In the last five months, kickboxing fans have been treated to the UFC debuts of several of their favorite practitioners of the art, with Israel Adesanya, Curtis Millender and Muslim Salikhov all arriving in the Octagon with varying degrees of hype.
It could be called the return of the striker, and this Saturday, Hakeem Dawodu becomes the latest to arrive in the big show, complete with an array of Muay Thai titles and an unbeaten MMA record. So what’s behind this latest development?
“Kickboxing is one of the most vicious sports out there and I think the people want to see exciting fights,” said Dawodu, who faces Danny Henry in London this weekend. “You’re going to get that from most kickboxers. We’re giving the people what they want, and they want to see some high-level striking and exciting fights and big finishes. I think that’s why you’re seeing the explosion of kickboxers. Before it was the boxer-wrestlers that were really dominant. But now you’re seeing the kickboxers, they’re learning how to keep the fight standing by brawling and sprawling, so I think you’re gonna see a lot more in the future as well.”
For those who love striking in MMA, it’s a welcome resurgence, with Adesanya and Millender both picking up Performance of the Night bonuses for their knockout wins. And while Salikhov lost his debut, the “King of Kung Fu” is expected to make his way onto some highlight reels soon. In short, it’s a fun time to be a kickboxer in the Octagon, and that doesn’t surprise Dawodu.
“Not only is it vicious, it is so versatile,” he said. “You can see head kicks, body kicks, you can see guys get finished with low kicks. There are spinning back kicks, spinning back elbows, jump knees, big power punches. There’s such a variety that us Muay Thai guys and kickboxers have to finish the fight on the feet. You don’t know what to expect and you don’t know what they’re gonna throw, so you can get a fight finished in so many different ways and I think that’s what so fascinating about it.”
Yet even though Dawodu is part of the next generation of strikers entering the UFC, he’s more concerned about leading the next generation of Canadian fighters into the Octagon. And in the Calgary native’s opinion, the Great White North is still a hotbed for the sport, even if the number of Canadians in the UFC has fallen from its heights back when Georges St-Pierre was ruling the welterweight division.
“MMA is very big in Canada,” Dawodu. “At the moment, we just don’t happen to have many Canadian fighters in the UFC. But I feel like there’s a new generation coming in, and with me coming in here, I feel like I’m gonna inspire another generation of guys coming up. In the next two, three years, we’re gonna see a lot more waves of Canadians getting into the UFC. We’re just rebuilding right now.”
And getting his nation back on the map is a responsibility he takes seriously.
“I definitely feel like I’ve got to lead the Canadians and not just be another fighter in the UFC, but an exciting fighter and really put Canadian MMA back on the map and get the attention where it’s due.”
Kickboxing. Canada. It’s an unselfish attitude for the 26-year-old to be taking his sport and his country on his back, but what about “Mean Hakeem,” who is coming off a March 2017 win over UFC vet Steven Siler? Did this call come at the right time for him, especially with the youth movement going on at 145 pounds?
“It’s definitely the right time,” said the featherweight prospect. “I felt like I should have been in the mix earlier, but it feels right, I feel very confident and I feel I can make very big waves in this weight division. So my time is now for sure.”
Calm, cool and collected. Those are the best descriptors of Mr. Dawodu, who doesn’t seem to be a candidate for the first-time UFC jitters. He agrees.
“This is 70-plus fights for me, including my kickboxing record, so I think with the amount of experience and gym wars that I’ve had, I’m just very comfortable,” said Dawodu. “People may think I’m new to the MMA game, but I’m definitely not new to combative sports. I’ve had a lot of exposure, I’ve done a lot of training and I’ve been to many gyms. I trained in Thailand, I fought in Russia and all over the world. So there’s really nothing I haven’t seen or felt yet.”