From Facing Homelessness to Becoming PFL MMA Champion: A Conversation with the remarkable Impa Kasanganay, PFL Light Heavyweight Champion MMA Fighter.

From Facing Homelessness to Becoming PFL MMA Champion: A Conversation with the remarkable Impa Kasanganay, PFL Light Heavyweight Champion MMA Fighter.

Impa “Tshilobo” Kasanganay is the oldest of three children born to immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the embodiment of the American Dream. Impa’s father immigrated to the United States with $16 in his pocket and worked tirelessly to reunite his family. Impa was born in Ft. Lauderdale, moving to Charlotte after being homeless for the first time in his life. In Carolina, Impa excelled academically and athletically, attending Lenoir Rhyne University where he played college football while earning his bachelor’s degree in Finance and Accounting.

At 24 years old, Impa turned his attention to mixed martial arts training; the sport in which he won $1million and a world championship. His fight is the definition of life changing as he was living in his car only at one point. Impa does prefer a simpler life having previously chosen to reside in a Mongolian yurt; but the days of being unhoused still burn in his memory and he will not let this million-dollar opportunity pass him by.

In this interview, I speak to Impa “Tshilobo” Kasanganay on his incredible journey from facing homelessness to becoming the PFL’s Light Heavyweight Champion MMA fighter. We discuss the mental and physical resilience needed to be a world champion combat sports athlete, together with how to build the mindset for success.

Q: How did MMA come into your life?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  Growing up, car rides with my dad were filled with stories of his youthful brawls in the streets of Congo, Central Africa. These tales of street fights among kids, not motivated by malice but rather a compelling intrigue, captivated me. Meanwhile, Sunday School sessions meant to be about Bible study piqued my interest more in warriors than in scripture. This fascination led me to admire samurais and gladiators, and as a child, I secretly watched MMA fights, despite my parents’ prohibition due to violence. My workaround involved toggling between National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and other child-friendly networks, sneaking peeks at the fights on the Flashback channel, utterly fascinated by the spectacle.

This obsession with combat and the art of violence has been a constant in my life. An interesting twist came when, for a school project due to our shared birthday on January 17th, I explored the life of Mohammad Ali. My father’s excitement in sharing Ali’s story, especially his fight in our homeland, “the Rumble in the Jungle,” opened my eyes to a new dimension of combat sports. This curiosity further deepened during a family trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where I broached the subject of boxing with my mother, only to be told I could pursue it if I financed it myself.

Time passed, and in college, as a football player, I realised I could indeed fund my boxing training. The decision crystallized one day while watching a fight on TV, marking the beginning of my commitment to fighting as a lifelong pursuit. My admiration wasn’t limited to specific fighters like Urijah Faber, but extended to any athlete who stepped into the ring, their courage to battle for their families’ sustenance deeply resonating with me. I often found myself wishing to have been born in an era of warriors or gladiators, feeling a profound connection to that world.

Post-college, I stood at a crossroads, contemplating a career in special ops or professional fighting. After consulting with my coach to gauge my potential in the ring, I am thankful for choosing the path of combat. This journey, from childhood fascination with warriors to making the definitive choice to fight, reflects not just a passion for the sport but a deep-seated admiration for the discipline, bravery, and artistry it embodies.

Q: How did the challenges you faced early in life shape you?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  My perspective is shaped by the fact that my parents never leaned on excuses. My father arrived in this country with just $16 in his pocket, and my mother, also an immigrant from Congo, instilled in me that the notion of life being too difficult was not an excuse, especially in the United States or any developed Western country where one is inherently blessed. Their resilience, coupled with my faith, taught me to appreciate and embody that same strength. This path I’m on is a journey where I feel a constant drive to achieve more, fuelled by the belief that life will unfold as it should as long as I persist.

Throughout my life, resilience has been a cornerstone. When we faced homelessness and had to move in with my uncle in North Carolina, I took it upon myself to ensure the well-being of my younger siblings and parents. My mom’s gruelling work hours as a nurse and my dad’s relentless dedication, even after school hours, underscored their commitment to our family. They were always present, never giving up on us, even in times of sheer scarcity, like a Christmas when we had next to nothing. I recall a moment when my dad and I, lacking presents, salvaged chairs from a community dumpster, a testament to our determination to make the best of our situation without any sense of pride or entitlement. His willingness to do whatever was necessary for us taught me resilience.

