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MMA’s African fighters are sparking a new era for the sport

AFRICAN MMA fighters are not just flourishing on the global stage, they're igniting a wildfire of growth back home.

THE triumphs of African fighters in global mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments are not just fueling a new generation of competitors entering the rigorous sport; they are establishing a distinct presence for MMA on the continent.

Dricus Du Plessis, the 30-year-old South African professional mixed martial artist who kicked and punched his way into carrying the UFC middleweight championship belt on Saturday, January 20, has become the continent’s latest poster boy for the sport.

“It felt like 15 years of work, of gyming, of sacrificing—everything came together in one single sentence,” the South African expressed after the fight, according to MMA Junkie, an MMA news website, after Du Plessis claimed the title from Sean Strickland, an American mixed martial artist, albeit through a split victory decision.

Du Plessis joins the ranks of a growing list of notable African martial artists, such as Cameroonian ex-MMA star Francis Ngannou, who, despite transitioning to boxing, remains a prominent figure as the Lineal MMA Heavyweight Champion. Additionally, Kamarudeen (Kamaru) Usman, a Nigerian and former UFC Welterweight Champion, and Israel Adesanya, a two-time UFC champion, have set formidable precedents for the sport’s rapid growth across the continent.

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The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMF) reports that MMA is the fastest-growing sport globally, with an estimated 449 million followers. Despite its initial slow adoption in Africa, where only 19 countries have legalized it, the sport is gaining attention, with South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, and Zambia leading the way.

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In Nigeria, an MMA Reality TV show, African Knockout, which first debuted in November 2020 and is currently partly owned by Usman and airs on the Netflix streaming platform, has helped popularise the sport and has also offered talented young fighters a fast track to local stardom.

The West African nation received a major boost last year after the federal government approved the recognition of mixed martial arts as one of the country’s sports federations. The Nigerian MMA Federation is the youngest of the 19 federations on the continent.

South Africa was one of MMA’s pioneers, with the first tournament fought close to two decades ago. The sport has taken off in the country, with The Mixed Martial Arts Association of South Africa listing more than 30 MMA clubs that are actively engaging in different fighting tournaments in the Rainbow Nation.

Apart from national-level efforts, regional developments are also fueling the growth of this sport. The establishment of the Africa MMA Confederation in 2020 marked a crucial milestone for the sport’s growth on the continent.

According to Chris Adebayo, a Nigerian MMA high school coach, the Confederation “is important in harnessing inter-country empowerment and knowledge sharing.”

“It is the inter-country tournaments, or club-level competitions between countries, that ultimately make a difference. The confederation body has facilitated this,” he explained.

With global MMA promoters recognising the talent and growth potential in Africa, there is also a push to host major events on the continent.

READ:  World Champion: Dricus du Plessis beats Strickland to take UFC middleweight title

Following Du Plessis’ UFC victory in Canada calls for hosting the next Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Africa have intensified. Dana White, the UFC president, expressed interest in exploring South Africa as a potential host.

“I’ve been talking about Africa. Maybe we start looking at South Africa, assessing arenas, and potentially hosting a fight there this year,” he stated.

The potential of a South African event seems to be catching on according to eurosport.com, which quoted Nick Peet, an American sports analyst.

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“Imagine going to Pretoria or Joburg with Dricus as the defending champion. That would be the event of 2024” Peet said.

Apart from the UFC, the Professional Fighters League (PFL), an American MMA promotion organization, aims to host its first PFL tournament in Africa in 2025. Ngannou’s involvement as a strategic partner through PFL Africa highlights the continent’s importance in the organization’s expansion plan.

In May 2023, a press statement by PFL announced the addition of Ngannou as a strategic partner to fuel the organization’s expansion plan into the continent using a subsidiary company, PFL Africa, with Ngannou as a minority equity owner and chairperson.

Meanwhile, intra-continental events and tournaments are being hosted in new venues, including in countries where they have not been hosted before, as the popularization of the sport continues. In May 2024, Namibia is set to host its inaugural MMA event, the 2024 IMMAF Africa Championships, following previous events in South Africa and Angola.

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While the sport has predominantly been male-centric, efforts are underway to include female fighters and stakeholders. From Uganda Police’s Rebecca Amongi to Nigeria’s Gertrude Terlumuni, a promising generation of female fighters is emerging.

Recognizing the need for greater female participation, the MMA Federation of Mauritius launched the MMAFM Women’s Commission last year, with similar commissions established in the DRC and Cameroon.

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By BONFACE ORUCHO, BIRD STORY AGENCY

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