Awards shows have started to feel more and more ridiculous of late: the self-congratulatory pageantry, the tendency for voters to value tradition over innovation, the live television spectacle in an era when linear entertainment is becoming increasingly outdated.
Its fundamental purpose – to award excellence, be it sports or the arts – is an honourable, even important undertaking. But what has tended to happen over the years, is that these awards have devolved into smug pats on the back by industry gatekeepers, nostalgists and luddites clinging on to a forgone era.
Those grey and pale judges, often retired professionals who are about as plugged in to the cultural zeitgeist as our satellite TV boxes, naturally reward what they know and roll their eyes at innovators and dissenters. Rarely do these awards reflect what's actually happening in the culture at large. The system is almost set up to fail those who it's purported to reward.
Year after year, we are reminded of that fact. We tune in. We hope that this time, things will be different. And year after year, we're left disappointed and discouraged by an awards season that merely holds up a mirror to society's ills. Many have opted to switch off altogether.
But this year, we were offered hope. The Academy Awards shocked the world by actually giving the 'Best Picture' award to the year's best picture: South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's latest social satire Parasite. And last week, the Halberg Awards – New Zealand sport's pre-eminent awards ceremony – finally came around to combat sports and handed the award for sportsman of the year to UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, leading to a winning speech that captured the country's imagination perhaps more than any other in Halberg's history.
The Halbergs has always stirred up debate. Sports fans, after all, aren't necessarily known for their civility when it comes to disagreements. But it was the gatekeepers this time who trotted out the same old arguments. The validity of combat sports, an arena that has historically featured Kiwi athletes of colour competing at the world stage, came into question. One commentator even called mixed martial arts "human cockfighting".
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Adesanya is on a mission to change the country's mind – and he was finally given the platform to do so.
"It's the 57th annual Halbergs," he said while accepting his award in front of the country's sporting royalty. "It's the first time combat athletes have been nominated so you know, I have to do this for the old, the combat athletes of old. Rest in Peace Jimmy Thunder, David Tua, Doug Viney sitting right there, Ray Sefo, Joseph Parker, and now Israel Adesanya.
"Kiwis, we love a good one-out. We love a good fight. This is part of the culture. Straight up. We're a country of a warrior race, the Māori. If a fight broke out right now, what would you all do? You'd ignore me and you'd watch the fight. It's in our DNA. We've been doing this for so long, you guys have no idea. Welcome to the party."
(It's worth noting that Kiwi boxer Barry Brown did win the Supreme award in 1953, while other boxers have been nominated in the past. However, this was the first time an MMA fighter has even been nominated for a Halberg.)
✅ An iconic speech from a new Kiwi sporting icon 👑🥊— Sky Sport NZ (@skysportnz) February 13, 2020
"Welcome to the party!" New Zealand Sportsman of the Year winner @stylebender's Halberg acceptance speech will go down in history. Just watch. #ISPSHandaHalbergAwards
⚠️ Some language may offend pic.twitter.com/fnyCLfgX68
Adesanya has been New Zealand sport's biggest superstar for a while now. His love for memes and anime, as well as his natural social media savvy, has seen him become the country's most followed athlete on Instagram – by a mile. His undeniable charisma and business sense has made him the perfect athlete to take over Conor McGregor's mantle as the UFC's most marketable star. But where McGregor failed in the octagon, Adesanya has continued to thrive. He's one of the only fighters left in the UFC with an unbeaten record. He fights with a stunning combination of technical prowess and flashy showmanship. Last year, he became the undisputed middleweight champion of the world.
By opening its doors to Israel Adesanya and Kiwi MMA, the Halbergs felt like it mattered once again. For that one night, many young sports fans saw a vision of sport that was beyond rugby, the All Blacks and the same old names we tend to see in mainstream media. The awards also shined a light on women's sport: the Supreme award was deservingly awarded to the world champion Silver Ferns, while their inspirational coach Dame Noeline Taurua was also recognised as the best coach of the year.
But the night belonged to Adesanya, who sparked debate once again after calling out New Zealanders for a "culture of tall poppy syndrome". He ended his speech by taking one last jab at the disbelievers: "I know some of you will be a little salty, you might clap but you're a little salty, but hey, stay salty.
"The Black Kiwi's gonna fly all day." It's about time that we jumped on board.