This ethos of hard work and pushing forward has become a part of who I am. I’m always looking ahead, asking, “What’s next?” despite occasional disorganisation, because I’m confident everything will fall into place. My next goal is to pursue an MBA, to continue sharing and living by the commitment that has defined my journey. I aim to expand my venture in education, believing firmly that with my education, nothing can be taken from me. This drive is rooted in a love for those around me, a testament to the enduring influence of my parents’ example and the lessons of resilience and dedication they instilled in me.

Q: What does success mean to you?

 [Impa Kasanganay]: Success for me encompasses several facets. In the realm of family, it boils down to whether I’m celebrated within my own household. I often ponder whether, when I eventually marry and have children, and even now with my current household and family, am I respected and loved? Do they believe I love and respect them in return? Knowing this to be true is my measure of success.

Professionally, that’s merely a fraction of the overall picture. It’s about leveraging and building upon what I’ve achieved. Being recognised as a champion is important, but what matters more is how I use this recognition. I liken fighting to a lifelong scholarship, constantly seeking ways to reinvest in myself. Through my platform, whether it’s opening restaurants, creating YouTube videos, or sharing my passion for motorcycles and adventure books, my goal is to inspire others to pursue their calling. Success, to me, means using the position I’ve been given to encourage others to chase their dreams.

MMA serves as my ministry. As a Christian, I want to convey unconditional love to everyone. The real value lies not in winning titles but in the ability to positively impact the lives of my teammates, trainers, friends, family, and future generations. Achieving greatness in the ring is significant, but it pales in comparison to the fulfilment derived from contributing to the growth of my faith and assisting others in their personal journeys.

Opportunities like speaking at Rutgers University, and engaging in meaningful dialogues, highlight the importance of using my platform for a greater purpose. It’s not about self-glorification; it’s about celebrating collective achievements and the success of others facilitated through our efforts.

Ultimately, when my time comes, my aspiration is to be greeted by God’s approval, hearing Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Stripping away all else, that is the essence of success to me.

Q: How does simple living help you focus?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  A few years back, I faced a significant health challenge with kidney failure, exacerbated by a weight cut gone wrong. At the time, my coach Jim and I were en route to Washington D.C., as I had to miss my scheduled fight. My friend Joe Selecki was also heading to a UFC fight in D.C., and throughout this journey, my thoughts often returned to my longstanding dream of owning a ranch or farm. This dream stems from my belief that while many strive for success and solitude by purchasing vast properties for peace, true serenity can be found much simpler.

Having lived in places like South Florida’s Okeechobee and North Carolina, I’ve observed how some may have little in terms of material wealth but are rich in family and love. Success, in my eyes, isn’t about material accumulation devoid of family or love. The tranquillity I find in nature, working in a garden or on a farm, where life’s rhythm is dictated by natural cycles, underscores what’s genuinely important. While I appreciate the allure of luxury items like high-end motorcycles or vintage cars, their value to me is not in their ability to impress others but in the joy they bring on my terms.

Immersing myself in nature, I feel a deeper connection with God and a reminder that life shouldn’t revolve solely around oneself. The constant inquiries about my life and achievements remind me that true success and maintaining a champion’s mindset cannot be sustained if it’s all about me. Nature’s order, from the blowing wind to the flowing river, emphasises the beauty of simplicity and the importance of maintaining a connection to the world around me. Opting to walk to the gym, despite the convenience of driving, is a choice that brings me closer to this simplicity, allowing me to appreciate my surroundings, encounter people, and even stray dogs on my path. This slight discomfort keeps me grounded, focused, and in tune with what truly matters, beyond the superficial aspects of success. It’s a daily practice of embracing simplicity to fully grasp the essence of life and what’s most important.

Q: How do you cope with fear, with nerves?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  Many view fighting as merely a sport, but I see it differently. It’s an elevation to a warrior class, a deliberate choice to engage in a realm where one can metaphorically “take life points away” from another. My approach to fighting isn’t rooted in fear or nervousness; instead, my faith anchors me. Recognising that fear serves no practical purpose, I challenge the common perception that fear sharpens one’s abilities. It’s essential to question whether what we interpret as fear is genuinely nervousness or simply a conditioned response. The real choice isn’t between fight or flight but deciding to face the challenge head-on.

