‘The Nigerian Nightmare’, that’s what he is called. Kamaru Usman, the Nigerian-born American mixed martial artist who is also the current Welterweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world.
Usman didn’t adopt this tag for compellation or just as a byname, rather, this form of address has been drawn from the Nigerian ancestry that means so much to him.
Born in Nigeria, he was eight-years-old when he joined his family to migrate to the United States where he has found home since then. He started wrestling in college where he became a three-time All-American. He won The Ultimate Fighter 21 to his get his break in the UFC and has since become one of the most dominant fighters at 170 pounds.
Nigerians have since taken notice of Usman who has worked his way up in the UFC to become a champion. Usman is one of their own but how Nigerian is he?
This is a question often asked of anyone of Nigerian descent who has come to prominence anywhere in the world. From multiple heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua to Premier League star Dele Alli and Bayern Munich defender David Alaba, Nigerians often wonder if these stars identify with the root they share.
For Usman, the answer is obvious.
“They think because I’ve been in Yankee for long, I’m different. No, na Naija boy na em I be, original one,” he told Pulse Sports in Pidgin English.
“This is why I had to take the name ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ to let them know.”
Usman Vs Covington
It is this relatedness to Nigeria that made Usman speak to Pulse Sports amidst the deluge of media duties he had to oblige to ahead of his Welterweight title defence against Colby Covington at UFC 245 on Saturday, December 14, 2019 (You can watch Usman take on Covington on DStv Supersport 6 (CH 226) at 04:00 am on Sunday, December 15, Nigerian time)
“I have to do this for my people,” he said.
Usman is riding a 10-fight win streak in the UFC which has seen him earn a reputation as an aggressive striker with solid standup techniques and high motors. After his UFC debut in December 2015, the 32-year-old has fought his way to the top and became the new UFC Welterweight champion with a win over Tyron Woodley via unanimous decision in March 2019.
Naturally strong and athletically gifted, Usman is coming up against a real fighter in Covington who heads into the fight having won seven straight fights. Impressively, the American has won these fights against notable oppositions including Robbie Lawler and Rafael Dos Anjos.
So he’s no pushover but Usman is feeling no type of pressure facing him.
“Not necessarily,” Usman said when asked if he faces any pressure ahead of the fight.
“There is always pressure, there is always pressure from the fans, pressure from the media, pressure from your family, pressure from your friends.
“There are all those types of pressure but for me personally I have to be able to deal with the pressure and remove myself from that.
“Because at the end of the day, your family, your friends, your coaches, the media, they can’t fight for you.
“You have to be the person inside that Octagon and fight. So I have to be able to separate all of that and go and do my job.”
The headline fight for UFC 245 on Saturday in Las Vegas will be Usman’s first since he beat Woodly to become the Welterweight champion in March 2019. Beyond trying to silence a loudmouth in Covington, Usman still has the extra weight of fighting while being a champion but this changes nothing for him.
“Honestly, for me, it’s the same thing because when I started I always knew that this is what I wanted to be the champion and so each fight I prepared like this, like the way I’m preparing now,” he said.
“The only problem and difference now are that there is a lot of other obligations that come in to play during preparations. But apart from that, it’s actually the same for the preparations.”
Early wrestling career
Years before his preeminence in the welterweight division of the UFC, Usman was an amateur wrestler in high school. He had taken up wrestling after failing to make the grades in American football. According to him, there wasn’t much to wrestling at first as it was just ‘something to do’.
“Here (United States of America) once you get into middle school then you start to get into the organised sports the school has to offer,” he told Pulse Sports.
“I started wrestling, wrestling was just a natural progression for me. It took me all the way to try out for the Olympic wrestling team and then it what was next for me was getting into fighting.”
He started his high school wrestling career without the knowledge of his mum and dad who like every Nigerian parent would frown at any idea of combat sports.
“Na Naija parents I get o,” he said when he was asked if his parents were in acceptance of his early wrestling career.
“Initially it was ‘no o, we don’t want that. ‘You are supposed to go to school to become a doctor or pharmacist’ (his younger brother Kash, who arranged this interview is a trained pharmacist).
“Initially my parents didn’t even know I was wrestling when I first started in high school.
“They thought it was football because growing as boys when you kinda get into organised sports, football was the main one here in America.
“So when I started wrestling, it was different, I had no idea where it will kind of take me and so once they eventually found out, by the time they found that it was already too late.
“I had already started to make some progression in the sport, get better and better. So as long as I wasn’t losing all the time, getting beat up or hurt, they were okay.
“Once they kinda saw that this was going to take me on to bigger and better things, they became more and more okay with it.
“I still don’t think they are fully okay with it but I know as long as this is providing for me and my family and I’m still successful it’s alright with them.”
Usman spent a part of his formative years growing up in Nigeria which means his time in America didn’t take away the accent. He still speaks Pidgin English with the cadence of someone who grew up in Edo State.
While the language stayed with him, the lifestyle too wasn’t lost. It was what he grew up with; from the dirt road in Auchi, Edo State to in Arlington, Texas.
“Absolutely, even though I’m here, I was raised here for most of my life, I’m still a Nigerian,” he said.
