On the 12th of May 2023, Lagos Nigeria played host to the maiden edition of the AKO championship. AKO (African Knockout Championship) is poised to celebrate and promote mixed martial arts – MMA in Nigeria. The event featured 36 trained fighters from 14 countries, specialized in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). The AKO Championship is a pet project of past Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion, Nigerian mixed martial artist Kamaru Usman. The event took off at the SOL Beach in Oniru, Victoria Island.
The AKO mixed martial arts championships was launched in the wake of the increasing popularity of MMA in Nigeria and the African continent. Subsequently, the winner of the AKO Championships will be announced in December 2023 after scaling through predetermined stages. The fights will run through 5 events – 3 regular season events, one semi-finals, and the final in December.
Plans to Expand MMA in Nigeria
An interview with 54 Limited – the organizers of the AKO championship, revealed further plans to expand MMA in Nigeria. 54 Limited co-founder and COO, Natasha Belousova, praised Africa as a ripe discovery ground for many talented sports athletes. She disclosed that her company aims to give a platform to discover and train more African athletes in MMA. They also plan to expand the AKO Championships into 8 events hosting 25 African countries in 2024.
Belousova also praised Nigeria in its key role of upholding MMA across Africa. She noted that first of all, two Nigerians are international champions of MMA. The first ever MMA African champion is Kamaru Usman; and America’s current UFC (Ultimate Fighting Champion) Middleweight champion is Israel Adesanya. Both of them are Nigerians.
It is also noteworthy that the Ministry of Youth and Sports has approved the establishment of a supervisory body for MMA in Nigeria. Namely the Nigerian Mixed Martial Arts Federation (NMMF). The NMMF Director of Youth Development, Dr. Bernard Ebere, helped to shed more light on plans to expand MMA in Nigeria. Coincidentally, Ebere is a mixed martial artist and an ex-service man in the Nigerian Army, also working in the Oil & Gas sector.
In an April 2023 interview with a reporter, Ebere stated that MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Furthermore, he stated that MMA is more than just a sport; it has become a global business. Even the UFC champions and Nigerian representatives, Usman and Adesanya, are classified as employees of UFC, according to Ebere.
Ebere also stated that the NMMF invited the world President of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation to the 2022 National Sports Festival in Asaba, Delta State. The festival featured a mixed martial arts exhibition for officials of the sports ministry to see. Yet another MMA exhibition took place at Onikan stadium in Lagos. Both exhibitions led to the approval of NMMF as an established sports body in Nigeria. Ebere also disclosed that the NMMF has already secured the endorsement of the Nigerian Olympic Committee. And that MMA will be one of the events in the next National Sports Festival.
Furthermore, Ebere revealed that plans are under way to ensure that every state in the federation has MMA coaches and representatives. Besides this, he intimated that NMMF is working towards hosting MMA world championship in Nigeria. In view of this, NMMF intends to align its programmes with the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation calendar to arrange for this possibility.
MMA in Nigeria: Street Fighting Tournaments in Progress
On his own part, Dr. Ebere claims he has been running his own promotion – the Akalaka Spirit of Warrior MMA for three years. Through this initiative, Ebere has been doing outreaches and hosting MMA street fights to attract and discover interested Nigerian youths. One of such events was a big MMA street fighting tournament which took place in Rivers State in March 2022. The event attracted MMA fighters from Cameroun and Ghana. The purpose was not wasted, as a number of MMA talents were discovered.
A female bantamweight fighter named Doose Terlemun from Benue State, won the street fighting tournament in December of that year. Terlemun went ahead to defeat Togolese champion at another street fighting tournament hosted in Lagos on January 2023. Other notable MMA talents discovered include heavyweight fighter, Kabiru Adediran. Yet another one was a noodles seller and homeless mother of three, Queen James. James was a regular feature around the stadium in the evenings. She was subsequently tested and trained; and she won a street fighting contest in Bayelsa State in 2022.
Ebere further disclosed that Abuja would host street fighters from Ghana, Algeria, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria in another big MMA event on April 29. He planned to take the fight to northern Nigeria – possibly Kano – before returning to Port Harcourt, Asaba, and the suburbs of Lagos. The street fighting contests are intended to identify and prepare talented amateur street fighters for professional MMA competitions on the international level.
Promoting MMA in Nigeria: The Challenges
Dr. Ebere pointed out that for now, it is a challenge to get sponsors for MMA in Nigeria, since it is quite new. The director stated that he is still creating national awareness to promote MMA with his project. And that he is running on a personally-funded program of 10 years without necessarily making profit.
While he works towards getting sponsors for his tournaments, he intends to build a reputation for MMA in Nigeria. He stated in conclusion that in the interim, he has hopes of taking MMA in Nigeria to a stage of repute. Hopefully, MMA in Nigeria would soon match the likes of UFC and other MMA promotions across the world.
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