Israel Adesanya: ‘Once the Nigerians pull up … it’s gonna be over for a lot of years in the MMA world’
Inside the strong and growing bond between the top Nigerian fighters in UFC
Israel Adesanya had never met Sodiq Yusuff despite the fact that both fighters hail from Lagos, Nigeria. But Adesanya, who has lived in New Zealand since he was 11, had the good fortune of making the four-hour trip to Australia in December to watch Fight Night 142: Adelaide, where Yusuff would be making his UFC debut.
Adesanya sat ringside on the company’s dime, thanks to the middleweight’s four-fight win streak after joining the UFC in February 2018. And once Yusuff walked to the Octagon with the Nigerian flag wrapped around his head, Adesanya knew he shared a kinship with the featherweight fighter.
So when Yusuff won his debut via TKO two minutes and 14 seconds into the first round, Adesanya was ecstatic and jumped up to the cage to congratulate him. But their moment didn’t last long. Yusuff’s opponent, Suman Mokhtarian, was a native of Adelaide, and some of his coaches expected Adesanya to support them since they reside in the same part of the world.
“F— you!” Adesanya recalls them saying. “You’re f—ing cheering for him?!”
Adesanya said he was taken aback by their reaction but stood his ground. The exchange became heated enough that security intervened.
“[Sodiq] is from Nigeria, so we already shared a connection. I was cheering for him at ringside, and the opponent’s cornermen got mad at me and tried to step to me. I was like, what?” Adesanya said, still peeved by the memory. “Luckily security got them out of there, or I would’ve had to handle things myself.”
Adesanya, 30, and Yusuff, 26, finally met backstage at the event in Adelaide, speaking in their native Yoruba language.
“You always have belief in yourself, but then it’s a whole other feeling when you see someone that comes from your same background accomplish what you want to accomplish one day,” said Yusuff, who moved to Bladensburg, Maryland, when he was 9. “It just makes it feel that much closer.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Kamaru Usman sat in UFC president Dana White’s office in Las Vegas. “The Nigerian Nightmare,” who had just earned his ninth straight UFC win and entered negotiations for a future title shot in the welterweight division, was also watching Yusuff’s victory.
“I remember just telling Dana that we were coming for all the belts,” Usman said.
Less than a year later, Usman’s declaration to White seems more like a prophecy.
Usman (10-0) became the first African-born UFC champion in March by defeating Tyron Woodley for the welterweight title. Yusuff (3-0) earned a first-round TKO win in August at UFC 241 and is a rising featherweight contender. And Adesanya (6-0) has added the interim UFC middleweight championship to his mantel and could be UFC’s next big star.
“Every so often there’s always a legion of a certain part of the world that starts making a come-up in MMA,” said Adesanya, who will face middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in a unification fight on Saturday in the main event of UFC 243 (Saturday, 10 p.m. EDT, ESPN+ PPV). “I’m telling you, once the Nigerians pull up, once we start to pull up with numbers, it’s gonna be over for a lot of years in the MMA world.”
Are we witnessing a Nigerian takeover? 🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/S2o5yylvm3
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) August 22, 2019
Usman remembers first encountering Adesanya when his teammate Rashad Evans FaceTimed him from a kickboxing event in China.
“Rashad FaceTimes me and says, ‘Guess what?! There’s another Nigerian over here that reminds me of you. I’m gonna bring him down to come hang and come train with us,’ ” said Usman, who was born in Auchi, Nigeria, and moved to Arlington, Texas, when he was 8. “Rashad put him on FaceTime and we were talking, and instantly there was a connection.”
They met in person in early 2015 when Adesanya visited Florida to help Usman’s teammate Anthony Johnson train for a scheduled fight against Jon Jones. At the time, Usman was competing on season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series, which he eventually won. There was an immediate understanding of the journey they were on because they knew where they both started.
Usman, 32, had been in the UFC for two years when he discovered Yusuff while working as a commentator for local promotion Titan FC in 2017. Shortly afterward, Yusuff remembers being added to a message thread on Instagram that included other African mixed martial artists, and they would share advice and words of encouragement.
“Back when I was fighting on the local stage, he was always there to give me good advice,” Yusuff said of Usman. “Even just watching him from afar, the fact that he’s undefeated is a huge deal. Win or lose, you’re always gonna support your own, but the fact that he’s putting in the work is inspirational.”
