Zimbabwean UFC Fighter Themba Gorimbo had fallen on tough times trying to make his dreams come true. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson understood this better than anyone. You’ll never believe what he did to help.
Living in a Movie
Themba Gorimbo may have come from humble origins in a poor village in Zimbabwe, but that never stopped the future UFC fighter. He told The Guardian, “My life is a movie, directed by God.”
By the time Themba was only 13, he had lost both his parents and was forced to support his siblings by illegally mining diamonds in nearby fields. Zimbabwean police caught him and almost mauled him to death by German shepherds. Knowing he and his family weren’t safe, he fled to South Africa as a refugee.
At only 18, he navigated a river and watched others not survive the journey to refuge. He later said, “It was just like a decision; either you want to be here, or you want to be there. I didn’t have a passport… It was just one of those times you take the sacrifice.” He survived the journey, but the road ahead was still rough.
Not long after arriving in South Africa, Themba was discovered by police without a passport and deported back to Zimbabwe. Within three hours of returning to Zimbabwe, he fled to South Africa again for refuge. However, this time, he would have to deal with more than the police.
Robbed But Undefeated
Upon arrival, criminals looking to steal whatever valuable possessions Zimbabweans had brought on their journey for safety found a target in Themba. He recounted the story, “The criminals saw us and trapped us. I remember seeing this big knife, and I passed out.” Themba had been robbed but mainly remained unharmed.
Fearing for his life, Themba almost turned himself in to South African police. However, dissuaded not to by a friend, he sought out his cousins living in Cape Town. After giving out fliers for 20 rands ($1) to earn enough to eat everyday, he found work as a gardener, painter, and security guard.
Never Back Down
In 2010, after a year of living in poverty to earn primary access to food and housing, Themba watched the 2008 film Never Back Down with some friends. He quickly became obsessed with all things MMA and fighting. The then 19-year-old Themba and his life were about to change.
He later said, “I’m like, ‘This a sport, fighting? OK, cool, I think I can do that.’ I come from a fighting family – all my cousins, even my father, used to always fight. It’s in our nature. I got my first fight three months after training. I won it with a seven-second knockout.”
Even with barely enough money to afford food, Themba joined a gym and began to master the art of kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, wrestling, and karate. He revealed, “I was working as a gardener when I saw a poster for a gym.” He didn’t know it yet, but Themba was on the rise to becoming a champion.
Themba began to compete in amateur tournaments and local competitions. It didn’t take long for him to earn the nickname ‘The Answer’ for his unique talent to resolve any issues during a fight. He later admitted, “Three months [after starting fighting] I won my first fight with a knockout after seven seconds.”
Ready for the Big Leagues
While building a career as an amateur fighter, Themba continued to work as a “full-time gardener and security guard.” With an impressive record as is, Themba knew he still had a long way to go, as he had won eight times but lost seven times as well. However, with each loss, he learned and improved his fighting.
In the years to come, Themba’s record would gradually improve and put him on the map. In 2013, the Zimbabwean fighter finally went from amateur to professional when he fought at South Africa’s Extreme Fighting Championship. It didn’t take long before he took out the title for his weight class.
Earning a UFC Spot
After five years of competition, Themba became a name in the African MMA scene and the global competitions. Impossible to ignore, in 2022, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) took a chance on the Zimbabwean hopeful and invited him to play for their Contender series in a one-year contract.
Given the opportunity of a lifetime, Themba packed up and moved to Miami to finally watch his dreams come true. In his first match in February 2023, Themba played AJ Fletcher in the octagon. However, much to Themba’s disappointment, he lost. He said, “I’m very grateful for that loss because I realised my mind was crowded.”
Living at the Gym
Fresh off a loss that he only attributed to a lack of dedication, Themba decided he needed to put in more effort to see the results he knew he could produce. With only a few dollars in his account and no family or friends in the States, Themba resorted to extreme measures to ensure he was training at his highest form.
