From the deep heartlands of Africa arose a band of brothers, united by the quest for survival and the undying love for controlled violence. Dubbed “The Three Kings,” these men not only dominated their opponents but also inspired an entire generation on the continent.
This is the story of their extraordinary accomplishments in the fiercely competitive world of professional MMA.
Before the Three Kings: Africa and the UFC
In the early days of the UFC, African talents were hard to come by. Retired fighter Jimi Manuwa is of Nigerian descent and spent his early childhood in Nigeria before moving to the UK.
Manuwa competed in the UFC light heavyweight division. His powerful striking ability and devastating knockouts endeared him to fight fans. Despite never winning a UFC title, Jimmy Manuwa was a top contender who earned multiple “performance of the night” bonuses.
Source: Lowkick MMA
In the same vein, Cameroonian fighter Rameau Thierry Sokoudjo (a.k.a. The African Assassin) began his career in judo before transitioning to MMA. Sokoudjou gained international recognition after defeating top-ranked fighters in Japan, which led to his signing with the UFC.
His powerful punches and impressive knockouts resonated with UFC faithful of the time. But he struggled to keep a place on the UFC roster. Sokoudjou continued to compete in various promotions worldwide.
These fighters and others paved the way for the current crop of African fighters to follow in their footsteps and build their own legacy.
Who are the Three Kings?
The trio of Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman, and Francis Ngannou became “the Three Kings” of the UFC after Francis Ngannou won the belt.
Israel Adesanya reigns as the current middleweight champion of the UFC after bouncing back from a KO loss to his arch-nemesis, Alex Pereira. Renowned for his ‘style-bending’ approach, Adesanya is the UFC’s poster boy.
Kamaru Usman was the former welterweight champion of the UFC until losing to Leon Edwards. MMA fans consider him one of the GOATs due to his dominant wrestling and ferocious ground-and-pound.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is renowned for his knockout power and intimidating presence.
The First King: Kamaru Usman
Kamaru Usman, also known as “The Nigerian Nightmare, was born in Auchi, Nigeria, on August 11, 1987. He and his family moved to the United States when he was eight.
Usman grew up in Arlington, Texas, and attended Bowie High School, where he became a three-time Texas state wrestling champion.
He wrestled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, becoming a two-time NCAA Division II national champion. This was where he got the nickname “Marty from Nebraska.”
Despite his success in wrestling, Usman began his Pro MMA career in 2012 and gained attention for his dominant wrestling and grappling skills. In 2015, he was signed by the UFC.
Source: The Irish Sun
Usman has an impressive 20-3 record in the UFC. During his run, he defeated top-ranked welterweights such as Leon Edwards, Tyron Woodley, Jorge Masvidal, and Colby Covington. On March 2, 2019, Kamaru Usman became the first African King in the UFC.
One of Usman’s defining moments came after retaining the welterweight title at UFC 261, as he adorned his father with his belt just after his release from prison, christening a perfect recovery story for his family.
Usman’s career and personal values have made him a role model for many inside and outside the UFC community. He has a daughter and is actively involved in various charity organizations.
The Second King: Israel Adesanya (Izzy)
Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya was born July 22, 1989, in Lagos, Nigeria. He grew up participating in various sports, including soccer, kickboxing, and boxing, before moving with his family to New Zealand.
Source: Vanguard News
Adesanya became a professional kickboxer, winning multiple accolades on several continents. His love for anime and manga made him a fan favorite in the Chinese MMA scene.
Despite becoming a kickboxing champion, one of his darkest moments came at the hands of the stone-handed Alex Pereira—their paths will cross several times.
Taunted early in his career for his slim physique, he consistently proved his critics wrong. In 2015, Adesanya made his professional MMA debut and quickly rose, winning fights in various promotions worldwide. In 2018, he signed with the UFC.
After a 5-round war with Kelvin Gastelum, Izzy became the interim champion. He later defeated Robert Whittaker in 2019 to become the undisputed middleweight champion in. He has since defended his title multiple times and fought (unsuccessfully) in other weight classes.
Apart from his success in MMA, Adesanya is also a dancer. He has also incorporated his love for anime and gaming into his fighting style and entrance performances. This has helped him stand out in the sport as a charismatic entertainer, gaining him millions of fans on social media.
Most of his fans are nerds and gym class rejects who are considered “corny” in the testosterone-filled world of MMA.
The Last King: Francis Ngannou
Francis “The Predator” Ngannou was born in Batie, Cameroon, on September 5, 1986. He is the oldest of the trio.
