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Gavin Harris guides “Trapdoor Spider” to victory

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Johannesburg-born fighter coach Gavin Harris watched his protégé, the Mozambique-born Edson “Trapdoor Spider” Machavane, win the long-awaited 12th edition of the Alpha Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Bantamweight Championship at the Heartfelt Arena in Pretoria on 29 January 2022.

Harris, a Yeshiva College alumnus, secured Machavane’s participation in this title fight, originally scheduled for December last year but postponed due to COVID-19.

Moreover, Harris found out the strengths and weaknesses of Machavane’s opponent, Tshimelogo Ramothibe. “I told Eddie how to beat him, and he beat him,” says Harris. “Our strategy was to counter his counter, and Eddie did. He won with a rear naked choke hold, which is like a knockout in terms of grappling. His opponent went unconscious from the choke. My heart lives in the world of grappling, and I literally thrust Eddie into it. So, that’s another way I helped Eddie.”

Machavane is the best amateur bantamweight in the country, says Harris. “He has beaten the best. No one in the amateur ranks and, I bet you in the professional ranks, can beat my guy.”

The grandson of one of the Ochberg orphans who travelled to South Africa in 1921 from Ukraine, Harris lives in his birthplace, Orange Grove, with his family and Machavane.

While competing in Judo from the age of five until his mid-20s, Harris won seven South Africa Championships. “I travelled to different countries for my Judo,” he says. “I went to Bulgaria, England, Israel, and Mauritius, so I was a serious competitor. I used to sleep outside the competitions in a caravan because it was Shabbos, and win. I was in the national team, but I never made it into the Olympic team. That was my goal.”

Harris studied personal training and sports-performance training before learning about MMA while practising Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from 2010 onwards. Soon, he joined the Johannesburg-based Fight Sports Centre, where he became part of a team tasked with developing fighters.

Eventually deciding to take a stab at developing fighters on his own, Harris started SRK Fitness and Combat in Joburg. There, Machavane, a Taekwondo champion in Mozambique, has continued to improve and win under Harris’s tutelage.

“It’s almost like working in a forest. Your job is to work with a team growing trees,” Harris says of the difference between training fighters as part of a team and being the sole trainer. “One day, you go off to find your own field, and you start growing your own trees. Eddie is my tree. He’s my own home-born champion.”

In the beginning, Harris trained Machavane every single day. “After a while, he needed people to fight. I needed to expose him to different fighting environments, both the people he needed to spar with and also different teachers. Now, six weeks before a fight, I start training him every day.

“I manage him. Just before a major event, we start analysing his opponents and we come up with a game plan. It’s like there’s a general doctor who takes care of his general health and then the specialist, me, who ensures that the engine is absolutely fine-tuned and ready for the Formula One race that’s coming up.”

Harris and Machavane have now set their sights on winning a title in the professional division. “Our big aim is fighting professionally, winning a considerable number of fights, and making him a world champion,” says Harris.

Machavane is one of many talented fighters to emerge out of Africa. “A lot of poverty is present in Africa, and anyone in the fight game knows that poverty breeds champions,” says Harris. “Nothing makes you hungrier than being hungry. Eddie lives at my house. I look after him. I feed him. He’s almost a son in a way. We have a relationship very similar to that of Mike Tyson and his mentor, Cus D’Amato.”

Tyson, who lived in D’Amato’s 14-room Victorian mansion for some time, described the New York-born boxing trainer as a “father figure”.

Similarly, Machavane says, “Gavin is like a father to me. I’ve learned a lot of things from him. He taught me Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and some kickboxing. I became the champion with it.”

Machavane wasn’t surprised by his recent title win. “We worked hard for that. You have a plan, and we make it happen. It’s just beginning, we have more to win.”

Harris says Machavane’s nickname should be “Trapdoor Spider” because he attacks like one. “One second, the little creature is there, the next second, it’s gone. That’s exactly how Edson is in the MMA cage,” says Harris.

Besides working with Machavane, Harris teaches Jewish kids Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. “I have a class full of Shmulies, Aries, and Moishies,” he says. “I’ve opened up the world of real Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and MMA to them. All the different things I’ve learned on my journey are treasures which I’m sharing with them.”

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