The Zimbabwean fighter didn’t have an apartment and lived inside the gym on a pull-out sofa in the back room. He would wake up each day, walk a few meters, and train. Unable to return home to his wife and two children, Themba spoke to them when he could but ultimately put 100% into training.
In Sickness and In Broke
Flash forward to May and his next fight with Takashi Sato in Las Vegas. Themba was battling a bad case of the flu. He later admitted, “I was very sick in that fight. But my only real option was to fight.” Themba knew better than anyone that if he didn’t impress audiences, his contract would be broken.
Rather than canceling, he bought a bunch of medication. He said, “On the day of the fight I woke up with $87 left in my bank account. I was so sick with flu I ordered online medicine for $80 and was left with $7.49.” Even with the flu, Themba won the fight against Takashi unanimously.
Like that, Themba became the first Zimbabwean to win a UFC fight in history. Harkening back to his time searching for diamonds illegally, he contemplated never going back to search for diamonds again when he was hunted down by German shepherds and almost mauled to death.
But once, when he returned to mine for diamonds, he discovered a 12-carat diamond. Proving he was the fighter he knew he was, Themba decided his new nickname would be ‘Cinderella Man.’ He said, “Give me a second chance, and I will run away with it… I lost my first ever UFC fight. But in the second fight, I ran away with it.”
Auctioning Off Gear
After a new career-defining win that put him on the map, Themba knew he had to put even the little bit of attention he had into something good. Even with only a small amount in his bank account and no home to live in, Themba decided to do something that wouldn’t help his career in any way.
Themba decided to auction off the fight gear he used to win against Takashi Sato and invest the earnings into “building a water pump back home in [hos] village in Zimbabwe.” Themba knew he required $3200 for the task, but he managed to raise $7000. Even with the additional money, Themba donated every last cent.
Sending Money Home
Like many others in his financial position, many low-earning UFC and MMA fighters will sell their kits to buy new and improved gear or use it for their living situation. Rather than using his earnings to buy himself a bed to sleep in or a car to improve his circumstances, Themba did exactly what he promised.
Themba returned home to his village in Bikita with the $7000 he had raised and physically built a well that the people of the town so desperately needed. He told Parry Punch, “Who would have ever thought that I would be able to bring fresh, clean water to my village. It’s like a dream come true for me.”
Giving Back Even More
As if the Zimbabwean fighter couldn’t be any more impressive, Themba revealed in an interview with MMA Mania that he owns a gym in South Africa. However, this is no ordinary gym; it is completely free to allow young children from disadvantaged backgrounds a space to exercise and train to be fighters like him.
He said, “The reason I am probably broke is not because I don't use my money wisely. It's because this gym does not make me money. This gym is like for African kids that I let them come and train in my gym for free." He added, “I make money but at the end of the day, I have a gym in South Africa that does not make me money.”
We bet you’re wondering where The Rock fits into our story. Well, here is where things get even more enjoyable. When Themba posted his bank account following his first UFC win containing no more than $8, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson himself couldn’t help but understand Themba’s difficult situation.
Rather than just liking the post, The Rock shared his special memory. He wrote, “This is… crazy to see and brings back many emotions and memories. $7.49 in this fighter’s bank account. I once had $7 too. I’ve been there on that grind. Got your back, brother. I’ll help. You got this. I’ll be in touch.”
Like any fan of fighting or MMA, Themba was a massive fan of The Rock. When he saw his retweet, he was absolutely ecstatic and couldn’t believe The People’s Champion even knew of his existence. “I look up my Twitter and I see it’s The Rock who wrote to me. And I was like what the hell! What’s this.”
He continued, “I didn’t sleep that night, I have to be honest. It’s crazy what can happen when you are able to tell your story, who you can touch and who you can inspire. Themba even admitted that he would “walk 10km to watch WWE” and The Rock fight when he first began fighting.
