How a Houston bodybuilder overcame a traumatic brain injury to compete in the sport he loves

Table of Contents His brutal attackReturning to competitionTaking the stageInspiring others to face a challenge…

Kelubia Mabatah’s week is entirely dedicated to training for his next bodybuilding competition. He spends an hour each day on cardio and then another couple of hours lifting weights.

“Every day, I’m doing something,” said Mabatah, who is preparing for the Legacy Classic onAug. 21 at Stafford Centre.

This will be Mabatah’s third contest — and his first of the 2021 season.

There are three main drivers that keep him motivated.

First, Mabatah wants to best the man who took first place last year.

Second, he is striving to best the version of himself who competed last year.

On RenewHouston.com: Houston athlete went to 2020 Olympic trials on short notice. She won a Tokyo spot anyway.

And third, he pictures all the others at TIRR Memorial Hermann rehabilitation hospital who have traumatic brain injuries, like him, many of whom are still struggling to walk or build up the strength for even the smallest task.

“I know how blessed I am to even be able to work out,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t even be able to do this in the first place.”

When Mabatah heads to TIRR once a week for his own training, others tell him he is an inspiration. And that pushes him forward.

“I’m doing this for everyone who can’t,” he said. “If what I’m doing can help someone push a little harder, give them some hope, then that’s what it’s all about.”

Kel Mabatah wraps his wrist as he works out at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as he prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family’s business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

His brutal attack

Mabatah graduated from the Kinkaid School in 2005, where he was so dominant in tennis that when the academy unveiled an eight-court facility in 2018 it was named “Kel’s Hill.”

He attended Purdue University on a tennis and academic scholarship, and transferred to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth his junior year.

Playing pro was his dream, but an elbow injury led him to pursue a different path — working with his father, Dr. Augustine Mabatah, an ophthalmologist in Houston.

The job required Mabatah to split time between Nigeria and Houston, living at his family’s compound while abroad.

A couple of years passed, with Mabatah traveling back and forth. Then came Dec. 3, 2014 — a date seared in Mabatah’s memory.

He had been back in Nigeria for a couple of weeks. He closed down for work, walked home and called his mother, Hyacinth, back in Houston, to see how she was doing.

“Then, 10 or 15 minutes later, I heard a loud pounding at my door,” Mabatah said.

At first, he thought it was a security guard who checked on him from time to time.

“But this time, it was different,” he said.

Mabatah ran to the back of the house. He tried to dial for help, but the line was busy. He hoped that the burglar bars on the windows and doors would prevent anyone from coming inside.

On RenewHouston.com: How a retired Texans player beat cancer and a rare brain condition

“But eventually, they broke the door down,” he recalled.

A few men entered, and one was holding a gun. He told Mabatah, “You know you’re going to die tonight.”

They asked where he kept money, but he only had a small amount. He offered to take the intruders to get more.

“But they refused,” Mabatah said. “They told me to shut up and to get down on my hands and knees.”

That’s when he knew they came for blood, not money.

Mabatah closed his eyes. He thought, “I’ll never see my family again. I’ll never see my sister. I’ll never see my friends again.”

That’s the last thing he remembers from that night.

When Mabatah regained consciousness, he could not move to get up or yell for help.

When the police finally arrived, they had to pick him up to place into a truck. The brutal attack left Mabatah with a fractured skull, several stab wounds in the stomach and a number of teeth knocked out. He spent six days in a coma.

Mabatah had emergency brain surgery in Nigeria and then returned to the U.S., where he had three more brain surgeries.

At 28, he had to completely relearn to walk and to speak.

Kel Mabatah works out at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as he prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family's business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Kel Mabatah works out at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as he prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family’s business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Returning to competition

In June 2015, Mabatah started at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a rehabilitation hospital and research center.

He learned how to take steps, to talk again.

“Every day, I’m still in recovery,” he said. “I’m a work in progress.”

Mabatah suffers through pain daily and remains partially paralyzed on his right side.

“At first, I didn’t know what a brain injury was,” he said. “I thought that if I applied the same principles as playing tennis and worked hard, if I did everything the doctors said, in a few months, I’d be back to normal.”

But reality quickly set in.

“Of course that didn’t happen,” Mabatah said.

Progress came slowly. His trainer, Eugene Bramble, fitness specialist at TIRR Memorial Hermann-Kirby Glen, coached Mabatah as he left his wheelchair and later his cane to walk on his own. Then, he gave up his protective helmet.

“Once we knocked down one goal, we’d pick a new one,” Bramble recalled. “Kel is highly motivated.”

Still, Bramble wanted to do more, to have a reason behind the goals.

“Kel needed something else to help with his quality of life,” Bramble recalled. “We all need to have a purpose. At that time, his only purpose was recovery.”

