The Last Stylebender

While his success in the octagon is undeniable, UFC Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya is a polarising personality. On the eve of the release of an immersive and revealing documentary about the Lagos-born, Rotorua-raised MMA fighter, we sat down for a chat with one of sport’s most contradictory characters.

Oct 15, 2023

Words Shaun Summerfield Photos Vinesh Kumaran

Just getting to City Kickboxing involves running the gauntlet. Not of fighters, but traffic management doing its worst to guide cars around the glacial progress being made on the City Rail Link.

But what greets you once inside is completely at odds with the slow-moving team in reflectorised jackets outside; the gym is at full speed, with pro-fighters hitting bags and pads.

It lives up to the well-worn cliché of a fight gym being humble and gritty… except perhaps for the toddlers having the time of their lives bouncing around on the padded floor, entertained by the gym's resident comedian, who also happens to be one of New Zealand's biggest sporting stars.

The two giggling children are alone in being oblivious to Israel Adesanya's aura as a Mixed Martial Artist; every other person in here is super aware of the 1.93-metre-tall fighter’s presence. He is, after all, MMA royalty. UFC Middleweight Champion. The Last Stylebender.

Adesanya is famous, or infamous, for his verbal strikes which pack as big a punch as he does in the Octagon. But away from the lights, cameras and crowds, the 34-year-old is quiet and disarmingly introspective about his place in the world.

“I reflect deeply, probably two or three times in a year where I sit down – normally on flights – and cast my mind back to how it all began and how far I've come. I soak it all in, and I'm grateful for the way things turned out, both good and bad.”

The variables in getting Adesanya to where he is in 2023 makes the complex rules of Ultimate Fighting seem essential.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, his parents brought their children to New Zealand to give them the best possible education. But the ten-year-old Israel was bullied, leading to the drive to learn martial arts in order to defend himself.

As a teen, his main passions were dance and Anime, with Adesanya studying for a Computer Design degree after leaving Rotorua Boys High School.

But after watching the Muay Thai (kickboxing) film Ong-Bak, he knew what he wanted to be. His parents could forget their dream of him having a traditional professional career; the Artist was now on the road to becoming a Mixed Martial Artist.

“They were just trying to ensure I was in a respected job, I guess,” he says. “I was just stubborn, and I knew what I wanted out of this life. So, no matter what my parents, friends or co-workers told me, I didn't listen to anyone but myself because I knew it was my vision. It was my dream: my reality, not theirs.”

There is perhaps a little irony in the fact his father's respectable accountancy skills are helpful regardless, with Adesanya pocketing more than $3 million for his UFC287 victory over Alex Pereira earlier this year.

That win, which reinstated Adesanya as Middleweight champion, was arguably his most significant, not least because Pereira had not only taken his belt in UFC281 but also defeated him twice as a kickboxer.

“It's definitely in the top two best moments of my career. Just considering what I had to overcome to get to that point and get that fight done, and do it the way I finished it, closing the show in spectacular fashion.”

(The second-round knockout in the April fight netted an even bigger windfall for Canadian rapper Drake, who pocketed $4.7 million after beating large on Adesanya’s victory.)

The rankings, titles, and dollars are the apparent measure of success. But sitting in a quiet corner of the CKB gym, Adesanya says his measure and motivation are much more straightforward; he only cares about winning.

“My mindset is always just I'm just going to win. The belt is not really a factor to me. I know I am the champion and all that, but the belts at Eugene's [Bareman, his trainer] house are just gathering dust because it doesn't define me. I make the belt. The belt never made me.

“I'm doing what I love. So, what did they say? Never work a day in your life if you do what you love. So yeah, it is a passion of mine, but I also know it brings a lot of revenue for myself. So, it is a job, but it doesn't feel like it. I'm honestly just taking their head off, expressing the art of the fight. I don't chase the money,” he says.

As for fame, whether he chases it or not, Adesanya is globally famous.

UFC is an entertainment juggernaut, with 305 million fans, 80 million social media followers and the largest millennial fan base of any sport in the world. So, until Liam Lawson is winning in Formula One, Adesanya is the most famous Kiwi sportsperson in the world. Officially, though, he is a Nigerian-born New Zealander.

“I'm just a child of Earth, to be honest. I don't care where anyone's from. If they mess with me, I mess with them. If you feel me, I feel you. I don't care what patch of dirt you were born on or whatever. If my story inspires someone, then they're the people I represent."

The win over Pereira in Miami saw UFC Welterweight Matt Brown suggest Adesanya belongs in the all-time UFC top five. At the same time, another ultimate fighter, Michael Chandler, said, "Izzy is one of the greatest mixed martial artists on the planet, with his skill, his ability to put together a fight, put together a game plan, beat people.”

Adesanya has likened his fighting style – which centres on powerful striking with arms and legs, using his opponent – as a canvas for his artistic expression. It's a brutal analogy, but there is no escaping the fact: MMA hurts…a lot.

“I think it's the most difficult sport in the world. If you play rugby or whatever, getting the ball across the line means something because we made it mean something. In MMA, we punch someone in the face or kick him in the mouth. That always means something, regardless of the rules. So yeah, it's brutal.”

While his success in the octagon is undeniable, Adesanya has polarised many with some of his comments. Another UFC fighter Rob Font recently commented: "I never met a more confident person; he owned the room [before a fight]. The ref came up to him, and he's telling them what to do. He knew, the look in his eyes, the confidence, the swagger, it was like nobody's beating that guy right now.”

Away from the UFC hype and the camera, there is a different Adesanya, humble even…but in typical fashion, he has his unique take on being humble.

“People just don't think I am humble because Kiwis’ misconstrue the word “humility”. It's not like a fake humble: I am humbled every day. I don't need to flex or anything, but if I do flex it’s because I feel like flexing.

“I'm not perfect. I'm no saint. But I know where I come from, and I'm happy where I'm at, happy where I'm going. I live my life trying to do as much good to people because I want people to do good to me. I try to treat people how I want to be treated, with respect and love.”