By Jogai Bhatt of RNZ

On 6 October, Nigerian-New Zealander Israel (Izzy) Adesanya cemented himself as the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight champion.

His win over Robert Whittaker in Melbourne made headlines around the world and saw mixed martial arts (MMA) amass an interest previously unseen in New Zealand.

While many New Zealanders may have only just discovered the sporting figure following his win, Adesanya has been slowly rising up the ranks for years, and aspiring young fighters have been keeping a close eye on him.

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Zak Kezo and Hayellom Tesfay, both 20, began their training in early 2018.

For Kezo, Adensanya's impact was immediate - he watched his first fight in the UFC in February 2018 and started training the next day.

"The day he fought Rob Wilkinson, his debut, I saw the fight and messaged [my friend] 'let's go training'.

"I had messaged him two months before that and he said 'yeah, we'll go soon', and then the day of I'm like, '…let's go, stop wasting time'. Next day, boom, we went to training and haven't stopped since."

Tesfay followed just a week after seeing how much his friend was loving it.

"He hit me up like, 'bro, you gotta come with me'. He just knew it was for us. And then I went in for a couple of days and I just loved it, eh. Carried on. Ever since then we've just been training hard together, killing the game."

A group of young New Zealand men after a mixed martial arts training session.Zak Kezo (second from back right) and Hayellom Tesfay (second from front right) with other members of their gym.

Zak Kezo (second from back right) and Hayellom Tesfay (second from front right) with other members of their gym. Photo: Supplied / Zak Kezo & Hayellom Tesfay
Zak Kezo (second from back right) and Hayellom Tesfay (second from front right) with other members of their gym. Photo: Supplied / Zak Kezo & Hayellom Tesfay

"I knew he was gonna take it out. Nah, to tell you the truth, that was the only fight that I've watched that I was scared for like it was my own fight," Kezo said.

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"I don't know, it's something about Rob. But Izzy's Izzy, nothing's gonna happen to him."

Tesfay was less concerned.

"The whole way through, with his confidence, you can just see it, his whole energy, everything. I just knew he had it from the get-go. I can't even explain."

Earlier this year, Tesfay experienced that confidence first hand, when he participated in a kickboxing tournament called King in the Ring.

"I was in the back just getting my hands wrapped, getting ready - and he actually came backstage just as I was about to walk out.

"He came up to me and said, 'You got it. Do work.'

"I just stood there for a moment and took it all in. It just boosted my confidence."

Hayellom Tesfay (L) and Zak Kezo (R) after a kickboxing bout involving Kezo. Photo: Supplied / Zak Kezo & Hayellom Tesfay
Hayellom Tesfay (L) and Zak Kezo (R) after a kickboxing bout involving Kezo. Photo: Supplied / Zak Kezo & Hayellom Tesfay

Ask the pair what they think of Adesanya and they won't hesitate to tell you: "Best fighter on the planet."

And as young people training to fight in a professional capacity, Adesanya's standing in the sport means a lot.

"Having him solidifies our place out there," said Kezo.

"That's how the brain works, you see someone that looks like someone, naturally you're going to think this guy can do what this guy can do. It's different for [Tesfay] though," he jokes.

"This guy looks more like Robert Whittaker."

"They're gonna see him and they're gonna see us. They're gonna compare and contrast us as fighters," Tesfay said.

"As soon as he got into UFC they compared him to Anderson (Silva)," adds Kezo. "Tall, black and skinny and they fight the same. And then they end up having a super fight for like $2 million."

Hayellom Tesfay.Hayellom Tesfay. Photo: Supplied / Hayellom Tesfay
The young fighters say Adesanya's win is also an achievement for the wider African community in New Zealand.

"The thing is, us Africans, our community, we're so talented. We've got that potential. We just need people to look up to," Tesfay said.

Kezo hopes Adesanya's achievements will kickstart a change in the way people think about African national identity.

"Just look at the top comments on an article about refugees. It's like, these people aren't from here. And then when Israel won the championship it was like, yo this guy's a Kiwi-Nigerian.

"They pick and choose when to claim someone. Hopefully that changes."

Kezo and Tesfay have big aspirations for themselves.

In the next five years, Tesfay would like to see himself and everyone at his gym at the top of their weight divisions.

"There's more of us, it's not just us. We're trying to do something with our lives. We wanna get up there and make a difference. We want people to look up to us.

Kezo is more direct about his goals.

"Whatever Izzy's doing and more," he said.

"The sky's the limit."