UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya was named Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards last night – and immediately stole the show with a powerful acceptance speech.

The Nigerian-New Zealand MMA fighter was the first combat sport athlete to win the award since 1953 and delivered a fiery acceptance speech, calling for an end to the "tall poppy" culture in the country and motivating young athletes.

Adesanya claimed the honour ahead of Tom Walsh, Scott McLaughlin and Kane Williamson, with McLaughlin probably the unluckiest of the trio to miss out, after his remarkable feats in the Supercars.

"This isn't really for me," said Adesanya. "This is for the young generation coming up who get to see someone they can relate to, someone of my essence if you will, that they can see a combat athlete ... is up there with the likes of the All Blacks, the Black Caps, the Tall Blacks."

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"New Zealand, we have this ... culture of tall poppy syndrome, which is messed up."

"Coming up in this country I've seen it so many times.

"When you see one of us rising, you want to tear him down, because you feel inadequate and you want to call it humble.

"I am extraordinarily humble, believe me, but you'll never know that, because you'll never get to know me.

"Understand this, if you see one of us shining – whether it be the netball team, the Black Caps, the sailors – pump them up, embrace them, because if they win, we win. If I win, you win.

"Understand that."

Israel Adesanya wins sportsman of the year at the Halberg Awards. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Israel Adesanya wins sportsman of the year at the Halberg Awards. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

Adesanya's tribute to New Zealand's indigenous Māori warriors struck a chord. As did his nod to the late Jimmy Thunder, David Tua, Ray Sefo, Doug Viney and Joseph Parker – those fighters who represented New Zealand with distinction on the world stage, only to be neglected by the Halbergs previously.

Adesanya's last fight was when he knocked out Robert Whittaker in a unification bout at UFC 243 in Melbourne last October.

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The netball world champions scooped the top honours at the Halberg Awards on Thursday night, acclaimed as the team of the year before also winning the supreme award.

Lisa Carrington won the Sportswoman of the Year for the fourth consecutive year. In any other year Carrington would have had a compelling case for the supreme award, given her feats at the canoe racing world championships, where she blitzed the field to win the K1 200m and the K1 500m, as well as anchoring the K4 500 team to the final, but the historic nature of the netball victory probably tipped the balance in the judges' eyes.

Sophie Pascoe claimed the Para athlete/team of the Year category for the seventh time. The remarkable Para swimmer, who won four gold medals at the 2019 World Para swimming championships, was named ahead of fellow Para swimmer and Wheel Black Cameron Leslie, the Para cycling team of Emma Foy and Hannah van Kampen, and Para shot putter Lisa Adams.

Alice Robinson, who took gold in the giant slalom at the FIS Alpine World Cup, won the Emerging Talent award.

In other honours, former All Black Sid Going was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame while Yvonne Willering was also recognised with the lifetime achievement award for services to netball.

Adesanya's full speech

"How long do I have? [Clears throat amid laughter]. It's the 57th annual Halbergs. 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. This is part of our culture. 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.

"We've been doing this for so long. Way back, we've been wearing New Zealand on our back all over the world. We did it twice last year in Australia, UFC 234 and 243, me and two of my other teammates, we repeated the three-peat. And guess what, next weekend we have other people coming to our shores at UFC Auckland and we're gonna defend the land, and repeat the three-peat. Understand this.

"So for me, this really isn't for me. This is for the young generation coming up who get to see someone they can relate to, someone who is of my essence, if you will. A combat athlete that they can feel like, 'Man, my sport, like Muay Thai or Jiu-Jitsu or Wrestling is up there with the All-Blacks, the Black Caps, and the Tall Blacks and New Zealand's top sporting teams'. We're on a level playing field. Like I said, we've been doing this for a long time, so this is for them.

"And this is for my team, City Kickboxing. This is for my coach, Eugene Bareman, because without him my career wouldn't be sh*t. I wouldn't be here. Understand that.

"And one more thing I've got say: New Zealand we have this f- woo, censorship! Where's the swear jar? Nah, f*ck it - we have this culture of tall poppy syndrome which is messed up. Coming up in this country, I've seen it so many times. When you see somebody rising you want to tear them down because you feel inadequate and you want to call it humble. I am extraordinarily humble, believe me, but you'll never know that because you never get to know me. Understand this, if you see one of us shining, whether it be the netball team, the Black Caps, the Sailors, pump them up! Embrace them! Because if they win, we win, if I win, you win! Understand that.

"And 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. Shout out to myself in this mustard-coloured jacket and shout out to the guy with the mustard coloured face as well. Peace!"

Halberg Awards winners
Supreme Award:

Silver Ferns (Netball)

Team of the Year:

Silver Ferns (Netball)

Para athlete/team of the Year:

Sophie Pascoe (Para swimming)

Sportswoman of the Year:

Lisa Carrington (Canoe racing)

Sportsman of the Year:

Israel Adesanya (Mixed martial arts)

Coach of the Year:

Dame Noeline Taurua (Netball)

Emerging Talent:

Alice Robinson (Ski racing)

NZ's Favourite Sporting Moment:

Silver Ferns win the World Cup (Netball)

Sport New Zealand Leadership Award:

Dame Noeline Taurua (Netball)

Hall of Fame inductee:

Sid Going (Rugby)

Lifetime Achievement Award:

Yvonne Willering (netball)