Kamaru Usman’s homecoming connected UFC champ to his Nigerian roots
When a reporter asked UFC welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman to lift his belt high enough to be captured in a selfie, the champ had replied in Nigerian pidgin; “I no fit abeg. This thing too heavy.” His response elicited a bout of laughter from the people gathered. While some laughed at the aggressive way his pidgin, which sounded like he hadn’t been away for 26 years, made his response sound, others laughed at the irony of a UFC champ, whose daily routine must include lifting weights that can sometimes exceed his own, buckling at the thought of lifting a 2.5kg belt.
But the question that ran through my mind at the time was, which must weigh heavier on the champ; the belt or the responsibility that comes with it?
Kamaru Usman has always taken pride in being the first African-born champion in the UFC. And as far as he’s concerned, his mission is to make sure that he’s only the first among many. Thus, he has taken up the responsibility of a big brother, pushing and supporting other African-born fighters like Israel Adesanya and Cameroon’s Francis Ngannou to eventually attain the championship status that he attained. This has always reflected in how close he has drawn other African-born champs to him and how he has always proposed that Africa should have as many champs as possible as opposed to having as many belts as possible.
“I don’t want to challenge for the middleweight title because my brother, Israel Adesanya is the champ there. And like I have always said, for me, I’d rather have two Nigerians with two belts than one African with two belts,” the champ had responded to a question about moving up a weight class to challenge and become only the fifth fighter to hold simultaneous championships in two weight classes.
A truly African champion
But being an African champ goes beyond total domination inside the UFC octagon. An African champ who hasn’t been to Africa in 26 years just doesn’t sit right, especially for one who calls himself the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’. If he must be truly seen as an African champ, Kamaru has to make the first pilgrimage to Africa. And where better to start than the land of his birth?
My first impression of the champ is that he’s taller in real life than he looks on TV. He’s also someone who doesn’t like wahala and loves to take in and appreciate the full extent of every moment. He’s aware of everything and responds more excitedly to the things that pique his interest. So when I began my question with “Number 1 Pound for Pound”, the champ promptly suspended other things jostling for his attention and looked up at me.
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Of course he was very happy to be number 1 on the ESPN ranking but also expressed his dismay that the UFC hasn’t reviewed its own rankings to reflect his ruthless and consistent domination inside the octagon. But it wasn’t until I asked him about his relationships and interactions with other African fighters still struggling up the ranks like Super Sodiq and Ghana’s Adulrazaq that he truly lit up.
“I dey talk to all of them nah,” Kamaru said in impeccable Nigerian pidgin while brimming at the thought of his other African brothers. “Whenever they have a fight, I text them to wish them all the best. Razaq comes to my camp and I train with him in Texas. He’s my Ghana brother, he’s with me. But Sodiq lives a bit far away from me so we don’t see that often but we talk a lot and I believe they know we are one and we are together.
Kamaru Usman is proving to be a real African champ in every sense of it and his homecoming, which has been a resounding success, is the icing on the cake that is the responsibility he put on himself. His visit to Agege, a slum area of Lagos to feed indigent children and distribute sorely needed relief materials was probably a very high point of it all.
Thousands of people thronged out of their homes in the Cement area of the town to cheer the champ as chants of “Kamaru! Kamaru!” filled the air. They were delighted to see, and touch and generally experience the phenomenon that was the champ, live and in their very small and very impoverished community. It was a sight many of them would never forget.
The champ’s final stop was his home state of Edo. He was received at the airport by the state deputy governor, Philip Shaibu and a very large crowd of people including various dancing troupes. Here we saw the champ demonstrate his African dancing steps as he joined the dancers, matching them energy for energy and step for step. I’ve never seen Kamaru in such high spirits. Who knew he could move like that?
Other activities Kamaru undertook during his visit with the government was a tour of the Samuel Ogbemudia stadium during which the deputy governor decided to challenge him to a boxing bout. Even though a lot of Mr Shaibu’s political opponents would wish the champ saw a Masvidal instead and landed him that ‘goodnight’ punch, the deputy governor emerged from the fight hale and very hearty.
Kamaru Usman’s homecoming has been a resounding success and the UFC welterweight champ should return to base with renewed vigour, confidence, pride and even more responsibility knowing that he carries the weight of expectation from millions of admirers back home.