By Tom Taylor
Emblazoned across the midsection of UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is a tattoo of the African continent. Nigeria, the country where he was born, is outlined in black ink. The champ, now 30 years old, has spent the last two decades of his life in New Zealand, but this tattoo is an indicator of his inexorable ties to his homeland.
“I stamped my chest with my bloodline,” he says proudly. “When you look at my chest, you see where I come from: the great continent of Africa and the great country of Nigeria.”
Adesanya, along with defending welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman, is one of two Nigerian-born champions in the UFC, the world’s largest mixed martial arts brand. He has drawn comparisons to Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Ronda Rousey and might already be the biggest star in MMA at present. Yet Adesanya could be much more than that. He could be the harbinger of an era of African dominance in MMA.
The signs of the takeover are already apparent.
All over the African continent, smaller MMA promotions are thriving. In South Africa, Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) is enjoying huge success—to the tune of 15.4 million unique viewers on television in 2019 alone. In Senegal, ARES Fighting Championship recently promoted a successful debut event. In Nigeria, African Warriors Fighting Championship (AWFC), is taking a unique approach to fight promotion by showcasing MMA alongside traditional Nigerian combat sports like kokowa (Nigerian wrestling), and dambe (Nigerian boxing), and has already caught the attention of local media and a BBC co-produced program, Gist Nigeria.
THERE IS CERTAINLY SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR THE NATURAL SPORTING ABILITY ON SHOW HERE.
MAXWELL KALU, FOUNDER OF AFRICAN WARRIORS FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP
The rosters of these fight promotions are populated by a long list of African hopefuls, all of whom hope to emulate the success of UFC superstars like Usman and Adesanya.
“It makes people slightly uncomfortable when you talk about genetic potential, but there is certainly something to be said for the natural sporting ability on show here,” says AWFC founder Maxwell Kalu, a Nigerian living in London. “Adesanya and Usman are the perfect example of what happens when that’s channeled properly.” According to the fight promoter, Nigeria and Africa more broadly are jam-packed with “natural units,” men and women who could conceivably dominate in MMA with the proper training.
Abba Ibrahim is one of the “units” Kalu speaks of. Ibrahim, a member of the AWFC roster, has been competing in kokowa since he was a boy, and is now plotting a move into MMA. He’s relocated from his native Kaduna State in northern Nigeria to the bustling metropolis of Lagos. His chances of success are better there, but the road is still rocky.
“Walahi [brother], it is not easy,” he says in his mother tongue of Hausa, speaking through his coach and translator ahead of a wrestling tournament in Katsina, near Nigeria’s border with Niger. He names a lack of opportunities and income as some of the obstacles he and his peers face.
AWFC’s Kalu hopes to provide fighters like Ibrahim with the opportunities — and in turn the income — that they seek, and ideally at home, dolefully reminding us that Adesanya and Usman moved overseas to New Zealand and the U.S., respectively, before becoming high-level fighters.
“It excites me that we can showcase African athletes coming out of Africa, and doing something that the world will take notice of,” Kalu says. To him, the focus on African fighters is also in keeping with the growing global appetite for African culture. “When I talk about African Warriors, I’ll sometimes say this is the real version of Black Panther,” he says.
Half a world away, Adesanya concurs with Kalu that promotions like AWFC will be “where it all starts” for the next wave of African fighters. “Once the Africans and the Nigerians discover MMA and start to blow up, it’s going to be game over,” Adesanya says. “Everyone else is going to have to take a back seat.”
With fighters like Adesanya and Usman leading the charge, and up-and-comers like Ibrahim and the other fighters on the AWFC roster poised to follow in their footsteps, it seems like a matter of time before major MMA promotions, specifically the UFC, venture onto African soil. In November 2018, the UFC signed a deal with South African broadcaster SuperSport to bring its fights to television screens across the continent for the first time. Bringing actual fights to Africa would be the next step.
Adesanya is calling for just that. “It could be Lagos, it could be Morocco or somewhere in South Africa,” he says of a UFC event in Africa. “But the time is now.”
If the UFC does debut in Africa, it’s very likely that Adesanya or Usman will get the call to headline. The event’s undercard, meanwhile, will probably be jam-packed with African up-and-comers not unlike AWFC’s Ibrahim. To be a part of such an event would be “magical,” Adesanya says. The kind of thing “movies are made of.”
“There’s a scene in Will Smith’s Ali, where he’s running through Zaire, and all these kids and people are chasing him, and the track Tomorrow by Salif Keita is playing,” the ever-excitable middleweight champion adds. “That scene always catches me. It would feel something like that.”
At the moment, the UFC has no firm plans to visit Africa, but the wheels are seemingly in motion. Shortly after Nigerian-born prospect Sodiq Yusuff beat the brakes off Gabriel Benitez at UFC 241 in August, UFC President Dana White admitted the promotion “can and probably will do” a fight in Africa in the future.
Whatever the case, all the signs suggest that Africa, the landmass scrawled across Adesanya’s torso and the home of countless hopefuls quietly waiting for their opportunities, will soon be a seedbed for many of the world’s greatest fighters.