The 'Nigerian Nightmare' is ready for UFC top billing

Al Powers for ESPN

In the late 1980s, the moniker 'The Nigerian Nightmare' was reserved for a bruising running-back for the National Football League's Kansas City Chiefs, but now there's a new Nightmare to hide from.

Where Christian Okoye set out to batter and run over defensive lineman on the football field from 1987 to 1992, Kamaru Usman sets out to break the will of his opponents inside the Mixed Martial Arts Octagon.

Nigeria-born Usman moved to the United States at the age of five with his family and they made Arlington, Texas their residence. He turned to wrestling as his preferred sport after being drawn to the individual aspect of it.

That decision turned out to be an excellent choice for the hard-working Usman as he parlayed his affinity for the sport into an opportunity to get an education and wrestle at the collegiate level.

Following an impressive spell at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where he was an NCAA Division II All-American wrestler, Usman fell for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. He found a professional sport that drew from his skills as a wrestler while still retaining the individuality found in wrestling.

"I decided to get into the sport of MMA because it was a natural progression after wrestling at the highest level," Usman tells KweséESPN.

"I still had a burning desire to compete for something major and after wrestling I was thinking about becoming a boxer, but that would throw away the major skills in the sport of wrestling that I just spent years perfecting, so I went into MMA so I could still utilize those skills," he continues.

Training in South Florida with the Blackzilians team, Usman soon found himself on The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show run by the UFC in which participants fight in the Octagon for the chance to progress onto the finale, win money and a UFC contract.

Coming into the show fairly unheralded, even amongst his teammates (TUF season 21 was the lone season of the show contested by two rival MMA gyms) and not considered a major threat by his opponents from American Top Team, Usman proceeded to run through his rivals.

Fighting twice, Usman won both contests by unanimous decision en route to a berth in the TUF finale. Facing ATT's Hayder Hassan, who had knocked out his first opponent on the show and won all three of his fights, Usman made doubters look silly as he not only dominated the fight with his wrestling, quick footwork and sharp jabs, but also with his submission skills as he submitted Hassan with an arm-triangle choke.

Two years and a 10-1 record later, 29-year-old Usman saw his hard work pay off again as he broke into the UFC's Welterweight top 10 earlier this year and confirmed that he is ready for big things, despite a slight drop in his current ranking to 12.

Usman is undeterred: "As far as my ranking, it really doesn't make any difference to me because if I had to rank myself, I think currently number five is honestly where I would put myself until I show them why I need to be number one.

"But rankings don't mean anything when you're aiming for the belt."

He added of his ambitions: "As an athlete and a human being I understand that I cannot do the sport forever, so in the next couple of years I want to be the champion of the world and defend the title as many times as I choose.

"Then I'll use this sport as a gateway to what I would do for the next phase of my life. I really feel that I have a bright future in the sport, and in the next phase of my life and whatever endeavours I decide to pursue."

So what exactly is next for the Nigerian Nightmare? "My manager and I have been working on getting a top-ranking opponent, but that's proving to be very difficult so I'm still waiting to see what the UFC will throw my way next.

"I'm looking to fight if not by the end of July then by mid-August," he says.

In the meantime, as he prepares for whomever the UFC places in front of him next, Usman knows that he is one of the few African faces in the UFC and carries the responsibility like a true professional.

As one of the premier MMA organizations in the world, the UFC has not really accessed Africa as an untapped source of potential UFC fighters, despite Usman, Francis Ngannou, Marc Diakiese, Oluwale Bamgbose and Abdul Razak Alhassan coming up the ranks.

How can Africans develop as MMA fighters on the continent and provide another source of global talent for the UFC? Usman opined: "I think Africa can definitely be a good source for future talents because that continent has so much untapped talent and potential.

"Because it is looked at as a Third World continent, it is very hard for anyone to be discovered. Also, because the sport of MMA is still relatively new in parts of the world.

"I think it is going to change in the future and it begins with the guys like myself, Francis Ngannou, and also guys like Marc Diakiese and Abdul Alhassan. These are Africans that are bringing notoriety to the sport as well as representing our continent of Africa.

"As far as developing talent, first the continent needs to know and understand the sport and we are going to bring that notoriety to the continent. Once we do that and it becomes known and recognized, then we can start to build programs that will show how deep and rich our continent is."

With burgeoning stars like Usman waving the flag for Africa in the Octagon, the continent is finally beginning to make waves in the sport, and the next generation of African fighters will be watching Usman as he ascends up the Welterweight division while staying true to the 'The Nigerian Nightmare' nickname.