Over the weekend, when Francis Ngannou wrested the UFC heavyweight title from Stipe Miocic, he cemented a new normal for the UFC.
The era of the African champions.
History! Africa now has three champions.
🇳🇬 @USMAN84kg @Stylebender | 🇨🇲 @Francis_Ngannou pic.twitter.com/0i6vIxOViP
— UFC (@ufc) March 28, 2021
Ngannou, a native of Cameroon, now joins UFC middleweight champion Israel “The Last Style Bender” Adesanya and UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, both native Nigerians.
Never in the history of mixed martial arts’ premier tier has there ever been three African-born champions at one time.
It underscores a remarkable shift in the sport and issues a new challenge for the UFC: relatability to a new burgeoning audience.
Sincerely, the King 🤴🏿 https://t.co/KhUwANEZY3
— Francis Ngannou (@francis_ngannou) March 28, 2021
Historically, MMA promoters have never understood how to market the sport to a Black audience. When you break down the nuances between marketing to Africans and African-Americans, it becomes even more complex.
However, the UFC did attempt during Black History Month to appeal to its underserved base. Through articles highlighting UFC pioneers like former fighter Din Thomas, the UFC tried.
This was the scene in @francis_ngannou’s hometown of Batié, Cameroon at the moment he became a world champion 🇨🇲 #UFC260
(via fight_and_write/Instagram) pic.twitter.com/EVEUsPNuZC
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) March 28, 2021
Still, the open secret in MMA is that promoters don’t look at the Black fan base as a lucrative audience the way that boxing does. When SHOWTIME did its boxing upfronts back in 2018, they revealed that Black and Latino audiences lead their subscriber base for the sport.
With SHOWTIME now airing UFC’s chief competitor Bellator MMA, undoubtedly, they will use their expertise to maintain and expand on an audience they already understand.
The UFC distributed through ESPN now takes the brand to a base that also watches basketball and knows LeBron James as much as they are getting to know “The Last Stylebender.”
Dana White 24 hours after Francis Ngannou became UFC champion 😂 pic.twitter.com/Oi9nHZdMTE
— Derek Brunson (@DerekBrunson) March 28, 2021
Like Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “there’s no excuses in baseball!” and that means the pressure will mount to make its new stars relatable to a no traditional audience.
Gaffes like Michael Chandler’s interstitial video piece during Black History Month celebrating him for adopting a Black child will have greater scrutiny.
Unchecked UFC Code of Conduct, like when former UFC interim welterweight champion Colby Covington getting away with degrading Kamaru Usman’s Nigerian “tribe” while confusing it with a Native American one, will be dissected wider.
The UFC must step into a more inclusive era and not just by proxy of a champion’s nationality. How they will execute this with minimal to no executive-level presence within the organization is a significant challenge.
However, with Africa now on the horizon as a potential colossal landscape to host events within, the UFC will have to work smarter to maintain and retain newer audiences.