One of the world’s fastest-growing sports is building its brand around these Nigerian stars

Kelvin Gastelum and Israel Adesanya fight during a middleweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 236 in Atlanta on Saturday, April 13, 2019.
Kelvin Gastelum and Israel Adesanya fight during a middleweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 236 in Atlanta on Saturday, April 13, 2019.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Zarrilli
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The Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship has come a long way from its early 1990s reputation as a rough and tumble, virtually rule-free fighting competition which pitted contestants of different martial arts skills against each other.

Today the franchise has burgeoned into a $7 billion sports media business with 756 athletes from around the world and ten titleholders, two of whom are from Africa. It is the first time in the competition’s 26-year history that it has reigning African champions and the franchise has been quick to capitalize on this.

With his March 2019 defeat of American MMA star Tyron Woodley, Nigeria-born Kamaru Usman emerged as Africa’s first ever UFC champion, topping the rankings in the welterweight division. And only seven months later another Nigerian, Israel Adesanya, would cement the continent’s leadership in the middleweight category.

These luminaries are a far cry from African world champion fighters of yore like Uganda’s John Mugabi, Ghana’s Azumah Nelson and Nigeria’s Dick Tiger, all of whom were boxers in an era when boxing, with its international superstars like Muhammad Ali and iconic events like Rumble in the Jungle, dominated the combat sports industry.

Interest in the UFC has risen sharply over the past decade surpassing boxing: a 2013 Scarborough survey found that 24% of US males aged 18-34 (the highest demographic of viewers) are UFC fans compared to 19.3% who are preferred boxing. Today, mixed martial arts is one of world’s fastest growing sports thanks to the UFC’s role in mainstreaming it and building a roster of international fighters and viewers.

Over the past decade, the UFC has molded a skilled sporting franchise from MMA, exploding in popularity and rivaling the pay-per-view buys of boxing and the WWE—owing to an ambitious marketing push led by UFC president Dana White. UFC bouts now regularly break global broadcasting records and pack out major venues in North America and around the world, including Adesanya’s ticketed headlining UFC 243 event where he secured the middleweight title. The fight drew a world-record crowd of 57,127, exceeding the competition’s previous best of 56,214 at the same location for UFC 193 in 2015, when Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm headlined.

Unlike their pugilist forebears, Adesanya and Usman are very much 21st Century-type stars with global identities and influences. Both were born in Nigeria but grew up abroad, Adesanya in New Zealand while Usman grew up in Arlington, Texas and fights out of Boca Raton, Florida. And they are both comfortable with their Nigerian identities, proudly walking out to Fela Kuti and Wizkid, and doing the shaku shaku dance in the Octagon. For the UFC, this helps to further open the sport and franchise to a world beyond the US.

At the moment, the continent has the South Africa-based Extreme Fighting Championship, which has put on 81 events across the country since its founding in November 2009. But the arrival of the UFC would further expand the market for MMA and cater to Africa’s growing appetite for the sport thanks to its growing list of fighters. Besides the two champs, other top African athletes include Cameroon’s Francis Ngannou, Algeria’s Nordine Taleb and Ghana’s Abdul Razak Alhassan.

This strong roster of fighters from Africa has spurred the UFC to make inroads into the continent. Last November, it signed a broadcast deal with SuperSport that will air UFC content in Sub-Saharan Africa through DStv’s premium satellite service. The multi-year broadcast agreement started in January 2019, giving Africans live access to UFC events. Nigerian-American UFC fighter Sodiq Yusuff told Quartz Africa the deal now allows his friends and family to watch his fights.

Kamaru Usman, right, kicks Tyron Woodley during a welterweight mixed martial arts title fight at UFC 235, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Kamaru Usman, right, kicks Tyron Woodley during a welterweight mixed martial arts title fight at UFC 235, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher

The UFC has drawn criticism over the years for being “violent,” but practitioners and stakeholders are quick to emphasize that it is a competitive sport with a “winner and a loser” and “no victims like there are after a violent assault.” And for the talented fighters with their varied fighting styles, they’d no doubt argue the sport is more about strategy and technique than mindless bloodletting.

White’s marketing savvy is evident in how the UFC is currently promoting its African champions and contenders—from Adesanya’s signature and pioneering walkout at UFC 243 to social media posts lauding the stars and their compatriots. According to ringside experts, “nothing prompts the UFC to infiltrate a new market like having marketable fighters from that area on their roster.”

Worldwide expansion has always been part of the UFC’s master plan, but since its inception in 1993 the UFC has produced over 440 events in 22 countries in every populated continent except Africa. While conversations on staging a match in the continent are still in very early stages, Adesanya and Usman are counting on their growing clout in the franchise to help bolster talks on a definitive UFC in Africa event.

The next big match for Team Africa is UFC 245 on December 14 where Usman will defend his welterweight title against American MMA fighter Colby Covington at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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