Every couple of years it seems a different part of the world steps up to show they are the head of the class in the MMA world. Over the last few years, West Africa (namely Nigeria and Cameroon) has stepped up with world-class talent. Three current UFC champions represent this small part of the world, not really known prior for its combat sports athletes. We will take a look at this small part of the world and its position in MMA and another nation that is bursting at the seams with the talent to step out on its own.
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The Surge of West African MMA Stars
Nigeria alone is considered the seventh most-populated nation in the world with around 206 million. This number could be considered surprising when you look at the unfortunate warfare and poverty throughout the country. West Africa (let’s just mention Nigeria and Cameroon) is the home to three current UFC champions. Prior to these three MMA kings of West Africa, the region was rather quiet in the world of combat sports.
The UFC’s West African MMA Stars
The first of the “three kings” to win UFC gold is actually the longest-reigning male champion, Kamaru Usman. Usman, born in Auchi, was a Divison II National Champion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Since winning the championship in March 2019, Usman has successfully defended his UFC welterweight championship three times.
The next, and arguably the most flashy of the three, Israel Adesanya, serves as the UFC’s middleweight champion, which he won in October 2019, serving as the second-longest male champion. Adesanya was born in Lagos but moved to New Zealand where he would perfect his trade. Adesanya has displayed amazing skills and showmanship inside the Octagon which has garnered comparisons to the great Anderson Silva.
Becoming the most recent West African champion, Francis Ngannou, born in Cameroon. Known as one of the sport’s hardest hitters, N’Gannou is the UFC’s newest champion, defeating Stipe Miocic with a second-round knockout in March 2021. With impoverished beginnings, N’Gannou began to work at the age of 10 and eventually moved to Paris at age 22 to begin a career in boxing.
So what country can we expect to see a huge rise in success over the next couple of years? This country has a much smaller population than Nigeria, sitting at 38 million (ranked 38th among the member states of the United Nations.) This country, though ranked 38th in population, is ranked seventh according to MMA Oracle, a Russian-based statistically-driven MMA website. Also, this country alone has over 25 MMA organizations, including two considered in the top-15 of worldwide organizational rankings. This country is Poland.
Current UFC Torch-Bearer
Sitting on top of the UFC’s light-heavyweight division and the country’s pound-4-pound best, Jan Blachowicz, is coming off of his first title defense against the highly touted Adesanya, recently mentioned. Blachowicz has been a professional since 2007 and is also a former KSW light-heavyweight champion. He won the title in a one-night tournament at KSW 1. Since joining the UFC in 2014, Blachowicz has won several Performance of the Night bonuses.
Queen of Poland
Arguably the first name to earn worldwide recognition in the MMA world from Poland, former strawweight champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk is still in title contention after all these years on top. Winning the title in March 2015 and successfully defending the championship five times, Jedrzejczyk lost a split-decision battle to current champion Zhang Welli in March 2020. Though taking the loss, Jedrzejczyk earned Fight of the Night honors and has shown she still has the championship drive.
The King of KSW
Many will argue and “go to bat” to defend the statement that Mamed Khalidov is the best fighter to never compete in the major American promotions. Immigrating from war-torn Chechnya at a young age to Poland, Khalidov has been a part of KSW since KSW 1. KSW is seen by many as one of the world’s top MMA organizations. Since KSW 21 in December 2012, Khalidov has main evented early single card since this timeframe. This encompasses 12 events. After vacating the title for a short retirement, Khalidov defeated champion Scott Askham in October 2020 to regain his title. Very few fighters across the world can compile a highlight reel like Khalidov and with the growing popularity of KSW, its easy to see why Khalidov’s popularity would rise as well.
Young, Rising Stars to Watch
The newest addition to the UFC roster from Poland, Mateusz Gamrot, was a double champion in the UFC. After losing a controversial split decision in his debut, Gamrot has all the tools to make a run in the lightweight division. Training at American Top Team with many of the world’s best, Gamrot is a name to keep in mind for 2021.
Beyond 2021, Fight Exclusive Night (FEN) lightweight champion Mateusz Rebecki has won 12 of his career 13 victories with a finish, most in the first round. His first bout of 2021 saw him earn a 48-second knockout to retain his championship. With a deadly striking game, Rebecki will continue to rack up victories and championships until his inevitable UFC call comes.