Africa’s three kings of MMA

Francis Ngannou, Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya are the current mixed martial arts champions in their weight divisions, bringing Africa well into the fight for recognition in the sport.

Since its founding in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has grown to become the biggest and most prestigious mixed martial arts company in the world.

It regularly pulls in more than a million viewers worldwide for its monthly pay-per-view events, with a passionate fan base tuning in to witness some of the world’s finest athletes competing across nine different weight classes in five rounds of hard-hitting action inside the famous octagon.

Though governed by a set of “unified rules” since 2009, mixed martial arts incorporates a number of combat disciplines, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, judo, Muay Thai, wrestling and capoeira. These techniques derive mostly from Asia and South America, so it is something of a surprise that three of the UFC’s 11 current world champions are African by birth.

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In a dominant performance at UFC 260 in March 2021, Cameroonian Francis Ngannou dethroned long-time rival Stipe Miocic, defeating the American by second-round knockout to become the new heavyweight champion. Alongside Nigerians Kamaru Usman (welterweight champion) and Israel Adesanya (middleweight champion), the 34-year-old is forging an astonishing legacy within a continent that is better known for its success in sports such as athletics and football.

As can be expected, there are common threads running through the journeys of these men. All three emigrated from Africa, albeit at different points in their lives, and they are all united by the struggle that comes with reaching the pinnacle of one’s profession. However, their stories are remarkable for their individual merits. For Usman, who made a triumphant return to Nigeria for the first time in 26 years, there were times when he contemplated leaving it all behind to “find a job somewhere”.

‘Destined to become’

Born in Auchi, Usman was raised alongside two brothers by a soldier father and a mother who was a teacher. At the age of eight, his father moved the family to Texas in the United States. Despite struggling with the language initially and being the butt of mean-spirited practical jokes in high school, he found himself on the mat when, following an injury sustained playing American football, he took up wrestling.

Usman excelled, becoming an NCAA Division II national champion in 2010 and coaching other wrestlers. But contracting an injury while training for the 2012 Olympics left him demotivated, and at the suggestion of a friend he tried his hand at mixed martial arts.

2 March 2019: From left, Kamaru Usman of Nigeria and Tyron Woodley from the United States fight during their UFC welterweight title bout at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photograph by Isaac Brekken/ Getty Images)

It was a change Usman struggled with in the beginning, with the broader set of rules in mixed martial arts making his adaptation difficult and “frightening”. Despite winning on his debut, he suffered defeat via submission in his second bout and considered quitting. “At certain times, I wanted to give up because everything was tough,” he says. “But I knew, if I did that, I would not be maximising my full potential. There’s something about not giving up, that you eventually break through and become what you fully are destined to become.”

Competing in regional promotions such as the Legacy Fighting Championship and Victory Fighting Championship, Usman built up a respectable enough record and valuable experience in victories and defeats, before trying out for and earning a spot in the 2015 UFC-sponsored reality show The Ultimate Fighter. It proved the making of him, as he won the finale, a share of $300 000 and a contract with the UFC.

Four years later, after amassing a 9-0 win-loss record, Usman challenged and defeated Tyron Woodley to become the first African UFC champion in history.

Movement, strength and intelligence

As far as challenging journeys go, there are few more harrowing than Ngannou’s.

Born into a violent home in Batié, the Cameroonian endured a difficult childhood. His family could not afford to buy the books he needed for school, and so by the age of 10 he had begun to work, to pitch in for the sustenance of the home, and later began training to be a boxer.

Following his father’s death, Ngannou left Cameroon and moved to Paris to “have a life”. So began a series of border crossings without documentation that took in journeys through the desert, evading corrupt government officials and near dehydration. For the final leg of his journey – crossing from Morocco into Spain – Ngannou made six unsuccessful attempts.

Between attempts, he would hide in forests and eat from garbage cans, partial to rotting fruit. “My journey from Cameroon to Morocco was about one year,” Ngannou told the Bleacher Report website. “One year in illegal situations, crossing borders, living in the bush, finding food in the trash, living this terrible life.”

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He entered Europe through Spain. Because he had no documentation, he was detained and spent two months in custody. “It was more stressful than scary,” Ngannou said. “When we got to Spain, for the first while, we kind of relaxed, even though we were in jail. We knew we were going to go to jail when we got there. We would be free after, but we were going to go to jail [first]. There was a lot of pressure in our minds. It was like a mental prison, not a physical prison. It was very hard.”

On his release, he was granted refugee status. He made his way by train to France where, having no money left, he lived in a parking lot and on the streets.

His passion to be a boxer remained strong through it all. However, after being introduced to Paris’ MMA Factory in 2013, he was convinced to give mixed martial arts a shot. He displayed an aptitude immediately, with his movement, strength and intelligence in the ring marking him out as a prospect. Now living out of the gym, he began making a name for himself fighting on the French and European mixed martial arts scenes, and was signed by the UFC two years later on the back of a 5-1 win-loss record.

‘Nothing to something’

“Francis’ life is a prime example of being self-made,” Usman says. “Refusing to give up, being resilient – which is a trait I think most Africans have – and not giving up on life. Francis never gave up on life, he continued to try and try, and eventually he broke through. He found a way, applied himself, and now Francis is a world champion and has changed his life, his family and those connected to him.

