How surprising was this?

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s sending a post-win congratulatory message to Kamaru Usman after the UFC welterweight champion efficiently defended his title in opposition to Jorge Masvidal on Saturday at UFC 251 was nothing in need of a bolt from the blue.

Buhari will not be recognized to be an enthusiastic sports activities fan, popping up principally when one of many nationwide soccer groups, the game that guidelines the nation’s panorama, makes a splash.

Different sports activities are hardly ever, if ever, acknowledged, and blended martial arts is as left area as it’s attainable to be. Sure, there are fight sports activities in Nigeria — boxing, karate, judo, taekwondo, kung fu and even kick-boxing — however like most different “lesser sports activities” within the nation, they’re gasping for breath. It’s uncertain if the president even is aware of of their existence.

Buhari’s assertion — issued via his media assistant, Femi Adesina — was robust and empowering.

“As the primary African-born and Nigerian UFC champion, President Buhari commends the brave fighter for ending robust contained in the Octagon, proudly flying the green-and-white colours in distant lands, and reminding the world that good issues and nice folks nonetheless come out of Nigeria.

“Whereas the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic might have introduced gloom to many households and nations, the president is delighted and gratified that our welterweight champion has lifted our spirits with one other skilled efficiency proving that issues will certainly get higher on the fullness of time after we stay dedicated to our imaginative and prescient.

“The president needs Usman the perfect and extra victories in his profession, and prays that, like superb wine, he improves with age.”

Recognition from the president for a sport that doesn’t but formally exist in Nigeria is a giant step ahead and a tribute to how a lot of an inroad the UFC has made within the nation. That the president was energized sufficient to ship the message is one official signal of the rising curiosity in MMA and the UFC sparked by the exploits of Usman and compatriot Israel Adesanya, however there additionally unofficial indicators.

After I arrange a Zoom watch occasion for Usman’s title protection in opposition to Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251, my expectation was for round 15 to 20 folks to hitch, primarily as a result of the primary occasion started at three a.m. (WAT) in Nigeria, and Usman didn’t get to the Octagon till about two hours later.

That expectation proved to be spectacularly incorrect.

On the top of the battle, when Usman — relentless as an anaconda (ought to we rechristen him?) — was constricting the breath and battle out of Masvidal on his strategy to a profitable title protection, there have been about 100 Nigerians on the feed.

That may not appear to be such a fantastic quantity, however contemplate that the message was despatched out on brief discover, and the occasion was bang in the course of the wee hours. To have roughly 100 folks — all excited, extremely strung with rigidity, assured in expectation, with not a single pair of bleary eyes to be seen — was fairly the accomplishment.

It speaks to the rising curiosity within the sport that Usman and the flashy Adesanya, the UFC’s middleweight champion, have sparked in Nigeria.

For emphasis, my Zoom watch occasion was not the one place the place Usman’s title protection was being adopted in Nigeria.

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Dominick Cruz and Chael Sonnen give credit score to each Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal for his or her efforts in UFC 251.

Silas Agara, deputy governor of Nigeria’s Nasarawa State and president of the Karate Federation of Nigeria, says he and his sporting constituency have been additionally watching with the identical fervor.

“We now have been on-line with a few of our athletes, and the response was fairly electrifying right here,” Agara instructed ESPN. “They have been watching the battle and naturally have been rooting strongly for Kamaru. I stayed all through the night time to observe it.”

Agara represents a rising subset of Nigeria’s inhabitants who’re actively changing to MMA followers. He is likely to be in a singular place, as somebody who already administers a fight sports activities federation, however that’s definitely not the one motive.

“The battle in opposition to Masvidal was not the primary time I’ve watched Kamaru,” he stated. “I’ve adopted him for the previous three years — and Israel Adesanya, too, from approach again.”

Agara says the rising dominance of Usman and Adesanya has led many extra Nigerians to look into the game.

“What [Usman’s and Adesanya’s] successes present is that with dedication, laborious work and encouragement, [Nigerian fighters] can obtain their desires, expose their skills outdoors the nation,” he stated. “And even throughout the nation, this is likely to be the encouragement we have to present a platform for them to do the identical.

