Since Mark Coleman was crowned the inaugural UFC heavyweight champion of the world in 1997, fighters from America and Brazil have reigned supreme for much of the company’s history.
Now the dominance of the Americas is a thing of the past. History has shown that once a compelling contender breaks through the ranks to become a champion, their performances often open the door for more talent from their home regions to pour through.
If this trend holds true, then the continent of Africa may well produce some of the greatest fighters in the next generation of MMA.
Three of the eight UFC weight classes are currently presided over by African-born fighters, each unique in their fighting style but all of whom are counted amongst the most exciting and compelling individuals on the roster.
Kamaru Usman, the Nigerian-born All-American wrestler turned Welterweight king, is undefeated in the UFC and one of the most dominant fighters in the sport. The ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ claimed the belt in 2019 and has since defended it four times in ruthless fashion.
Then there’s Israel Adesanya, another Nigerian-born fighter and striking supremo who claimed the Middleweight gold in 2019 in under two years following his first UFC fight. ‘The Last Stylebender’ remains undefeated at 185lbs and is widely regarded as the most complete stand-up fighter in MMA.
And what can you say about Francis Ngannou? The most terrifying knockout puncher in the sport, Ngannou’s meteoric rise to become the ‘baddest man on the planet’ is the stuff of legend. A walking Hollywood movie plot, his story began in the sand mines of Cameroon and culminated in ‘The Predator’ knocking out heavyweight great Stipe Miocic to become champion of the world.
Though all three athletes are at the peak of their careers, it seems they are already making plans to lay the groundwork for the next generation. In a recent interview with MMA Junkie, Ngannou said: “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.
“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 opportunity. And today, they see me, and they are dreaming.”
It’s not only a question of building gyms for young talent to flourish, though. MMA must be legitimised in the eyes of the authorities for widespread acceptance and development of the sport to occur.
The success of Africa’s UFC champions, all of whom are representing their nations with pride and excellence, will be instrumental in bringing about a greater recognition of MMA in government and athletic governing bodies. Kamaru Usman’s reception of a congratulatory message following his victory last year at UFC 251 from Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, can undoubtedly be taken as a sign of things to come.
Despite the dominance of these champions, there are few other African fighters competing in the UFC at present. But just as the success of athletes like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Zhang Weili gave way to hordes of new fighters from the East making their mark in the cage, the three African kings of the UFC will surely open the floodgates for more African athletes to stamp their authority in the octagon before long.