Dreaming for NFL
Before Dwayne Johnson became The Rock, just like Themba, he was a struggling athlete with dreams of success and breaking out of his current reality. Dwayne was born to parents of Samoan descent, and from them, he understood the importance of hard work and perseverance; as a minority, no one would hand him any favors.
As a child, Dwayne excelled in all things sports. While living between Hawaii and Nashville as a child of divorce, he developed an obsession with the NFL and decided this was what he was meant to do. When Dwayne was 18, he was accepted into the University of Miami on a full scholarship to play football.
Taking Any Opportunity
For three years at the University of Miami, Dwayne excelled in football and earned himself a degree in criminology and physiology. As a defensive tackle, he dominated the other team, and his muscular physique certainly helped. He even advocated for positivity for other students from unfortunate backgrounds.
However, Dwayne’s dream began to wither when he suffered from a severe injury during his senior year at college. Right then, NFL teams are looking to hire players from college; Dwayne’s injury meant he wasn’t considered a serious player. Only one league saw his potential: the Canadian Football League.
A Dying Dream
Canadian Football Team, the Calgary Stampeders, offered Dwayne $35,000 a year, a significant sum, but more was needed to change his family's life. With no other viable options, he signed the contract. But within weeks, he had been cut to the practice squad, where he earned a paltry $250 per week.
Dwayne shared a cramped apartment with three other players, ate ramen noodles for dinner, and slept on a mattress he had scavenged from a dingy motel. The football player was sitting on borrowed time. He was finally called into the coach's office. Dwayne knew he was about to get fired from the team, but it didn't hurt any less.
Poor and Unemployed
Dwayne was devastated when his coach told him he was being cut from the Calgary Stampeders. Johnson admitted, "There was no injury. It's just, 'That's it. You're not good enough.' That was a sobering realization." In 1995, he flew home with his dreams shattered and no idea where to go or what to do next.
Dwayne told Esquire, "I called my old man when I landed in Miami and said, 'Dad, you gotta come get me.'" Dwayne knew he was cash-strapped, but the whole reality of his situation sunk in when he returned home. "I thought, 'How much money do I even have?' I pulled out my wallet, and yeah, I had a five, a one, and some change."
Hitting Rock's Bottom
Dwayne, a former NFL hopeful, was back where he started, with only $7 to his name. Johnson recalled, "It was like the success I wanted so badly and worked so hard for years was happening all around me, but not to me." He told The Hollywood Reporter, "The dreams I had were dashed... That was my absolute worst time."
Dwayne recounted, "I wish I had someone at that time who could just pull me aside and [say], 'Hey, it's gonna be OK. It'll be OK. I didn't want to do a thing, I didn't want to go anywhere. I was crying constantly. Eventually you reach a point where you are all cried out."
Finding a New Love
As luck would have it, Dwayne was surrounded by several family members involved in pro wrestling, notably his father and grandfather, Rocky Johnson and Peter Maivia. Realizing his physique and strength could be used for sports other than the NFL, Dwayne begged his father to teach him the sport.
Dwayne Johnson's professional wrestling journey began under the tutelage of Rocky and Pat Patterson. Just a year after being cut from the Canadian Football League, he made his WWE debut at the 1996 Survivor Series, but Dwayne still had a long way to go, and the crowd had yet to warm up to him.
Becoming The Rock
Refusing to give up, Dwayne Johnson changed his gimmick and thrived during WWE's ‘Attitude’ era, finally showcasing his skills as a boxer and also as a personality. In 1998, under his new nickname and alias 'The Rock,' Dwayne took out the 1998 WWE World Championship and quickly became a household name.
Fast forward two decades, and he is now a wrestling legend and one of Hollywood's most bankable superstars. While Dwayne may have started his career with only seven dollars in his account, today, his estimated net worth is $400 million. The Rock understood the meaning of coming from nothing, and he let it push him even more.
The Rock’s success in WWE and Hollywood was never erased from his memory of how close he came to having nothing. As he told Esquire, "The term '$7' has a lot of meaning." In 2012, when The Rock decided to create a film production company, he named it Seven Bucks Productions.
