfam to help refugees. My mum is in the UK in Coventry. Only 20 minutes away from Birmingham, where I train. I’ve got three sisters and one brother. My youngest sister is 24 and the brother just turned 19. He went through his own difficult time as well. I’ve got two boys now. My boy is four and named Prince and the younger one is Hunter."

"I’ve been with my partner for a long time. Since my second amateur fight. Now she doesn’t mind me training because I’m passionate. It’s how I’ll provide for our kids. We started dating because she liked fighters, so that was lucky," he laughs.

Has he been back to the now Democratic Republic of Congo, with Mbuto long gone. "I’ve been back twice. I used to fight for an organisation in Africa. I got to see some of my family there after I won the world title in EFC."

Saturday night signals a poignant moment for him, headlining on the big Bellator MMA, on major networks and huge projection. "It’s big for me to be main event. It’s a great opportunity for me. But I’ve been working for a long time and I fully believe I’m fully deserving of it. Fighting a legend like Melvin, it’s a big opportunity. I’m a big fan of his. It’s a dream come true. Young fighters dream of this. I get that opportunity. I look forward to taking out the legend and becoming one myself."

"To me, fighting Melvin is all about business. He’s a legend, but it’s fight week now. I’m here to take him out. I don’t care that I look up to that guy. I’m looking to destroy him. I believe Kent Kauppinen [Manhoef's last contest which he claimed on points] showed him too much respect before and in the fight. The weigh-in is when the fight starts for me. I’ll hold nothing back on fight night. I’ve got to destroy and feed my kids."

"MMA is blowing up. It’s booming. It’s the perfect time to be in MMA. I want to be the Bellator light heavyweight champion. I’ve won two titles in BAMMA and I don’t see why do that here. After I beat Melvin, I want another big name."

Bellator Milan is live from 10pm on Channel 5 on Saturday night.