Israel Adesanya's monumental rise in the UFC reached its pinnacle last night, with a knockout victory to claim the undisputed UFC middleweight belt. But who is Israel Adesanya and what makes him tick? Christopher Reive went one-on-one with the Kiwi UFC superstar earlier this year.
Israel Adesanya had reached his boiling point.
He had never felt like he was different from his peers on the playground at school until he arrived in New Zealand – and there was one kid at school who seemed to make it his mission to make the new boy from Nigeria feel unwelcome.
The kid had spent a good part of the weekend riding his bike back and forth past Adesanya's house, hurling abuse.
"I just thought, 'I don't know you, I've never done anything to you, I don't know you from a bar of soap. Yet, you live in the same neighbourhood as me I guess, and go to the same school, you're riding by my house just yelling s*** to me like, what have I done to you?'
"I couldn't process it in my head. I couldn't fathom it."
The abuse followed him through the gates of Rotorua Intermediate School. The same boy who had been telling him to go back to Nigeria over the weekend made a point to continue the abuse during interval.
When Adesanya didn't react to his verbal attacks, he pushed him. Not the smartest move.
"I just wailed on him," he recalls. "I threw him around and was spazzing on him, and after that people were like, 'Oh, he's badass.' I was just crying, told everyone to f*** off and leave me alone, ran away and hid for a while. I didn't understand how to feel."
Adesanya had just given himself a glimpse into the future he never knew he had.
"I'd had fights before back home, but that was just too much because it was some random who was being mean to me because of the colour of my skin. I'd never do that to someone, so for someone to do that to me, it was a bit of an eye-opener."
It wasn't meant to be like that. He'd moved with his family from Nigeria to New Zealand, via Ghana for better educational opportunities.
Instead, his new hometown of Rotorua greeted him with "easy" schooling and a type of bullying he had never experienced before.
"People would ask me if I rode lions back home, or if I lived in a house back home," he says.
"I remember thinking kids here were stupid, because they kept asking things like that. I just didn't get it. They had their perception of what Nigeria or Africa was like: 'Oh, you're riding elephants every day.' But I mean, I was watching Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all that sort of s***. I was just a regular kid."
It was a confusing introduction to New Zealand. His family lived well in Nigeria; his father was a distributor for Guinness and his mother owned a food supplies business. He says life was easy growing up in the African nation, although not without incident.
He recalls sitting at his mother's stall in a big marketplace playing Fight Night on his Gameboy, when he looked up to see a man climb on top of a van.
"I could see him reach into a bag, then I hear 'bra-ta-tat-tat, bra-ta-tat-tat' in the air and everyone started scattering like cockroaches," he says.
"Mum just grabbed me, locked the roller door to the stall quickly, then we went and hid in someone else's stall. There were maybe eight people in there – women, men and children. We were just quietly sitting there."
He was told that all what the men wanted to do was let the people in the marketplace know what was about to go down, then raid the place once everyone had gone into hiding.
"While we were in there someone knocked and was asking to come in. It was like a little zombie apocalypse type thing."
When it was over, everyone just went back to what they were doing, he says. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence.
While Adesanya's beat down of the schoolyard bully had marked him out as someone not to mess with, it was dancing that earned him "cool points" among his peers. During the year he spent in Ghana, was taught how to pop – a dancing technique where flexing and releasing various muscles helps to create a pop-like movement.
Once people in Rotorua knew he could dance, they kept trying to get him to. It became his identifier and remained so up to the moment his family moved from Rotorua to Whanganui, six years after their arrival.
In the river city, he added to his dancing arsenal. When he saw David LaChappelle's 2005 documentary Rize and was introduced to krumping, it changed the dancing game completely for him.
"When I first found krump, it was cool to dance from a different place. Not to please people's eyes, but for me to really express how I felt. Whether it be joy, fear, sadness, anger, insecurities, happiness, whatever, it was different."
After finishing high school, he went on to win dance competitions across the country. But around 2008, Adesanya found himself at a crossroads.
"There was a point where I found fighting but I also had dancing," he explains. "So, it was like, what do I really want to be great at? Do I want to be one of the greatest dancers in the world or one of the greatest fighters in the world?
"That was legit my thought process. I knew I was going to be great at something."
His decision was made easier when he was struck by dancer's block and was unable to create. He decided to go all in on the fight game.
"I can always dance for free, but with fighting, I can't just go around fighting everyone. That'd be a dick move first of all, and I could go to jail."