Johnson's production company has since been responsible for bringing the world all of his movies, the humorous sitcom Young Rock and reality shows such as The Hero and The Titan Games. The company also co-produced Black Adam, a superhero film starring The Rock himself, and grossed $393 million at the box office.
In August 2023, Dwayne shared a heartwarming video on his social media pages. The video showed Johnson surprising up-and-coming UFC fighter Themba in a gym. While Themba talks to the camera about Dwayne retweeting him and sharing his connection to the story, Dwayne sneaks up behind him.
Themba continued to talk until Dwayne popped up beside him. After checking his eyes weren't deceiving him, Themba was so shocked and overjoyed to see Johnson that he immediately leaped to his feet and embraced his idol. As Johnson smiled and hugged him back, Gorimbo gushed, "Oh my God, thank you!"
A Heartwarming Moment
Standing in the boxing ring, Themba couldn’t stop hugging The Rock and continued to thank him repeatedly. Themba simply couldn’t believe Dwayne was standing in front of him. Immediately, he told his hero, “You inspired me to work hard. I will become a champion, trust me.”
To that, Dwayne answered, “Right on.” Themba had no idea what Dwayne was doing there, but he was too excited to ask. Dwayne told Themba, “Your story moved me. When I found out you had seven bucks in your bank account, I know what that’s like. I was here in Miami when I had seven bucks.”
"I've Got Your Back"
Dwayne shared with Themba the reason he flew to Miami to meet him; because he was amazed by the generosity of a man with nothing. And no one understood that better than Dwayne. He said, “You won your second fight, sell your fight kit, and buy a water well for your village in Zimbabwe so your people can have clean water.”
He continued, “You could’ve taken that money and put it down on a car or on an apartment. But you didn’t, you took care of your people. That says exactly who you are. That’s why I flew in here; to look you in the eyes and tell you I have got your back.” Themba didn’t even know what was coming.
Gifting a Home
Dwayne then asks Themba to show him his lodgings in the gym to understand his living situation. Themba leads Dwayne to the back of the gym to reveal he has been sleeping on a small couch. It wasn’t much, but for Themba, it was enough to help his dreams come true. However, Dwayne has more in store.
Dwayne then asks Themba to accompany him to his “friend’s house” to meet someone. Once they arrive, Themba discovers photos of his family around the home. Finally, Dwayne reveals the house belongs to him and hands him the keys. Themba embraces Dwayne and begins to thank him even more.
Joined by Family
"Welcome home," Dwayne told Themba. "Now you can bring your kids here. The only thing you should be thinking about is your family and getting them over here with you." Finally, Themba could be joined by his family in America. Themba continued to insist he will "become a champion."
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Themba said, "When I told them that we got the house, we are going to move to Miami, my wife was a little bit crying. And my daughter apparently said, 'God is blessing us because we have suffered so much.' And it's very true. We've been struggling in the background."
Where Is Themba Now?
A few months have passed, and Themba insists The Rock's support has made him even more determined. While Themba may have appreciated Dwayne's generous gift, he is still primarily focused on achieving his goals and becoming a world champion, so much so that he is willing to forsake comfort to prioritize training.
Themba told TMZ Sports, "When the fight camp kicks in, six weeks from the fight, I'll probably go back to the gym and sleep on that couch." He added, "With the blessing that he gave me, you know, giving me a place to stay, and having to do everything that he's done for me; it's a blessing from God."
The Future Ahead
With a future ahead of him, Gorimbo reflected on his humble beginnings. He said, "I won't forget those days when I had seven bucks in my account, the eviction notice from the landlord after I lost, or the words people said—that I'm not good enough." Themba is determined to let his past motivate him.
Themba revealed that, even though he is focused on winning a championship, he still plans to funnel aid into his home village and many others in Zimbabwe. His next humanitarian focus will be providing elderly people with eye care. He told TMZ, "I'm on my path, and no matter what comes in my life, I will remain Themba forever."