I find beauty in understanding my identity and whom I belong to. Entering a fight, I’m armed with the knowledge that God is with me, confident in my preparation and training. My peace and focus stem from my faith and self-awareness, knowing that my actions in the ring don’t define me—my life and faith do. My motivation is love for those I care about, not fear of failure, driving me with a passion and conviction.

In civilian life, people often converge around communal spaces, adopting ideologies that align with those they perceive as successful. Fighting, however, is a unique blend of individual and team efforts, requiring one to forge their path and self-understanding. To me, the ultimate state of freedom, or my “flow state,” is realising I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, supported by faith and purpose, fully committed to the journey ahead.

Fighting transcends physical confrontation; it’s a spiritual battle, finding strength in tranquillity. When calm, focused, and dialled in, everything else fades away. This mindset extends beyond the ring; it’s how I navigate life, continuously engaged in a mental and spiritual dialogue about combat. Every conversation, including this one, mirrors the strategic exchange in fighting—winning through superior strategy and insight. My life is a constant meditation on combat, with every interaction and thought weaving into a broader narrative of my journey.

Q: Why are combat sports so powerful?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  I believe fighting is the purest form of competition. It’s often labelled as a sport for legality’s sake, but at its core, it involves using your own body to physically challenge another, with the inherent risks of concussion, brain damage, and bodily harm. This brinkmanship, skirting the edges of extreme risk, holds a certain allure for me. Fighting, in its essence, is unmatched in purity. Unlike attending a sports game, working, or dining out, fighting strips down to the primal urge to stand up for something, whether through words or physical action. It taps into a deep, instinctual, spiritual, and mental drive to battle for what matters most.

The term “fight” carries profound depth, embodying more than just physical confrontation; it signifies a total commitment to a cause, acknowledging the relentless challenges life throws our way, yet choosing to persevere. This resonance is why many are drawn to fighting. For some, the aversion to watching fights stems from its unflinching honesty, revealing truths about character and resilience without the need for shared language. The universal language of combat and struggle speaks volumes, touching something deep within the human psyche, spirit, and soul, sparking a compelling drive to endure.

This intrinsic connection is why narratives like the Rocky or Creed movies resonate so deeply. It’s not the act of punching that captivates but the relatable struggle, the metaphorical fight within, that inspires and motivates us to keep pushing forward.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Impa Kasanganay]:  The concept of legacy doesn’t preoccupy me. Everyone will have their own take on it, but that’s not where I find my worth. What matters to me is hearing “Well done, my good and faithful servant” from God when my time comes. I aim to make my parents, my future children, and my eventual wife proud of who I am, regardless of past disagreements or challenges. These are the moments that affirm I’ve lived my purpose and led with integrity.

When it comes to my career in fighting, the titles and championships are not my main focus. Instead, I hope people look beyond my achievements in the ring and see the individual I am. My goal is to excel in all roles of my life—be it as a son, friend, brother, or dog owner—and remain approachable. Despite aspiring to significant financial success, my true ambition is to make a difference by embracing uniqueness in my endeavours.

I’m determined not to be just another fighter. I want to be recognised for my education, generosity, and ability to inspire and empower others. My aim is to engage deeply with the concept of violence, to understand and transform it into a force for love. This, to me, is a far more valuable legacy than merely being known as a tough competitor.

My wish is for people to get to know me beyond the fighter persona, to see the multifaceted nature of my life as if it were a poem. I aspire to show that one can be fiercely loving and respectful, impacting lives far beyond the fleeting glory of titles and wealth. The relationships and connections made along the way are what truly last. Someday, walking with my grandkids, being recognised not just for my fights but for the person I was, that’s the legacy I cherish. If someone remembers me for taking the time to engage with them or if they see me as a role model for their children, that’s the ultimate accolade.

Ultimately, living a life aligned with God’s calling and embodying Christ’s love is the legacy I seek. If that’s how I’m remembered, then I’ve achieved all I ever wanted.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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