Over time, the fight game took over and his dreams of dancing glory faded.
"I wanted to battle Chris Brown," Adesanya says, "because he was really popular popping back in the day. If I battle him and kill him off ... wow, you know, I'm cool as f***. Now they'd kill me off easily, I wouldn't even stand a chance on a dance floor. I can accept that."
It didn't take long for Adesanya to realise that if he was going to go all-in on turning himself into a world class fighter, it wasn't going to happen in Whanganui. If he wanted to make it to the top of the mixed martial arts world, he was going to have to move north.
His parents weren't on board with the idea, so he kept his plan secret until it was too late to be talked out of his decision. In February 2010, he packed his bags, dropped out of a course in computer graphic design and headed to Auckland to chase the dream.
"My mum woke me that morning. She was upset and crying. She said her piece and told me not to embarrass the family name."
Adesanya rented a tiny room in Kelston. He knew one person in Auckland. A friend called Rob who hooked him up with a job at a call centre where he would cold call people to answer survey questions. The work was inconsistent, so he took a job as a metering and billing coordinator with a gas line company.
View this post on Instagram
Lexy, play Rick Ross "key's to the crib" 🎶 From my first room I rented to my first home acquired (in fucking Auckland City). Who ever imagined beating people up for monies would pay off?...I did. I'm only getting warmed up too, I'm bout to buy Auckland up like I'm Chinese!! #bloodmoney #hobolife 📦
A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on
He hated every minute of it.
"I used to sit by the water cooler overlooking the city, imagining doing the s*** I'm doing now – which is nothing after training," Adesanya says. "Normally I like to nap. That's one of my favourite things to do."
During the three years he worked there, he found City Kickboxing and began to train with the gym's head coach Eugene Bareman – much to Bareman's surprise.
While Adesanya was still living in Whanganui, Bareman had reluctantly cornered him in his first amateur mixed martial arts as a favour to a mutual friend. Adesanya lost – badly - and Bareman left the Auckland venue wondering why he had bothered wasting his time.
"That amateur MMA fight was cruel," Adesanya recalls. "I knew nothing about grappling… If I got up, he'd take me down. That would have discouraged a lot of people but I knew I could be the best at this. It's not even weird to say anymore, I just have to accept it. I knew I was going to be great."
When the hopeful MMA athlete came into the gym two months later after relocating, Bareman sent him packing, suggesting he come back after trying some of the other gyms Auckland had to offer.
Adesanya came back the next day, and when Bareman's wife, Kara, recognised Adesanya from a Muay Thai bout he fought in Whangarei and told Bareman he could fight, Bareman decided to give him a chance.
"Kara's not someone who would normally say that, I guess, so he decided to pay a little bit more attention."
Something clicked for Adesanya once he stepped foot in the gym. It felt right. Soon he would be training full-time.
View this post on Instagram
Sept 4th 2013...the day I quit the #9to5 I will always remember this day as a personal holiday. There is no shame in working hard and providing for yourself and your family. But too many people are unhappy doing what they do even when they are making BANK! My point being just do what makes you happy (if you want). It's not gonna be easy tryna pursue your passion, everybody will advise against it. But if you know yourself and you know what you have to offer then fuck what anyone thinks and just go. I've always known I'm the greatest, even told Dana back then just give me one shot and I'll take care of the rest...lol crazy how the matrix unfolds when you know who you are 🦄 #player1 #staywokestaybroke #crazymoney #hobolife #ufc
A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on
He announced himself to the New Zealand audience in 2014, winning the King in the Ring kickboxing tournament. At that point, he was 2-0 as a professional mixed martial artist, but he says that was the moment people really started taking notice.
He won two more King in the Ring tournaments in 2015, and shone in the boxing ring, before his MMA career elevated him to one of the hottest prospects in the game.
Through his first nine fights, four in New Zealand and five in China, Adesanya had stopped every opponent he faced. In 2015, he sent a message to Ultimate Fighting Championship boss Dana White asking for one shot to prove himself – and what he had achieved in his short career caught the attention of the world's biggest MMA promotion.
"They slid into my DMs [direct messages] in October 2016. They were just testing the waters, and so were we – trying to see what was on the table," Adesanya says. "They finally hit us up in October 2017, and by December I was officially signed to the company."
Adesanya entered the UFC with an 11-0 professional MMA record, with all 11 of his wins by knockout. His record and style reminded many of former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. In his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson early last year, Adesanya didn't disappoint, stopping his Australian counterpart in the second round.