In April, shortly after winning the welterweight title, Usman sat in the front row with his belt draped over his shoulder to watch Adesanya win his interim title at UFC 236. It was an epic “Fight of the Year” contender that saw Adesanya score four knockdowns in the final round to earn a unanimous decision victory.
After the fight, with his face swollen and scarred and his mouth unable to close properly, Adesanya posed for pictures with Usman backstage. They chopped it up in pidgin English and discussed dreams of bringing a UFC event to Africa for the first time.
But first, Adesanya had plans for a victory tour in Nigeria.
“They’ve taken a lot of gold away from Africa,” Adesanya told Usman that night. “It’s time we take gold back to Africa.”
A month after winning the interim middleweight title, Adesanya traveled back to his hometown of Lagos for the first time in five years. He ate more suya than he could remember, he visited his old primary school and connected with the youths in the city. The experience left him feeling full, not just physically but spiritually.
“Just to breathe the air, touch the soil, eat the food, I never went hungry when I was there,” Adesanya said. “It was a cultural thing for me — you always have to remember to go back to your roots and touch down with your roots.”
Usman couldn’t make the trip with Adesanya in May because he was rehabbing from multiple surgeries, and he hasn’t been back to Nigeria since moving to the United States, but he has big plans for an eventual homecoming.
“That’s what we all want to do,” Usman said. “We all want to be able to go back and touch those people over there and let them know, hey, even though we are over here, we’re doing our best to give back and carry our flag to the highest place that we can.”
Yusuff returned to Nigeria in September for the first time in a year, surprising his sister at her shop in Lagos. He visited a boxing coach to whom he had been sending old equipment and gear so he can start up a training ground in Nigeria. Before watching sparring matches, he met children who were wearing some of his clothes and gear from his time as an amateur and they welcomed him with a song celebrating his arrival.
Thanks to a recent deal with African cable provider DStv, Nigerians now have access to live UFC events, giving Adesanya, Usman and Yusuff more exposure in their homeland. They each think MMA is a perfect sport for Nigerians.
“We are a country of survivors, we’re built to survive,” Usman said. “We’re built to be able to go through that struggle, withstand it and come out on top.”
Said Yusuff: “Fighting is a sport of being able to endure. At the end of the day, you can always have these freak athletes who have power, and everybody is gonna be able to do damage sooner than later. But you have to be able to answer back when the damage gets done to you, when you get into a little bit of trouble, and that’s where I see my people shine.”
Tattooed on Adesanya’s chest, in the same place Superman’s “S” would be, is a map of Africa with a lion inside of it and Nigeria outlined. He doesn’t claim to have superpowers, but he is driven by a desire to inspire people to strive for better.
“I just want people to know it’s possible. Whatever you want to get done, it’s possible,” he said. “You don’t have to be stuck where you are.”
Throughout his meteoric rise in the UFC, Adesanya has displayed an unwavering confidence that he plans to bring into UFC 243. Usman and Yusuff, on the other hand, both said they will be experiencing anxiety as if they were watching a family member fight. They both had messages they wanted to give Adesanya.
“Keep that same mentality: aya bi ekun! [heart of a lion],” said Yusuff.
“Go giv am gbosaa! [Go give ’em hell],” said Usman.
Adesanya and Yusuff stay in touch through social media, and Adesanya said he hopes to touch base with him sometime ahead of Saturday’s fight. Usman and Adesanya spoke on the phone last week, as has become customary when either of them has an upcoming fight. Usman wanted him to know that he was watching him, rooting for him, praying for him.
Saturday’s main event is being billed as a battle between Australia and New Zealand. In front of an expected audience of close to 60,000 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Aussie middleweight champion Whittaker will enter the Octagon for the first time in 16 months. Adesanya considers New Zealand his home and proudly represents the Kiwis in this long-standing sports rivalry.
But he also embodies the resiliency of a nation that is familiar with overcoming struggle, the same resiliency that fuels Usman and Yusuff.
“We all have the same stories, we all have the same backgrounds. … It’s the same drive that got our parents to get on that plane to get a better life for us,” Yusuff said.
“But it’s Nigeria first, always.”