One of the top featherweights in the world, Sodiq Yusuff, may not even be here if he didn’t randomly find an episode of The Ultimate Fighter on television one day.
“When I was in fifth grade, I got bored and switched the channel to Spike TV and saw The Ultimate Fighter,” said Yusuff. “So I always asked myself, man, what if I just never changed the channel that day? What would I be doing now? So it is one of those things where if I just never saw the UFC on TV that day when I changed the channel, what would I be doing now, let alone if I was in Nigeria? I have no idea.”
Fate is a funny thing. No one knows that better than the 29-year-old Yusuff, a Lagos native who arrived in the United States with his mother and younger brother when he was nine. That’s as typical as the story gets. What adds to Yusuff’s unique story and the idea that he was made for life as a professional athlete is that while his mother chose him and his brother to make the trip to America, there were more siblings in Nigeria. And as soon as Yusuff started his prizefighting journey as an adult and began getting money and a platform, the money was being sent home and the platform was used not to promote himself but to make it clear that he wanted his family to join him in the States.
That fight continues, even as Yusuff rapidly climbs up the 145-pound ladder.
“It was a culture shock due to the fact that the most I knew about this country was just off movies,” he said. “I'm thinking it's either going to be New York, where it’s snowing all the time or we're going to be on the beaches of Florida because that’s all you see in the movies; you're not seeing just a regular neighborhood. I didn't even see the rest of America because we didn't have the right papers to be flying around. We just stuck in one spot. I ended up in PG County, Maryland, which is the blackest county you could find, where everybody looks like me. We’re like, damn, where are the white folks at? (Laughs) Where's everybody? And then I think I came in right before winter, so it was cold enough to not snow, but too cold for an African. And I was like, man, this is crazy, this place. I was able to adjust relatively quickly because I still spoke English back when I was in Nigeria, and by my second year here, I got into my first fight at school, and I realized the power of fighting. You get your respect pretty quick.”
That respect, coupled with that fateful click of the television remote gave Yusuff a purpose, and once he graduated high school, he began training to become a mixed martial artist. He turned pro in 2016, and a little over two years later, a win over Mike Davis on Dana White’s Contender Series earned him a UFC contract. Since entering the Octagon Yusuff is 6-1 with wins over the likes of Gabriel Benitez, Andre Fili and Alex Caceres, with his only defeat a decision at the hands of Arnold Allen in April of 2021. In other words, his future is a bright one. But he hasn’t forgotten his past or his roots, something he’s reminded of during Black History Month.
“To me, it's just about representation,” said Yusuff. “I recently got into an argument with somebody. Some lady in Lord the Rings was talking about how she's proud to be the first black elf in there and they were trying to clown her. But people that don't come from a different race don't understand how big representation is because they’ve always seen themselves on TV. But when you start seeing people that look like you, doing the stuff you want to do, as a kid, it makes it that much more real. When you're watching things on TV, it seems so fictional because you're watching cartoons on there, you're watching these movies, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that's never going to happen to me; that's only going to happen to them.’ But the more black people or people that look like me keep accomplishing, the easier it is for the next generation to believe in.”
Yusuff had no guarantees when he came to a new country. But he made his own luck and created his own opportunities. That’s a heck of an example set by a young man who, along with his mom and brother, became United States citizens in 2020.
“I think this is probably the best country in the world when it comes to opportunities, where back in Nigeria, it's very, very hard to get out of what you're born into. Here, you could really chase your dreams. I'm a kid from the DMV, PG County, Maryland, and I decided I wanted to be a UFC fighter when I was a kid. And that's what I'm doing now.”
Next generation, take a look at Sodiq Yusuff to see what’s possible.