“If a few of them get the chance of touring outdoors the shores of this nation, I will not be shocked in the event that they department off and be part of the MMA as a result of there may be extra publicity and more cash there … They have already got the martial arts foundations, and we totally assist and encourage them in the event that they wish to make the transfer to go overseas.”

Usman and Adesanya aren’t the one Nigerians within the UFC.

Sodiq Yusuff and Kennedy Nzechukwu are additionally contracted fighters, and the quartet maintain an eye-popping 31-1 win-loss file within the UFC. Kamaru (12-0), Adesanaya (8-0) and Yusuff (4-0) all maintain unbeaten data, with Nzechukwu’s 7-1 the one blot on the copybook.

“I clearly see it driving the waves of success of Usman and Adesanya … MMA can discover strong roots in Nigeria.””

Yagazie Chukwumerije

Yagazie Chukwumerije, who received an Olympic bronze medal for Nigeria in taekwondo on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, instructed ESPN that extra Nigerians are prepared to go to the UFC, and athletes are already drifting to MMA from different sports activities.

“We’re no less than 200 million robust, so once you say expertise, we don’t lack expertise,” he stated. At his fitness center, the place he trains college students in taekwondo, he stated college students additionally “attempt wrestling. Generally we put on boxing gloves, and we are saying, ‘let’s go at one another.'”

“I already just like the idea of a battle the place totally different kinds can are available,” Chukwumerije stated. “What maybe hampers [MMA development] in Nigeria is there isn’t a construction for it.

“Most likely if we had common cage fights — nicely performed, well-advertised, identical to principally each different sport in Nigeria — if there was a construction for the competitors, and it may convey them fame and pay the payments, positively loads of younger folks in Nigeria, together with folks with out martial artwork abilities, would positively wish to attempt it out.

“If MMA may also have a scouting system — I do not know if they’ve one — then you’ll find out that, ‘This man is highly effective. He’s good. Why do not we pull him out and take him to the U.S. or Canada or one of many locations it’s doing nicely, and he generally is a champion in just a few years?’

“I do not know the extent of alternative the game can present, however I clearly see it driving the waves of success of Usman and Adesanya … MMA can discover strong roots in Nigeria.”

Adesanya and Usman, for his or her half, have been working to develop MMA roots in Nigeria.

Adesanya returned to Nigeria quickly after beating Kelvin Gastelum to assert the interim UFC middleweight title in April 2019. He toured the nation, visited his outdated stomping grounds and labored out with children round Lagos.

“They’ve taken loads of gold away from Africa,” Adesanya stated on the night time he beat Gastelum at UFC 236. “It is time we take gold again to Africa.”

Usman, who couldn’t make that journey due to accidents, agreed.

“That is what all of us wish to do,” he stated. “All of us need to have the ability to return and contact these folks over there, and allow them to know, ‘Hey, although we’re over right here, we’re doing our greatest to provide again and carry our flag to the best place that we will.'”

Chukwumerije says it’s now as much as the directors — akin to Agara — to facilitate the expansion of the game.

“It’s left for the lovers of the sports activities who’ve the technical and administrative abilities to make it possible for this chance would not slip from their palms.” Chukwumerije instructed ESPN.

“As Kamaru, as Adesanya, as Sodiq, as they do higher and they’re continuously within the highlight within the subsequent couple of years, then definitely it should not be wasted alternative for folks to push it via the door.

“I imply, why not? We now have all types of sports activities in Nigeria, so there is not any motive why MMA can’t discover its personal area of interest right here and do nicely.”

Agara says the doorways are open.

“In the event that they can provide again to their group, encourage the athletes, allow them to know they’ve a future within the sport, then these of us listed here are keen to assist them as a result of it should assist our younger ones,” Agara stated. “A number of the younger athletes have already stated they wish to do it already.”

Usman, Adesanya, Yusuff and Nzechukwu are only a small indication that Nigerians might take the MMA world by storm.

Adesanya put it ominously forward of his UFC 243 battle.

“From time to time, there’s all the time a legion of a sure a part of the world that begins making a come-up in MMA,” he stated. “I am telling you, as soon as the Nigerians pull up, as soon as we begin to pull up with numbers, it is gonna be over for lots of years within the MMA world.”



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