Mixed martial arts isn't my cup of tea any more than the Halberg Awards usually is in its endorsement of what constitutes the defining moments in the tinseltown of sport in New Zealand in any given year.

Spilling blood in a cage isn't sport or, for that matter, when one party is subjected to brutal punishment for the benefit of others.

I know, it's hypocritical when we clap and cheer every time Neil Wagner or Jofra Archer bounces a batsman into taking concussion tests or Dane Coles greets a rugby player on the ground with his stiff arm and, inexplicably, gets away with it.


My scepticism with the awards kicked in when former Commonwealth Games athletics champion Dick Tayler spat the dummy and resigned from the 28-member judging panel in 2011. His gripe? The All Whites had claimed every major gong bar the sportsman of the year, denying former EPL defender/NZ captain Ryan Nelsen his moment of glory.

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Tayler, by the way, was the then president of the Canterbury rugby fan club and couldn't stomach how the All Blacks had been bypassed, even though former skipper Richie McCaw had trumped Nelsen.

That is not to say MMA and Israel Adesanya didn't deserve the kudos last Thursday night in Auckland at an awards ceremony that causes as much consternation as the Oscars in Hollywood.

In accepting his sportsman of the year award, Adesanya had rhetorically asked how long did he have to express his views.

Long enough, it seems, to leave some of the clapping audience "a little salty" — the first time combat athletes had been nominated at the 57th awards.

Yes the Nigerian-born Kiwi middleweight champion — conspicuous in his mustard suit — had inexorably stolen the thunder from the mainstream code of netball with his sales pitch on the UFC. He has become the billboard of aspiring combat exponents in the hope they start visualising MMA to be up there with other elite mainstream teams such as the All Blacks, Black Caps, Tall Blacks and, presumably, their female equivalents.

It was that unapologetic, expletive-punctuated "one more thing" he had to say that seemingly had everyone buzzing. That is, the propensity for people in New Zealand to subscribe to the "messed up" tall poppy syndrome culture.


"When you see somebody rising you want to tear them down because you feel inadequate and you want to call it humble," Adesanya had proclaimed.

The people's choice award, I suspect, doesn't really rock Israel Adesanya's boat. Photo / Photosport
The people's choice award, I suspect, doesn't really rock Israel Adesanya's boat. Photo / Photosport

In booting the swear jar to the gutter, the 30-year-old Aucklander from City Kickboxing called on detractors to embrace anyone they saw shining on the slippery sport platform "because if they win, we win, if I win, you win".

I certainly do get that from the bloke who goes by the moniker of "Stylebender" in the cage. Humility isn't everyone's horny goat weed. For someone who was bullied in school, Adesanya has programmed his constitution to deal with adversity.

That recital, it seems, has propelled him to the top of the world in what he knows best — how to defend himself. No doubt, some see him as an inferior replica of Muhammad Ali and can't wait for him to succumb to the canvas in the mould of retired motormouth Mike Tyson.

Reportedly, Adesanya has lost five fights in kickboxing so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out his day will come. In the dog-eat-dog world of sport, the only surety athletes have is knowing they will — preferably later than sooner — lose their perch.

Do we, as Kiwis, elevate humility as a virtue because that's what we want the world to see us as, or is it because there's an inherent desire to remind those who excel — especially after having surmounted gargantuan odds — they shouldn't get "too far ahead of themselves". Celebrate by all means but, for goodness sake, don't prance about like a peacock.

When people exist in an environment where dead ends beckon they tend to embark on a journey of self-approval and appraisal.

If social experiments are anything to go by, it's not just a psychological state but a spiritual one. It's more implicit. It's entrenched in the psyche of such battlers to appreciate, value and accept themselves. They usually smother themselves in the gravy of confidence and are overtly aware of those hell bent on undermining that.

Sure, there's always the risk of falling foul of the off-side trap with such self-endorsement but, generally, the "arrogant" breed does not yearn for outside validation of their perceived sense of worthiness. Adesanya, for argument's sake, doesn't need public or institutional affirmation of his ascendancy. From where he swaggers in and out of a cage, it's between him, his coaching stable, his family and the mores of his society.

You see, Adesanya isn't disrespectful when he chooses not to follow a female assigned to usher him to the Halberg stage. My guess is it's his way of impressing on the conductors of ceremony he doesn't think much of a protocol that has historically embraced the "haves" on the red carpet while jettisoning the "have-nots" into sporting wilderness for more than half a century.

Israel Adesanya takes centre stage with City Kickboxing mentor Eugene Bareman, left, and compere Monty Betham at the 57th annual Halberg Awards. Photo / Photosport
Israel Adesanya takes centre stage with City Kickboxing mentor Eugene Bareman, left, and compere Monty Betham at the 57th annual Halberg Awards. Photo / Photosport

His outlandish attire itself makes a statement that's it's okay to break from tradition. That it's all right to accept, arguably, the most superior gong in the land without battling pangs of guilt about putting everyone else above him. The people's choice award, I suspect, doesn't really rock his boat.

Where my mental fountain diverges from Adesanya is the bit about "if they win, we win".

What happens when the gulf between winning and losing becomes a yawning one over a duration of acceptance?

When it becomes painfully obvious athletes aren't accomplishing, it is time for tough love.

That's when an analytical assessment — such as the media or an oracle with no hidden agenda — must override the desire to keep embracing at the expense of others who deserve a crack at success.

That should never be confused with the tall poppy syndrome.