Ngannou had little education and worked various odd jobs to make ends meet, shoveling sand for multiple hours daily at a sand quarry. He left Cameroon searching for greener pastures, embarking on an arduous journey that took him through Niger, Algeria, Morocco, and eventually to Europe on an inflatable boat.
Two months of detention in Spain for being an illegal immigrant would prove to be a blessing in disguise. Francis had initially planned to pursue heavyweight boxing, but he would meet Didier Carmont, who introduced him to Fernand Lopez, an MMA coach in France who convinced him to transition to MMA.
The UFC presented Francis Ngannou on the ultimate stage to become one of the heavyweight division’s most explosive fighters. And he started knocking off heads and taking names.
Early victims of The Predator’s rampage include Alistair Overeem and Cain Velasquez. Despite a shock defeat to Stipe in their first fight, followed by a snooze fest against Derrick Lewis, Ngannou bounced back to KO Stipe Miocic spark out. And with that, he became the last African King.
Despite his success in the Octagon, Ngannou remains humble and dedicated to giving back to his community. He has spoken openly about his difficult upbringing and has used his platform as a UFC star to raise awareness about the challenges faced by people living in poverty and conflict zones worldwide.
Being the oldest of the trio, he is considered the “big bro” and the glue holding the Three Kings together. Ngannou also made a cameo in the hit movie Fast and Furious 9.
The End of the Three Kings Era
It was a fantastic run in the UFC for the three kings who held the division titles of their respective weight classes, making history in the promotion.
Kamaru Usman held the welterweight title for over 1000 days. Against all odds, Leon Edwards KO’d the indomitable Nigerian Nightmare. It took a well-placed head kick from Edwards to end his reign at UFC 278.
Source: The Mirror
Three months later, on November 13, 2022, Alex Pereira dethroned the second African King, Israel Adesanya, at Madison Square Garden. And then, there was one king left.
Following a protracted contract dispute with the UFC, Francis Ngannou left the company and became an unrestricted free agent. On January 14, 2023, the UFC stripped Ngannou of his heavyweight championship. He is the second reigning champion to leave the UFC since BJ Penn in 2004.
The last of the three kings was gone.
This development caused a lot of buzz in the UFC community, with many fans and analysts speculating where Ngannou will go next and how this will impact the heavyweight division. But at the back of our minds, the era of the Three Kings of Africa was over.
The Dawn of a New Era
After Kamaru failed to regain his belt, fans and pundits didn’t give Izzy any chance. It was over for Africans in the new era. But Israel Adesanya was able to reclaim his championship belt after a hard-fought victory over his opponent Alex Pereira at UFC 287.
With age playing a factor, we have to look forward to other offerings that may follow in the paths of the kings.
South African fighter Dricus Du Plessis has recently called out Israel Adesanya, citing that he would be the true African champion because he lives and trains on the continent. Adesanya has recently responded; this may set up an intriguing clash in the future.
Source: MMA Fighting
Next on our radar is Kennedy Nzechukwu, a Nigerian mixed martial artist who competes in the light heavyweight division of the UFC. Nzechukwu started his professional MMA career in 2017 and quickly made a name for himself on the regional circuit with impressive victories. He joined the UFC in 2018.
Other Africans on the UFC roster include:
- “Super” Sodiq Yusuff (Nigeria)
- Manel “Starboy” Kape (Angola)
- Tafon “Da Don” Nchukwi (Cameroon)
- Abdul “Judo Thunder” Razak Alhassan (Ghana)
- Mounir “The Sniper” Lazzez (Tunisia)
- David “Silent Assassin” Onama (Uganda)
- Dalcha “Champion” Lungiambula (DR Congo)
- JP Buys “Young Savage” JP Buys (South Africa)
The Legacy of the Three Kings
The Three Kings have made history in the UFC, and their impressive runs as champions have solidified their places in the MMA’s history books.
Impressed by their feat, Dana White is considering bringing the UFC to Africa to honor their legacy. Although this vision is now far from reality, I refuse to give up hopes of seeing a UFC Africa event on the streets of Casablanca, Cairo, or Capetown.
The success of The Three Kings brought attention to fighters from the continent as well as shattered the stereotype of African fighters being rash brawlers with no technique.
Gyms have started popping up in towns and villages, just like in the Dagestani mountains and Brazilian favelas. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for MMA in Africa and the impact that these fighters will continue to have on the sport.