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African mixed martial arts fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship spotlight

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African mixed martial arts fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship spotlight

Jaxson Cooper
From Africa Renewal: 
29 June 2020
Israel Adesanya, with his UFC middleweight world champion belt
Israel Adesanya, with his UFC middleweight world champion belt

Of the UFC’s almost 600 fighters from around the world, 11 are African. They include the current middleweight and welterweight champions

2019 was a big year for 30-year old Israel Adesanya. Born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in New Zealand since he was 12, he became middleweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s most popular and competitive promoter of Mixed-Martial-Arts (MMA), with hundreds of fighters across different weight classes.

MMA allows fighters to use any style of fighting, such as boxing, wrestling, or muay thai, and the UFC creates matchups within each weight division.

Typical fights include three 5-minute rounds (five 5-minute rounds for championship fights), where each fighter will have a chance to defeat their opponent, similar to boxing. If no one wins after the allotted time, three judges determine the winner.

Despite a global representation of fighters, there are only 11 active African-born UFC fighters out of 580 employed by the UFC. Adesanya took the middleweight championship belt after defeating Kelvin Gastelum (American) and Robert Whittaker (Australian) in successive fights.

‘The Last Stylebender’

Adesanya did not begin training full-time until he was 21, when he moved to Auckland to join the City Kickboxing team. He says his struggles with bullying, loneliness and racism motivated him to pursue combat sports.

Starting his professional career, Adesanya competed separately in kickboxing, boxing, and MMA, where he amassed records (win-loss) of 75-5, 5-1, and 11-0, respectively, before joining the UFC in early 2018, where he remains undefeated, winning eight straight fights.

Known as ‘the Last Stylebender’ for his anime-inspired pre-fight routines, he has earned seven performance-related bonuses, including ‘fight-of-the-year’ in 2019. In his words, he “t[ook] gold back to Africa.”

Adesanya has pushed the UFC president to hold events in Africa to increase MMA’s popularity and create jobs on the continent.

‘The Predator’

As with other sports, the COVID-19 pandemic halted the UFC. After a two-month suspension, it has been one of the few professional sports to quickly return to action in May, albeit with fewer personnel and no fans present.

Cameroonian-French Francis Ngannou is one of the few who has participated in a post-COVID-19 event. Growing up in Batie, western Cameroon, Ngannou was working in a sand quarry to support his family by the time he was 13 years old.

At 26, he emigrated to Paris to pursue boxing. Ngannou was homeless until, while working at a homeless shelter, a friend encouraged him to consider MMA. He started his professional career a year later, when some fighters have almost a decade of experience.

Since joining the UFC in December 2015, Ngannou has gone (win-loss) 10-2 in the UFC heavyweight division after a 5-1 professional start. Although he failed in his first title opportunity, Ngannou should expect another opportunity soon.

Embodying his nickname ‘the Predator,’ inspired by the Arnold Schwarzenegger-lead movie of the same name, Ngannou has won all 15 fights by finish, (either knockout, technical knockout (referee’s discretion) or submitting his opponent), 11 in the first round.

Ngannou was quarantined during his fight on 9 May, tested several times, and fought in an arena without spectators. Of the discomfort of the nasal swab test, he said, “I’d rather take a punch.”

With his success in the sport, Ngannou has not forgotten his roots. He has set up the Francis Ngannou Foundation back home, an NGO “created to enable the youth of Cameroon to…make a significant, positive difference in their lives.” It has helped create a gym where youth can train and pursue MMA, with Ngannou visiting often and taking a hands-on approach.

‘The Nigerian Nightmare’

Another Nigerian-born fighter, current welterweight champion and friend of Adesanya, is 33-year-old Kamaru Usman, who was born in Auchi, southern Nigeria. Usman emigrated to the United States when he was eight and later took up wrestling, finding success in high school and college.

Between training for the 2012 Olympic Games and working as a sparring partner, Usman wanted to pursue a more profitable career and switched to MMA, eventually joining the UFC.

Since his debut in 2015, Usman has proven unstoppable, winning 11 straight fights, and defeating Tyron Woodley (American) to become welterweight champion and the first African-born champion in March 2019.

Usman has championed his nickname ‘the Nigerian Nightmare,’ inspired by former American National Football League (NFL) star Christian Okoye who was known by the same moniker and gave his blessing to Usman to use the trademarked name as well.

Like Adesanya, Usman has advocated for UFC events in Africa as a way to engage youth. Although COVID-19 has probably delayed the possibility of the UFC in Africa, these fighters continue winning and proving the strength of Africa in the ring.

As UFC events move to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates due to eased travel restrictions, Kamaru Usman is scheduled to defend his belt for a second time on 11 July.