After stopping Wilkinson, he beat Italian Marvin Vettori by decision, before picking apart Hawaiian Brad Tavares in his first career UFC main event.
The Tavares fight was particularly impressive. At the time, the Hawaiian was ranked No 10 in the middleweight division, and Adesanya brutalised him over five rounds to get a decision win.
He capped off a stunning 2018 when he beat No 6-ranked Derek Brunson in the first round of their bout at UFC 230 in New York's storied Madison Square Garden. It wasn't just that he won, but how clinical and calculated his approach to the fight was.
"I've prepared for every single aspect of this. It's easy for me. I know how to clock this game."
As big as 2018 was, it was nothing compared to what he faced at UFC 234 in February when he went toe to toe against Silva at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena.
It was a match-up UFC fans across the globe had been waiting to see; the 43-year-old Brazilian who still holds the record for longest title reign in UFC history against the undefeated young star destined for greatness. The winner would be guaranteed the next shot at the middleweight title, held by New Zealand-born fighter Robert Whittaker.
View this post on Instagram
Back when I only had 22 likes hahaha. Back when I was "nobody"...wrong! I was always somebody, I was always unapologetically me. I kept hustling and worked till my idol became my rival. #UFC234 #likemike #mikejones #who ?! MIKE JOOOONES
A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on
Slated as the co-main event, Adesanya and Silva found themselves headlining the card when Whittaker was forced to withdraw from his title defence due to a hernia and twisted bowel which required emergency surgery on the eve of the card.
"I was destined to be the main event," Adesanya says.
The bout lived up to the hype, with the eclectic styles of Adesanya and Silva combining to produce one of the most entertaining bouts in recent memory.
During their three rounds in the octagon, Silva threw plenty at his younger counterpart - but it wasn't anything Adesanya hadn't seen before.
"He caught one of my kicks. I knew he was trying to catch it and I tripped. As I was getting back up, I was like, 'Alright, here comes a flying knee – I've seen this so many times.' I just slid to the left," Adesanya recalls.
"He tried so many tricks that I've seen, even when I made him feint, if he'd react with his hands out then he'd just bring them back and do the hand Kung-Fu s***."
After three five-minute rounds, Adesanya stood in the octagon with his hand raised by referee Herb Dean, claiming a unanimous decision.
It was Adesanya's fifth win in the UFC since making his debut 364 days prior. It was the most special, not just because of who he beat, but because the fight was being broadcasting in Nigeria on DSTV - a station he tuned into as a child.
"It was like being in the twilight zone. That was cool as f***," he says. "This was the end of the first movie, where I get to fight the guy that brought me into the game.
"We put on a good show for the crowd… but I'm not here to win fans, I'm just here to win."
Now only one fighter stands between Adesanya and UFC gold, with the Kiwi fighter set to battle American Kelvin Gastelum for the middleweight title in April. Gastelum was scheduled to fight Whittaker but with that bout cancelled, the UFC have booked a bout for an interim title while the Australian champion recovers from surgery.
Ever since he started MMA, Adesanya had no doubt he would make it to the pinnacle before his time is done, but he says that end date might come sooner than people expect. The 29-year-old says he's given plenty of thought to his future and can see himself retiring from the sport in his mid-30s.
"As long as I'm good at it and as long as I'm in my best shape I'll keep doing this. I don't really care about wins and losses, honestly, at the end of the day I lose all the time in the gym – just not the whole world can see this."
Adesanya's life changed when he signed with the UFC a little over a year ago. Gone are the days of living in a cramped space trying to make ends meet, with the 29-year-old acquiring properties in Whanganui and Palmerston North, as well as buying a house in west Auckland where he now lives with his two dogs, Millionaire and Toothless, and his cat, Cinderoo.
Mementos of his travels sit in frames waiting to be hung on the walls; a personalised New York Knicks jersey gifted to him before UFC 230 in one frame, Kunai throwing knives and a forehead protector as seen in the popular amine Naruto in another with his trunks and gloves from UFC 230.
Traveling across the globe for work, Adesanya is flown business class and put up in luxury hotels by the company. Maintaining the mentality of a broke fighter dreaming of the big stage, it's a part of the job Adesanya doesn't take for granted.
"I know when this is gone, I'll miss it," he says, before checking himself.
"But at the same time, I won't miss it because f*** fame. I hate fame. I just like the perks."