On September 28th, Manuel Gaxhja will arrive at the Apex in Las Vegas for the first time. Like many fighters on this year’s Contender Series, this will be the first time he will have fought in the US. Gaxhja will be over 5,000 miles from the Netherlands, where he now calls home. But despite all of these new experiences and distance travelled – it’s the same ol’ same ol’ for Gaxhja.
Gaxhja has been moving around Europe for a good portion of his professional career in search of new challenges.
“I was born in Albania and then I moved to Greece, and after reaching some levels in Greece, I found that I needed to move out to a country that is more advanced – not only about martial arts, but also the style of living,” Gaxhja shared. “That’s why I decided to move to the Netherlands, where the training comes out better, where there are more advanced fighters who are world class, who compete in UFC, Bellator, etc.”
However, it wasn’t just moving from place to place. Gaxhja sought challenges with his training and competition no matter where it was. That’s part of what brought him to MMA in the first place.
“I started taekwondo in 2007, when I was nine. I was always into taekwondo, the martial art, mindset and culture. I was in a very traditional martial arts school back then,” he said. That traditional training brought him to an ITF World Championship, but something still didn’t sit right with him. “It’s a sport which is controlled by points – I didn’t like that. [The championship] was a success, but you don’t feel like you’re getting the benefits out of it.”
So Gazhja thought again about the challenge that the World Championship and competing at the highest level of taekwondo brought, and he realized something.
“If that’s the highest level of the sport, then that’s not what I really want to do. I want to do something better – something that will make me the best fighter in the world,” he said. “That’s why I decided to move into MMA. It’s a sport in which you can decide if you want to win or if you want to lose – just finish your fight.”
But as any person transitioning between taekwondo and MMA might, Gaxhja really needed to develop the ground game. While it was difficult for him to switch gears entirely like that – once again, the challenge excited him.
“It wasn’t really easy, but working with real professional grappling, I have an amazing team, I can say that it was work that I really enjoyed,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was a process and I really really enjoyed it.”
Gaxhja will look to complete this next challenge against Chris Duncan on Week 5 of The Contender Series. That fight can be seen on ESPN+.
You can hear the entire audio of this interview at 2:33.