First, Bramble proposed coaching. Then, he had another idea.

He asked Mabatah, “Hey have you ever thought of bodybuilding?”

“Stop playing with me,” Mabatah replied. “Me? Bodybuilding? That’s not possible. I’m disabled.”

Still, he was intrigued.

“I missed tennis,” he said. “I missed the competitiveness.”

Bramble explained that there was an adaptive category in bodybuilding, designed for individuals with disabilities.What’s more, the discipline required to train for the competition could help with his recovery. Being as active as possible also is an asset to his health.

“When he said that, I was sold,” Mabatah recalled.

In 2019, at age 33, he began lifting weights at Club Westside, where he had worked out since childhood.

He’d lifted weights before — but now he amped up his routine. He began eating more.

He was limited to only the exercises that he could do and certain machines he could use. But he didn’t let that stand in the way. He focused instead on what he was able to achieve.

“I knew I had to outwork everyone else if I wanted to do this — and that’s just what I did,” he said.

Trainer Eugene Bramble, left, works with Kel Mabatah at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as Mabatah prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family's business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Trainer Eugene Bramble, left, works with Kel Mabatah at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as Mabatah prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family’s business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Taking the stage

Mabatah’s trainer Bramble was a college athlete in track and field and well aware of the determination it would take. But he had never trained for bodybuilding before. So he began to research.

“That’s how the story began,” he said. “We designed a workout. We started weighing in and taking measurements. We looked at what judges wanted.”

Together, Bramble and Mabatah targeted specific muscles to activate.

“It took his recovery to the next level,” Bramble said. “It allowed him to focus on individual muscles. It brought purpose to it.”

Then, Mabatah revealed his plans to his friend Billi Davis, a personal trainer and a pro bikini competitor.

“She was so excited and found a couple of shows I could compete in,” Mabatah recalled.

Davis helped him sign up and trained him on posing.

Then, Mabatah made his new mission public. Every year, he celebrates the anniversary of his incident and invites family and friends. In December 2019, he announced the launch of his nonprofit, Kel Strong Mabatah Foundation, designed to provide a better future for traumatic brain injury patients by providing scholarships to TIRR.

Mabatah told everyone in attendance about his plans for a bodybuilding competition in 2020.

“They were shocked,” he recalled.

But Mabatah was more serious than ever.

His first competition was scheduled for June. Then COVID-19 placed it on hold. With his gym closed for months, he walked every day.

“I did what little I could just to maintain, until I could get back in the gym,” he said.

By September 2020, the show was on.

“Getting ready for it was a process,” Mabatah said.

He worked with Isaure Moorehead of IzzyMo Fitness & Nutrition, a friend from Kinkaid.

“Throughout this process, it was important for me to work with people who knew my situation,” he said. “They were all people I trusted.”

She helped him hone his diet for the competition and increase his cardio.

When he walked on stage the day of the show, he learned he was the only competitor in the adaptive category. So he decided to try the open category instead.

“I placed second, to my surprise,” he said. On second thought, he added, “I think I should have gotten first.”

Trainer Eugene Bramble, left, works with Kel Mabatah at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as Mabatah prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family's business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Trainer Eugene Bramble, left, works with Kel Mabatah at Club Westside, 1200 Wilcrest Dr., Saturday, July 24, 2021 in Houston as Mabatah prepares for a bodybuilding competition. In Dec. 2014, he was brutal assaulted in Nigeria, where he was helping run his family’s business. He suffered traumatic brain injury, was partial paralyzed, and could not speak.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Inspiring others to face a challenge

Being on stage, winning an award, competing in a sport again — it all felt surreal.

From Bramble’s vantage point in the stands, he could sense Mabatah was nervous.

“Then, he started to hear cheering. His body language changed. He began to smile,” Bramble recalled.

His trainer was among the loudest in the stands. “Everyone knew who his coach was,” Bramble said. “I was most proud of the fact that it looked like he was having the time of his life. He was having fun.”

Mabatah competed in another show in October, closing the season.

Then, he was ready to train again and return to the stage for 2021.

“I feel more confident,” he said. “I know what I’m doing.”

Bramble pushes Mabatah in each workout.

“Then, I give him a few minutes of rest — and we do it again,” Bramble said.

Mabatah hopes more people will sign up in the adaptive category. One of his goals is to encourage others who never thought it possible to try bodybuilding.

“That’s the reason I’m doing this,” he said. “It’s just to inspire others who might be in a situation like me or who may be dealing with tough times.”

Mabatah wants them to know what he faced — that his traumatic brain injury did not stop him from taking the stage — and that others can succeed as well.

“It may be different, how they get there,” he said. “They might have to adapt, like I did, but they can do it.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.