By Ben Fleming
A quick trip through the fight archives will reveal that it was almost entirely American, Brazilian and Japanese athletes who filled the early cards of fight promotions such as UFC, Pride and Pancrase.
Nowadays, the story is much different.
Out of the fourteen belts available in both the men’s and women’s divisions in the UFC, only four belong to those three nations. Deiveson Figueiredo and Aljamain Sterling, hold the men’s flyweight and bantamweight belts respectively, whilst Amanda Nunes, the consensus female GOAT, holds the women’s bantamweight and featherweight belts simultaneously.
Mixed Martial Arts has truly become a global sport. Nowhere is that clearer than with the rise of UFC’s African fighters.
Following Francis Ngannou’s devastating knockout of Stipe Miocic this past weekend at UFC, the Cameroonian-born heavyweight joins current middleweight and welterweight champions Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman, both of Nigerian descent, as the third African-born UFC champion.
Not only is it a fantastic achievement for the continent as a whole but especially for Francis Ngannou, whose journey to becoming UFC heavyweight champion is akin to something out of a movie.
As a schoolboy aged ten, Francis worked in a sand quarry to make ends meet for himself and his family. He soon realised he had to leave his native Cameroon and try to get to Europe not only for the betterment of his life but if he was to achieve his long-held dream of becoming a fighter.
He would eventually travel across multiple North African borders and make it to Morocco before crossing into Spain. Following prison time in Spain for his illegal entry, he would end up reaching Paris, where he would live, homeless, but able to train and chase his dream. He soon started fighting and seven fights later, in 2015, found himself in the UFC.
His first attempt at the heavyweight championship, against Stipe Miocic in 2018, ended in a unanimous decision defeat. It was clear that whilst he possessed the raw physical attributes, the composure and technical prowess needed to win championship gold still averted him.
A move to Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas was the beginning of that technical evolution. Under the tutelage of Eric Nicksick and Dewey Cooper, Ngannou has become a different beast – his last four fights before his title fight this weekend were testament to this undeniable and terrifying truth.
Four fights. Four knockouts. 162 seconds in total.
His fight at UFC 260 was his crowning moment and recognition of Ngannou’s transformation. Miocic, a man who handily beat him just three years ago, was powerless to prevent Ngannou’s technical advances. The complete kickboxing arsenal, the technical wrestling and the calculated composure were there for all to see.
Matched with his ever-present power, it was no surprise when Miocic, faced with no other option but to bite down and swing back, saw his eyes roll back and his legs buckle from beneath him as Ngannou connected with the fight-ending left hand.
In joining Usman and Adesanya as the third current African-born UFC champion, Francis Ngannou serves as yet another reminder of the incredible calibre of fighters present within the continent. And, while these three names may be those catching the headlines at the minute, there is a wealth of new, up and coming talent from the region waiting to make their mark in the UFC.
Nigerian Sodiq Yussuf, who soon fights British prospect Arnold Allen, as well as Moroccan Youssef Zalal, are exciting fighters in the featherweight division. Tunisian Mounir Lazzez and Ghanaian Abdul Razak Alhassan, who fought each other in July 2020, present skill and power in the welterweight division.
South African Dricus du Plessis and Congolese fighter Dalcha Lungiambula have both won their respective UFC middleweight debut fights in the last year whilst Kennedy Nzechukwu, the Nigerian light heavyweight comes fresh from his ‘Fight of the Night’ knockout win against Kiwi, Carlos Ulberg, in early March.
However, much growth from a burgeoning talent pool is not exclusive to Africa but present almost everywhere throughout the world. And this is, in no small part, credit to the work of Dana White and the UFC’s efforts to grow the sport and the UFC as a global brand.
The recently built UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, now the world’s largest MMA training facility, serves as a testament to that and has facilitated the rise of current UFC strawweight champion and fellow top contenders, Weili Zhang, Yan Ziaonan and Su Mudaerji from China. Further plans from the UFC to develop similar performance centres in Mexico City and Puerto Rico will undoubtedly reap similar rewards and unearth similar talent.
UFC’s ever-increasing talent pool will only increase the level of competition and the quality of fights that fans get to watch. And in this truly global era of the UFC, many more fighters, like Francis Ngannou, will be able to fulfil their dreams and reach the sport’s pinnacle. What is not to like?
Image via Getty Images