Kamaru Usman: Never-ending Nigerian Nightmare

In the early hours of Sunday, Kamaru Usman faced off against Jorge Masvidal in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The Nigerian-born American mixed martial artist was the reigning world champion — the first ever from Africa — and most viewers tuning in from different time zones expected him to retain the welterweight championship belt.

These were unusual circumstances for a prize fight. Usman’s opponent was supposed to be the Brazilian Gilbert Burns, but he tested positive for Covid-19. With just six days to go before the fight, the American Masvidal was called up. 

Masvidal had to lose nine kilogrammes to make the weight, and Usman had to change his game plan at the 11th hour.

“I had to switch gears to prepare for him on six days notice,” Usman said. “I had to make a mental switch. I prepared for Gilbert and I had a completely different gameplay.”

After striding confidently into the arena, a Nigerian flag wrapped around his shoulders, Usman dominated from the beginning. He stuck to the American like glue for much of the bout to minimise contact, and delivered some offensive stomps, which raised a lot of eyebrows. He basically wrestled his way through a mixed martial arts title, and it worked.

But the manner of his victory left some disappointed. He was too clinical, too quick, too boring; his performance was not entertaining enough to justify splashing out to watch.

But maybe that’s just because Usman has made winning look so routine. So far in his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) career, he is unbeaten after 16 bouts.

After the fight, Usman compared himself to the undefeated boxing legend, Floyd Mayweather. 

“There was a time where people started hating Floyd Mayweather because he was so dominant,” said the man described by friends and foes alike as “the Nigerian Nightmare”. 

Long journey

Usman’s long journey to the pinnacle of mixed martial arts began in Auchi, in the midwestern Nigerian state of Edo.

Aged eight, Usman moved with the rest of his family to join their father in Texas. He was 15 in his sophomore year at Bowie High School when he showed interest in wrestling and amassed an impressive 53-3 record. Alongside current UFC star Jon Jones, he starred at the senior national tournament before heading for college in 2007.

In the summer of 2009, his father, Muhammed, was arrested by federal agents in Dallas, and charged with multiple counts of healthcare fraud. Eleven months later he was handed a 15-year prison sentence and a fine of $1.3-million. Kamaru made this revelation in a podcast with UFC commentator Joe Rogan last year, insisting his father was unjustly imprisoned.

Muhammed missed out on a huge chunk of his child’s life, but he has always been a part of it, Kamaru says. In 2012, although apprehensive like his mother, Afishetu, Muhammed gave his son his blessing to turn professional.

“He came to me and said he wanted to be a fighter,” Muhammed told ESPN sports channel. “He had some training video on his phone,and showed it to me through the glass. I told him it’s not what I wanted for him, but I gave him my blessing.”

Usman is unique in that relatively few of his fights have been on pay-per-view — that’s not through any lack of commercial appeal.

His father had only seen him compete live three times, the last being a Division II national championship in 2009, in Houston. Other bouts were seen behind the bars in the company of other inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas, on one of the six televisions, on cable — thanks to his son’s refusal to go premium.

Having served close to 10 years of the sentence, Muhammed was released on February 5 this year. Sunday would have made it the fourth time he’d see his son fight live.

Muhammed was unable to watch the biggest fight of Usman’s career prior to that either on TV or in person: as the rules demand, the March 2019 title fight in which he defeated Tyron Woodley — becoming the first African-born MMA champion — was broadcast only on pay-per-view.

But on the stage with him to celebrate his win was Samirah, born to Usman in 2014. With the belt strapped around his waist, mic in his left hand, he gazed at his daughter and said: “When you grow up I want you to remember this day, forever.”

He has given his daughter, and his fans, plenty more to remember since then. 

And as far as his opponents are concerned — well, the Nightmare continues.

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Tolu Olasoji, The Continent
Tolu Olasoji is a Nigeria-based journalist covering sports in Africa, and its intersections with human being and social issues

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