“I think that when that movie comes out, the movie of Francis’ life, it’s going to be one of the best movies ever. Because that’s a story that will resonate with almost anyone in the world. That story of nothing to something, that’s the true definition.”

In addition to dominating opponents physically inside the octagon, these three fighters have also drawn attention for their outspoken personalities and unabashed references to their African heritage.

Usman and Adesanya will often do their pre-fight ring walks to Nigerian music, and Ngannou always has a Cameroonian flag on hand to celebrate his victories. Adesanya in particular often finds himself in the centre of controversy for his straight-talking style, and in general all three men have faced criticism and abuse – including of the racist kind – simply for being who they are and proud of where they are from.

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It is not backlash they take to heart, though. Usman says the hard road they have travelled has given them the resilience and thick skin to look beyond the hate, and he does not intend to water down his essence.

“You can’t hide where you’re from. Certain music speaks to you differently, certain culture speaks to you differently. And that’s what my Nigerian heritage and culture does for me. I’m unapologetically Nigerian. If I see another Nigerian, the pidgin is going to come out. It’s just one of those things you can’t hide from and I absolutely love it.

“It’s difficult for these guys to understand our journey. We’ve come through some very tough, incredible and demanding routes to become champions. In Africa, we fight for everything, the family name, honour and respect.”

Valid dreams

Maintaining these values is integral to their sense of identity. Usman fulfilled a personal dream this year of putting his championship belt around his father’s waist as a mark of respect. And before his title fight against Jan Blachowicz, Adesanya gave each of his parents a new car, a gesture he described as a “sign of success” for Africans.

“People say a lot of stuff before a fight. Some try to get at you, but they can never understand why we are built the way we are. Tweets and trash talking is normal. You don’t let that get to you or bother you,” Usman explains.

“The focus is always on the sport and fighting what stands in front of you, and that is what we try to do. They come for me, Francis and Israel, but we are champions because we give everything and deliver while others do the talking.

“They don’t understand how these Africans continue to beat the hate out of them and their fans in the octagon. We keep the focus and continue to make the continent proud.”

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The profile of mixed martial arts is at an all-time high in Africa, with many of the younger generation now awakened to greater possibilities on account of the success Usman, Adesanya and Ngannou have attained inside the octagon. It is a humbling amount of responsibility, and brings with it no little pressure.

“No one ever asks for the responsibility of leading the charge,” says Usman. “I didn’t ask to be the first ever African champion in UFC history. It just happened.

“I think there’s a higher power that decides that, ‘This is the person I’m going to put this responsibility on.’ But for us, it’s up to us to understand that and not take that responsibility for granted. Myself, Francis, also Adesanya, we understand that responsibility and we’re doing the best that we can to try to maximise it and then help inspire and motivate millions all across the world. We are gradually showing young kids that their dreams are valid.”

Lighting a path

The importance of seizing the moment is not lost on the continent’s three kings. Given that, discussions are being had with relevant local authorities to “create programmes where kids can actually start and families can understand the sport fully”, as well as with the leadership of the UFC toward organising a fight card in Africa at some point in the near future.

“I’ve spoken with the executives in the UFC and they understand that this is a thing now that they have to push for,” Usman says. “They said they’re looking at the dates, 2022 is something they’re really taking a look at.

10 February 2019: From left, Israel Adesanya of Nigeria punches Anderson Silva of Brazil during their UFC middleweight bout at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia. (Photograph by Quinn Rooney/ Getty Images).

“I also understand there’s a lot that goes into bringing an event like that to Africa or anywhere else in the world. There’s a lot of moving parts. But they’ve assured me that they’re taking a big look at it. It would be a waste, a shame for them not to. Because when three of your seven [men’s] champions are from Africa – West Africa at that, just a small region – and you don’t do something to inspire that whole side of the world… It’d be a shame if they don’t take a look at it.”

Ultimately, the goal is to reform lives and inspire hope in the new generation. Having left Africa’s shores to discover their destinies as fighting men, their wider legacy will be in lighting the path for others to follow.

“There’s an uprising of Africans right now, and we are showing them that there’s a different avenue for them to be able to change their lives. So, if we don’t give up, the problems and situations of today might not be the problems and situations of tomorrow.”

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For his part, Ngannou has used his early success to give back to Cameroon. He started a charity to benefit the residents of Batié and is also opening a gym there. He wants the young athletes of his hometown to have the opportunity he never had, to follow their dreams without having to move thousands of miles from home.

“I want to give some opportunities to children like me who dream of this sport and don’t have an opportunity like me. The last time I was in Cameroon, I brought a lot of materials for boxing and MMA to open a gym. Now I just bought a big space to start the gym as well,” says Ngannou.

“A lot of children now in Cameroon, because of me, they have a dream. They say, ‘I will be a champion in MMA. I will do boxing like Francis,’ because they saw me when I was young. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any opportunities. And today, they see me and they are dreaming. They are thinking that something is possible. Even when they are so poor, something is possible in life … It’s not easy. It’s so hard, but it’s possible.”

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