(SATSports) – Earlier this year, Cameroon’s Francis Ngannou joined Nigerian-born duo Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya in becoming a UFC champion.
Dana White says the trio are raising the profile of mixed martial arts on the continent in a similar fashion to how Ireland’s Conor McGregor, who first became UFC champion in 2015, boosted the sport in Europe.
“When Conor became champion in Ireland, it exploded in Europe and now with Usman, Adesanya and Ngannou, it’s blowing up in Africa,” White – who has led the UFC for the past two decades – told BBC Sport Africa.
The American promoter says he cannot wait for the coronavirus pandemic to ease so he can further develop plans to take UFC to the continent.
Since UFC 001 was held in the United States in 1993, events have been held in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East – but never in Africa.
“When everything gets back to normal, we can get over to Africa,” he added.
“I have a lot of plans in Africa, not just to fight over there, but to open a couple of performance institutes and start cultivating some talent from that.”
Performance institutes are similar to football or basketball academies, with White believing undiscovered talent can impress just as much as the likes of Adesanya, Ngannou and Usman in future.
“My goal is to get kids off the street and into the gym,” he said.
“The amount of unbelievable talent that’s going to come out of there is going to be insane. You have to have these guys that are hungry – and Africa is full of guys that are hungry.
“Getting into the UFC is a new avenue where these guys think: ‘I can make millions of dollars, and can change not only my life but my family’s and some people from my hometown’.”
When beating American Tyron Woodley in March 2019 to claim the welterweight belt, Usman – who left Nigeria for the USA aged eight – became the first African champion in UFC.
Seven months later, he was followed by Adesanya, another Nigerian who left home for overseas – in his case New Zealand. The ‘King of the Middleweights’ knocked out Australia’s Robert Whittaker to claim the title.
Earlier this year, Ngannou became a heavyweight UFC champion as the Cameroonian knocked out another American Stipe Miocic.
The 35-year-old is now set to take on France’s Ciryl Gane, with White saying the fight will ‘probably’ happen in the first quarter of 2022.
‘Time to start paying respect’
Of all the so-called ‘Three Kings’, White gave particular praise to Usman, calling the 34-year-old the finest in his weight category since the sport began.
Last week, Usman was named the sport’s number one pound-for-pound fighter by the UFC, replacing American Jon Jones.
“Right now, Kamaru Usman is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world,” agreed White, before he added: “He is the greatest welterweight champion of all time.”
Such views will divide opinion in the world of mixed martial arts, given that Georges St-Pierre, a now-retired three-time UFC welterweight champion, is considered by many as the best in history.
The Canadian finished his career in 2017 with a record of 26 wins and two losses from his 28 fights, with Usman currently standing at just the one loss from 20 fights.
Earlier this year, Usman – aka ‘the Nigerian Nightmare’ – beat St-Pierre’s record of 13 straight wins in the division, beating high-calibre opponents along the way.
“If you look at what this guy’s accomplished, he is undefeated now in 14, the longest win streak in UFC welterweight history,” said White.
“How about the highest defence in UFC history? The guy has spent zero time on his back.
“[He’s beaten] Gilbert Burns, Colby Covington, Tyron Woodley, Demian Maia, Leon Edwards and Sean Strickland. It’s time to start paying Kamaru the respect he deserves.”
Umaru will put his welterweight belt on the line again next month when he faces American Colby Covington in a rematch at UFC 268.
In contrast to Usman, Adesanya, 32, is undefeated in middleweight.
“He came from a kickboxing background so you’d have imagined that wrestling was going to be a big problem for him, but he’s undefeated at middleweight,” White said.
“He burst onto the scene and has accomplished some incredible things. He’s a good-looking kid who speaks well – very brash, but very likeable.”
White also praised the enormous power that Ngannou – who travelled to Europe as a migrant after overcoming enormous challenges – is able to generate.
“It’s unbelievable when you look at the punching power that guy has – if he catches you, you’re going to sleep,” he added.