“I’m still raised by full Nigerian parents. My mama and papa, dey still dey together. My brothers are Nigerians, My sisters are Nigerians. So those values are still here.
“So when they make Pounded Yam and soup, it is still the same at home. That didn’t change here. I grew up here, the way that I speak is different, that’s because I grew up here, so my accent has changed a little bit but a Nigerian is who I am at heart.
Like every child of an immigrant, Usman struggled with his identity when he first moved to the United States with his family and even had to adopt a new name ‘Marty' to fit in. But he grew into his own man and went back to what he knew to take up the name ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’.
Although he fights for America, he hugely identifies with his Nigerian roots. Carries the Nigerian flag to the cage, frequently uses the green-white-green emoji on his social media and everyone seems to be in line with it now.
But it wasn’t that easy when he first pushing this Nigerian narrative.
“Initially it was kinda tough because Nigeria, I don’t know, maybe because of people who came before us have kinda damaged the name and now Nigeria has been looked at as having a black card all across the world, especially here in this country and so they kinda frown upon it and kind of look at you sideways,” Usman said about the reception he received in the UFC when he first started identifying with his Nigerian roots.
“But part of my goal was to start erasing that stain from the world because Nigerians, we are some of the most resilient people I have ever come across. No place for earth, if hustle dey that side, Naija dey that side,” he also said.
“I have been everywhere in the world and I run into Nigerians anywhere in the world so I need to showcase that and tell the world that we are a people with the culture of hustlers and we hold true values.
“I need to go out there and push that to the people as opposed to the negative eye Nigerians are being looked at.”
Friendship with Israel Adesanya
It’s a huge task he has taken upon himself but fortunately for him, he hasn’t been the only one doing it in the UFC.
New Zealand fighter Israel Adesanya is another Nigerian fighter who is dominating in the UFC. In April 2019, Adesanya became the second African-born champion in the UFC history. The first was Usman. It was the root they shared that connected them when they first met.
“It’s crazy, I actually met Israel years ago, I think like 2014, 2015 when he was just starting to do MMA just a little bit,” Usman said.
“He was fighting in some small show in China and one of my good friends, Rashad Evans was over in China, they brought him in as a special guest.
“So while he was in China, he ran into Israel. He called me and said ‘I met this other guy, he’s Nigerian fighting over here, he’s a good fighter, he is going to be a great fighter’.
“And he put him on the phone, on Facetime, so that was the first time we talked right away. You know Naija people once you start to blow Pidjin for each other that bond don dey there.
“That was when we met, so we got cool there and the following year, we brought Israel over to our team to help one of my teammates train for his fight and that was when we really met each other and we just got cool and stayed in touch ever since then.
“Then fast forward four years, I'm in the UFC doing well and he finally gets signed to the UFC and the sky was the limit.”
Adesanya has gotten the experience of a homecoming in Nigeria where he felt the love and fondness Nigeria have developed for him following his success in the UFC. This is what Usman is still looking forward to doing. He like Adesanya has become quite popular with Nigerians who have followed and cheered his successes in the UFC.
“I get a little bit, I get some,” Usman said of the love from Nigeria.
“But of course my schedule being the way its been I haven’t been able to touch there. It doesn't matter how many internet messages they send you, it’s not the same as being there and actually feeling the energy.
“Unfortunately we weren't able to come back, before this fight, but after this fight, we sure definitely going to plan something. It’s about time I need to go touch my people once again.”
Usman was born in Auchi where he stayed before moving with his parents to the United States of America and he clearly remembers where he used to know as home.
“We grew up in Auchi and we lived in a place Ubiane for a while. My father side is from Auchi, that was the main place where we grew up,” he said.
“Now as a father, it’s one thing I have started to realise based on my memory that I have from that time is that kids remember more than we think they would.
“We don’t give children the credit for how good their memory is. So I remember everything. Like if I went there tomorrow, I remember everything like I left yesterday. Of course, a lot of things have changed but for the most part, I remember a lot.”
It’s this place he used to call home and the difficulties he encountered there that form the basis of the mission he has in mind for his homecoming.
Usman still vividly remembers how hard it was for him and his grandmother to get clean water to drink while growing up in Edo State. This has remained in his mind all through his years in America and now with his position, this is what he wants to come and fix as a means of giving back to Nigeria.
“For me, of course as a kid, you gotta start thinking about your situation that you grew up in,” he said when he was asked the role he thinks he has to play in helping to rebuild Nigeria.
“Those are what stick with you for the rest of your life. And so growing up, knowing the fact that we had to walk with my grandmother, the fact that we had to walk a certain amount of distance just to get water and bring the water back and had to filter the water to make sure the water is clean, so there are no parasites, gems in the water.
“Like those are big to me. So first and foremost, I have to be able to go in and make sure that those are corrected.
“So other children don’t have to go through certain situations.
“And then there are a lot of things that are going on, there are a lot of things that are wrong and that are not right, right now in that country, it’s not the greatest nation in the world but with everything that we have and that we possess, there is no reason we shouldn’t be that. So whatever I can, I will do to help restore that.”