Even before Sodiq Yusuff made his splash on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last July, he was sending money back to his family in Nigeria. He’d pick up a win in the smaller theaters like Victory Fighting Championships and Brave, and send everything — $1,500, $2,000 whatever modest purse it was — back to Ikorodu, Lagos, on the west coast of Africa, where some of his siblings still remain.
By the time he got the UFC’s eye, his brothers Tope and Ayotunde, and his sister Omotayo, where treating his meager contributions as life-altering events. But before he took on Suman Mokhtarian in his first official UFC fight in December, tragedy struck. His older brother Tope, a constant positive force in his life, caught typhoid fever, slipped into a coma, and died. Sodiq was informed about it by his mom only a week before he boarded a plane for his next fight. It was with all of that on his mind that he traveled from Baltimore to Australia for his fight with Mokhtarian. He was a man split down the middle between profound pent-up emotion and competitive focus.
After he won the bout via first-round TKO, Sodiq dedicated the victory to Tope. And only then — two weeks after being dealt the biggest blow of his life — did he allow himself the chance to grieve the loss of his older brother, who was just 32 at the time of his passing.
“That was my main focus after the fight, was just getting back and getting with my family so we could actually mourn and talk about what happened,” he told MMA Fighting. “I’m actually in a good place now.”
On Saturday night, Yusuff — who came over to the States from Nigeria when he was just nine years old — will try and build on his momentum. He will face Brazil’s Sheymon Moraes to kick off the main card on ESPN, live from Philadelphia. Unlike his last fight, he has peace of mind regarding his brother.
“It happened so fast, and over there in the culture as soon as you pass they bury you right away,” he says. “There’s a lot of missing stuff too that’s lost in translation. That’s why I stress so hard trying to get the rest of [my brothers and sisters] back over here. That’s also why I’m going to try and bring some extra light to that after the fight, if I get to do a press conference or something. I can try and reach out to somebody who could help me actually help my brother and sister get visas so they can get over here.”
Yusuff, who competes as a featherweight, is just 25 years old. He trains with Lloyd Irvin in Maryland, and is among the current wave of African-born fighters to make waves in the UFC. Like the Cameroonian Francis Ngannou, the Nigerian-born champion Kamaru Usman and middleweight contender Israel Adesanya, he is driven to give back to his people. If the UFC ever makes headway on hosting an event in Africa, he wants to be on the card.
In the meantime, he’d love to work as an ambassador for Nigeria and for the UFC, if the promotion opts to do a goodwill tour over there in the near future. Both Usman and Adesanya have expressed interest in doing the same thing. He sees his own success and visibility as inspirational for kids growing up in impoverished circumstances, not unlike his own family who live there. The death of his brother has only strengthened his resolve.
“There’s a lot of sports we’re naturally gifted at, but fighting is something anybody can do,” he says. “There are some things you can’t do back home because you don’t have the resources. You don’t have a great basketball court or stuff like that.
“But fighting is fighting, and all you need in the knowledge. A lot of my people are seeing this stuff, and they’re watching people like Kamaru become champions on TV. Right now there’s a kid seeing that who’s inspired to do something else, because not all of them can afford medical school or whatever. So it’s cool to be a beacon for my people.”
As a competitor, Yusuff says he wants to break into the UFC’s top-15 rankings this year. He thinks a victory over Moraes might nudge him nearer that goal, especially if he has a repeat performance of his fight in Adelaide. Then again, he’s realistic. With featherweight being one of the most stacked divisions in the UFC, he knows he’s got a lot of work to do to distinguish himself. When looking at the long view, Yusuff knows he’ll have to fight some monsters to get to the top.
Yet in a prize-oriented game, the incentive to win in the small picture — and do so emphatically, so as to pick up extra cash — is also worthwhile. Therefore, the journey is as significant as the destination. He realizes that every dollar he sends over is magnified by a hundred in Nigeria, which brings a smile to his face.
“I’ve been doing stuff like that since I was fighting on the local circuits,” he says. “Most of my fight money I’ve just been sending back to my family and the people in my sister’s neighborhood. Over here a couple of thousand dollars is nothing. But when I sent it back to them it would always blow up. They would send me videos with people saying thank you, or showing me what they did with the money that was sent. I still have a bunch of those videos on my phone.”
He has videos of his brothers and sisters, too, expressing their gratitude through tears. After winning a performance of the night bonus in his last fight, he sent a good percentage of the $50,000 back to Nigeria, and was bombarded with joyful messages. His ultimate goal is to reunite his mother, Basirat, with all her children in the States. It was her who moved to the States first, earning enough money to send for Sodiq and his brother, Yusuff.
Sodiq is a certifiable momma’s boy. He commonly posts on his social media footage of her at the gym, tracking him down with hands held high, sparring with him in the ring. He’s been encouraging her to train, and he enjoys cataloguing her exploits on Twitter.
“I love having her around in the gym because it’s something I’ve been trying to get her to do for a long time, and it took a lot of convincing to make it happen,” he says. “The fact that she’s in there, it brings me extra joy, so I like messing around and pulling pranks on her.”
When he moved to America in the early aughts, Sodiq says it took some getting used to. “I was used to being spanked and beat by random strangers,” he says, “so it was a culture shock to see how kids speak to adults in America.” His mother didn’t let him speak English at home, so he says he “stayed Nigerian through and through” while growing up. He tries to get back to his native land once a year, and has plans — contingent on how things play out on Saturday night — to book a trip after his fight with Moraes.
As for Moraes himself? He says he seems familiar to him.
“I know the type of fighter I’m expecting. I’m honestly expecting the kind of fight I had at the Contender Series [Mike Davis], and I’ll be happy with that. A lot of people are going to have eyes on this fight and it’s going to boost one of towards the ranking process.”
Whatever happens, he plans to celebrate his brother, whom he feels will be on hand on Saturday night in Philadelphia, if only in spirit.
“He was one of my biggest supporters,” Sodiq says. “He was always telling me I’m the best in the world and stuff like that, so you know I’ve kept that in the back of my head through practice. During the fight, I’ll be dialed in, though.”