Nigeria’s combat sports athletes flying high on global space

When he arrived under a mango tree near Ughelli Township Stadium, Delta State one morning in 2011 for his first boxing training, Efe Ajagba probably didn’t know he would be representing his country Nigeria in the world’s biggest sporting event, the Olympics, only five years after his first leap.


He was one of the brightest football stars in his neighborhood but had to give up on his dream of becoming a professional footballer after realizing he didn’t have the connections needed to succeed in the sport.


Seventeen years old and working at a bakery, a friend of Ajagba suggested he should try out boxing, given his size and strength, and within five years of his journey into the new sport, he had won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games, gold in the All Africa Games and Rio Olympic Games appearance.


10 years after his first boxing training, and five years after he turned pro, Ajagba has become one of the brightest and fiercest prospects in professional boxing. His inspiringly meteoric rise has seen him claim victory in all of his 15 professional fights with 12 knockouts.


Last week, Ajagba raised the excitements around himself when he delivered a thirdround knockout victory over Brian Howard. Unarguably, the biggest name in world boxing today is Anthony Joshua with WBA and WBO heavyweight titles.


Although he fights under the British flag, Joshua is very proud of his Nigerian heritage, with the most obvious sign being his tattoo of Africa, with Nigeria outlined on his right shoulder.


The Nigerian flag is always proudly and prominently displayed alongside the Union Jack in the ring during his fights His ring walks in his two fights against Andy Ruiz Jr. featured hits from Nigerian musical icons like Burna Boy and Femi Kuti, son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.


Henry Akinwande, Ike Ibeabuchi, Samuel Peter, and Herbert Okechukwu Maduagwu (Herbie Hide) are some of the world champions in recent years but none of these pugilists stand shoulder-toshoulder with Joshua in terms of popularity and acceptance among Nigerians who see the boxer as the biggest country’s export to the world despite Britain also holding on to him.


L a w r e n c e O k o l i e isn’t as quite popular as his child- h o o d friend and manager Josh- u a among Nigerians but the British- born boxer has drawn not a little attention to himself after claiming the WBO world cruiserweight title last month.


His trajectory is not dissimilar to that of Joshua who rose from troubled childhood as a result of being a kid of immigrants and racial discrimination to become a world champion. Another Nigerian who is primed to take on the world is Raphael Akpejiori.


Born in Surulere area of Lagos before moving to the United States, he is reputed as one of the fastest-growing boxers in the heavyweight category. With seven professional fights to his name with all of them ending in knockouts, the boxer, fondly called the Nigerian Hurricane is even eyeing a future match-up with Joshua.


“Obviously I want to fight Anthony Joshua tomorrow,” admits Akpejiori. “If he has the belts at that time, I’m going to collect the belts from him at that time.


“But if that happens, it would be a great fight for the country and for the continent. That could happen in Nigeria that can happen in Lagos, Nigeria, that can happen in Abuja, Nigeria, that can happen in Calabar, Nigeria.”



Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)


One of the fastest-growing sports in the world is mixed martial arts; with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as its flagship platform, kickboxing is fast attracting massive investment with millions of dollars flowing into the sport and practitioners gaining celebrity status.


It is projected that UFC will effectively be at par with boxing in terms of popularity and economy in the next decade and it is gratifying that some Nigerians are part of that evolution. Israel Adesanya, Kabiru Usman, and Sodiq Yusuff are three of the biggest names in the sport with cult followership that stretches across the world.



The trio formed comradeship that excites the world and they have vowed to conquer the sport in a bid to project the name of Nigeria. “They’ve taken a lot of gold away from Africa and it’s time we take gold back to Africa,” Adesanya told Usman when they first met in 2019. “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.”


Adesanya, born in Lag o s attended Crisland School in Ikeja before moving to Australia with his dad; and the fighter who is fondly called the Style Blender is one of the superstars in the MMA.


He is a world champion in multiple weight categories. Usman who was born in Auchi, Edo State moved to the United States at age 9 to join his dad who had just acquired a degree in pharmacy.


He started out as a wrestler but changed to mixed martial arts where he became the first African-born UFC champion in March by defeating Tyron Woodley for the welterweight title. He has the longest unbeaten run in the sport today. Yusuff might not be as successful as his older Nigerians; he is a force to reckon with in the featherweight category as he has 12 wins in his 13 fights with six of them ending in knockouts.


Many older Nigerians are still holding on to the memory created by pioneer wrestlers such as Michael Okpala (Power Mike), Michael Bamidele, Maman Zaria, Ben LionHeart, and Power Uti on the world stage and the younger generation are warming up for the excitement some individuals are now creating in professional wrestling.


One name on everyone’s lips now is Apollo Crews who has just won the world wrestling championships with his victory over Big E. Born Sesugh Uhaa with a root traced to Benue State, Nigeria, he practically transformed the way people view him when he changed gears that reflect his Nigerian roots.


Donning gears with Nigerian colours and raising his belt aloof, was one of the best pictures involving the country last week. “I have such a different background,” Crews says. “You don’t often see African representation on our show. This is a chance to get back in touch with my Nigerian roots.”


There are other wrestlers of Nigeria origin making waves in the WWE and one of them is Moos whose real name is Quinn Ojinnaka. He is currently signed to Impact Wrestling, where he is a former two-time Impact Grand champion.


Another one is Jordan Omogbehin who was born in Lagos, Nigeria; he is standing 7ft tall and it wasn’t a questionable decision to see him choose basketball initially and he played for his college in the United States after moving to Virginia.


However, after a while, he stopped playing basket- ball and was snapped up by NXT founder and wrestling legend Triple H for WWE. He is currently the tallest star in WWE. He is another wrestler with big prospects. Babatunde Aiyegbusi is always a delight to watch when he enters the ring donning an agbada.


He is always showing off his Nigerian heritage. He used to play American football before switching to WWE. There is also EJ Nduka who was born in Dallas, Texas, to parents Obie and Prince Nduka. He is also another star on the rise.


Experts’ views

Olympian Jerry Okorodudu believes Ajagba’s rising profile in world boxing shows the country has the talents to prove to the world but maladministration has largely inhibited the growth of sports in Nigeria.


He said, “Ajagba is making Nigeria proud out there and he needs all the encouragement to get to his ultimate goal.


He has what it takes to be the champion of the world; I saw him here when he was developing as an amateur boxer and you would know this is one boxer that has what it takes to go far.


“What worked for him is that he left the country on time; he probably wouldn’t have reached the level he is now if he had remained here after the Olympics because he would not get the kind of support he would need to get there.


What we are saying is that we have not done enough to develop boxing in Nigeria; there are no facilities for boxers to train with, even the amateur are not getting the support not to talk of professional boxing. “You can see now that we may not present any boxers at the next Olympics because our boxers did not attend qualifying tournaments.


Last Olympics, Ajagba was the only boxer that represented us, and the next one we may not even go with; you can see the gradual decline.


According to the Secretary of the Nigeria Boxing Board of Control (NBB of C), Remi Aboderin, things are gradually picking up especially in professional boxing with promotions like the GOtv Boxing nights and others.


“We can see that with the right environment, Nigeria can produce athletes that will not only rule the world in boxing but in many other sports.


The process was slow before now but we will get there soon. We have the likes of Ridwan Oyekola who just won the WBF world title in Ibadan, Rilwan Sogbesan, Rilwan Babatunde and the likes coming up. We know with more push, these guys are going to rule the world soon,” he said.




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