First, there was Kamaru Usman. Then came Israel Adesanya. And, most recently, it has been Francis Ngannou.
The three African-born Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighters are not only world champions but have also become icons of a continent in the past two years.
When he won the UFC welterweight title in March 2019, Nigerian-born Usman became the UFC’s first ever African-born champion.
Months later, Nigerian-born New Zealander Adesanya won the middleweight title to follow suit, while Cameroonian fighter Ngannou claimed his own world title belt in March 2021, beating Stipe Miocic to become the UFC’s heavyweight champion.
Previously, the route of becoming a mixed martial arts fighter hasn’t been a feasible option for kids in Africa – Usman remembers searching for others who have made it to the top level when he “didn’t believe in” himself to make the journey – but with the three champions, the next generation have role models to aspire to.
As well as being fearsome in the Octagon, Usman is hoping that his journey – along with that of Adesanya and Ngannou – can be the example others might need to follow in their footsteps, a feeling the 34-year-old knows all too well.
“[Fighting in the UFC] wasn’t an example of something that was attainable and now we are that example for the masses,” Kamaru told CNN’s Zain Asher. “Because I go back to my childhood growing up and starting to get into sports and simultaneously ending up in wrestling, of all places, in high school.
“You go and research them and find out what they were doing and how they were able to break through and get to that point. That’s something that’s so powerful because you’re letting the human mind know that this is attainable.
“I never saw an example of a UFC champion and now to be that example for the masses all across Africa, not just Africa, all across the world, it’s something that I definitely do not take for granted.”
Born in Nigeria, Usman moved to the US when he was eight years old.
Before that, his father had already traveled to the country to earn a living that could help financially support Usman and the rest of his family. Usman remembers not seeing his father’s face in person until he was four years old.
He was looked after by his mother, who was also a schoolteacher and a shop owner, and a young Usman also had to work on a farm to help his family.
Although he acknowledges others have faced tougher problems than his, he says it is the struggles he had to battle through in his early life that made him the man he is today.
“Most people will never understand what it is to fetch water from a well, to throw it down and have to physically pull up water from a well,” he explained.
“Most people will never understand that and having to boil that water in order to get rid of certain parasites. Most people will never understand me and my grandma walking miles to fetch water, carry it on her head all the way back home. Most people will never understand that. And that was just certain things that I had to deal with.
“Of course, I truly don’t believe that it’s the hardest of hardships. But for my time, growing up through that, those are certain events that touched me and made me the man that I am today.”
He had to work his way through the ranks, but with his relentless victory over Tyron Woodley in March 2019, he became a world champion and realized a dream.
UFC president Dana White has not been shy about transporting fight nights across the globe, both in the hopes of growing the sport’s popularity and increasing revenue.
And with three leading lights in the UFC all hailing from Africa, having a show in his home continent is the next logical step for Usman.
Combat sports have already made the journey to Africa with great success after boxing’s blockbuster ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – on October 30, 1974.
Usman says he’s talked to White about a UFC event in Africa “several times” and he stresses that he believes it’s something that “has to happen before my career is done.”
“We need that with all the different events and all the different things that are happening day-to-day and all the different situations that certain countries and certain regions are going through in that continent of Africa. I think something like this is something that will definitely shake up that continent for the better.”
Usman’s not returned to the country of his birth since he left all those years ago, but it doesn’t mean the love for his country has dwindled.
Before each of his fights, he walks to the ring draped in a Nigeria flag. And it seems to have brought him the requisite luck – he is on an 18-fight unbeaten run and has successfully defended his welterweight title four times.
And in the coming months, Usman hopes to finally return to Nigeria – an “emotional” thought for the UFC star.
“Being born in a place like Nigeria that helped mold me into the man that I am today, which is why I’m so vocal and I’m so passionate showing that flag,” he explained.
“But over time, of course, you’re away for long enough and you start to miss it. I miss my people; I miss being in a certain place to where you feel at home. You feel that everyone loves, respects and truly cherishes you. I miss that.
“And that’s something that I’ve been longing for and I just can’t wait to be in the means of that, to just have my people touch me, to drink up their energy and give off the energy that I have. It’s something that means the world to me.”