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MMA can find solid roots in Nigeria, riding success of Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya

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Can Usman, Adesanya help MMA take off in Nigeria? (1:44)

Colin Udoh and Yagazie Chukwumerije discuss what is holding Nigeria back from growing MMA in the country. (1:44)

How shocking was this?

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari's sending a post-win congratulatory message to Kamaru Usman after the UFC welterweight champion successfully defended his title against Jorge Masvidal on Saturday at UFC 251 was nothing short of a bolt from the blue.

Buhari is not known to be an enthusiastic sports fan, popping up mostly when one of the national soccer teams, the sport that rules the country's landscape, makes a splash.

Other sports are rarely, if ever, acknowledged, and mixed martial arts is as left field as it is possible to be. Yes, there are combat sports in Nigeria -- boxing, karate, judo, taekwondo, kung fu and even kick-boxing -- but like most other "lesser sports" in the country, they are gasping for breath. It is doubtful if the president even knows of their existence.

Buhari's statement -- issued through his media assistant, Femi Adesina -- was strong and empowering.

"As the first African-born and Nigerian UFC champion, President Buhari commends the courageous fighter for finishing strong inside the Octagon, proudly flying the green-and-white colors in distant lands, and reminding the world that good things and great people still come out of Nigeria.

"While the global COVID-19 pandemic may have brought gloom to many families and nations, the president is delighted and gratified that our welterweight champion has lifted our spirits with another professional performance proving that things will surely get better at the fullness of time when we remain committed to our vision.

"The president wishes Usman the very best and more victories in his career, and prays that, like fine wine, he improves with age."

Recognition from the president for a sport that does not yet officially exist in Nigeria is a big step forward and a tribute to how much of an inroad the UFC has made in the country. That the president was energized enough to send the message is one official sign of the growing interest in MMA and the UFC sparked by the exploits of Usman and compatriot Israel Adesanya, but there also unofficial signs.

When I set up a Zoom watch party for Usman's title defense against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251, my expectation was for around 15 to 20 people to join, mainly because the main event began at 3 a.m. (WAT) in Nigeria, and Usman did not get to the Octagon until about two hours later.

That expectation proved to be spectacularly incorrect.

At the height of the fight, when Usman -- relentless as an anaconda (should we rechristen him?) -- was constricting the breath and fight out of Masvidal on his way to a successful title defense, there were about 100 Nigerians on the feed.

That might not seem to be such a great number, but consider that the message was sent out on short notice, and the event was bang in the middle of the wee hours. To have approximately 100 people -- all excited, highly strung with tension, confident in expectation, with not a single pair of bleary eyes to be seen -- was quite the accomplishment.

It speaks to the growing interest in the sport that Usman and the flashy Adesanya, the UFC's middleweight champion, have sparked in Nigeria.

For emphasis, my Zoom watch party was not the only place where Usman's title defense was being followed in Nigeria.

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2:05

How did Usman take down Masvidal at UFC 251?

Dominick Cruz and Chael Sonnen give credit to both Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal for their efforts in UFC 251.

Silas Agara, deputy governor of Nigeria's Nasarawa State and president of the Karate Federation of Nigeria, says he and his sporting constituency were also watching with the same fervor.

"We have been online with some of our athletes, and the response was quite electrifying here," Agara told ESPN. "They were watching the fight and of course were rooting strongly for Kamaru. I stayed throughout the night to watch it."

Agara represents a growing subset of Nigeria's population who are actively converting to MMA fans. He might be in a unique position, as someone who already administers a combat sports federation, but that is certainly not the only reason.

"The fight against Masvidal was not the first time I've watched Kamaru," he said. "I have followed him for the past three years -- and Israel Adesanya, too, from way back."

Agara says the increasing dominance of Usman and Adesanya has led many more Nigerians to look into the sport.

"What [Usman's and Adesanya's] successes show is that with determination, hard work and encouragement, [Nigerian fighters] can achieve their dreams, expose their talents outside the country," he said. "And even within the country, this might be the encouragement we need to provide a platform for them to do the same.

"If some of them get the opportunity of traveling outside the shores of this country, I won't be surprised if they branch off and join the MMA because there is more publicity and more money there ... They already have the martial arts foundations, and we fully support and encourage them if they want to make the move to go abroad."

Usman and Adesanya are not the only Nigerians in the UFC.

Sodiq Yusuff and Kennedy Nzechukwu are also contracted fighters, and the quartet hold an eye-popping 31-1 win-loss record in the UFC. Kamaru (12-0), Adesanaya (8-0) and Yusuff (4-0) all hold unbeaten records, with Nzechukwu's 7-1 the only blot on the copybook.

"I clearly see it riding the waves of success of Usman and Adesanya ... MMA can find solid roots in Nigeria."" Yagazie Chukwumerije

Yagazie Chukwumerije, who won an Olympic bronze medal for Nigeria in taekwondo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, told ESPN that more Nigerians are ready to head to the UFC, and athletes are already drifting to MMA from other sports.

"We're at least 200 million strong, so when you say talent, we do not lack talent," he said. At his gym, where he trains students in taekwondo, he said students also "try wrestling. Sometimes we wear boxing gloves, and we say, 'let's go at each other.'"

"I already like the concept of a fight where different styles can come in," Chukwumerije said. "What perhaps hampers [MMA development] in Nigeria is there is no structure for it.

"Probably if we had regular cage fights -- well played, well-advertised, just like mostly every other sport in Nigeria -- if there was a structure for the competition, and it's going to bring them fame and pay the bills, definitely a lot of young people in Nigeria, including people without martial art skills, would definitely want to try it out.

"If MMA can also have a scouting system -- I don't know if they have one -- then you can find out that, 'This guy is powerful. He is good. Why don't we pull him out and take him to the U.S. or Canada or one of the places it is doing well, and he can be a champion in a few years?'

"I don't know the extent of opportunity the sport can provide, but I clearly see it riding the waves of success of Usman and Adesanya ... MMA can find solid roots in Nigeria."

Adesanya and Usman, for their part, have been working to develop MMA roots in Nigeria.

Adesanya returned to Nigeria soon after beating Kelvin Gastelum to claim the interim UFC middleweight title in April 2019. He toured the country, visited his old stomping grounds and worked out with kids around Lagos.

"They've taken a lot of gold away from Africa," Adesanya said on the night he beat Gastelum at UFC 236. "It's time we take gold back to Africa."

Usman, who could not make that trip because of injuries, agreed.

"That's what we all want to do," he 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.'"

Chukwumerije says it is now up to the administrators -- such as Agara -- to facilitate the growth of the sport.

"It is left for the lovers of the sports who have the technical and administrative skills to make sure that this opportunity doesn't slip from their hands." Chukwumerije told ESPN.

"As Kamaru, as Adesanya, as Sodiq, as they do better and they are constantly in the spotlight in the next couple of years, then certainly it shouldn't be wasted opportunity for people to push it through the door.

"I mean, why not? We have all kinds of sports in Nigeria, so there's no reason why MMA cannot find its own niche here and do well."

Agara says the doors are open.

"If they can give back to their community, encourage the athletes, let them know they have a future in the sport, then those of us here are willing to help them because it will help our young ones," Agara said. "Some of the young athletes have already said they want to do it already."

Usman, Adesanya, Yusuff and Nzechukwu are just a small indication that Nigerians could take the MMA world by storm.

Adesanya put it ominously ahead of his UFC 243 fight.

"Every so often, there's always a legion of a certain part of the world that starts making a come-up in MMA," he said. "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."