Israel Adesanya has revealed the inspiration behind his – apparently controversial – UFC pre-fight walkout before his middleweight title fight, where he paid tribute to his Nigerian heritage.
The Kiwi UFC superstar successfully defended his title against Yoel Romero via unanimous decision at UFC 248 on Sunday, in a bout he admits was "the weirdest fight I've ever been a part of".
However, it was his pre-fight entrance into the octagon that caught the eye of some, in particular, Australian-born former Black Cap Scott Styris who seemed to criticise Adesanya for not "fighting under the NZ flag".
Adesanya, who was recently crowned New Zealand Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards, is shown to be fighting under the Nigerian flag in the UFC chyron during fight walkouts, with the UFC often classifying fighters by their country of birth rather than country of residence.
The Nigerian-born Adesanya, who moved to New Zealand with his family at the age of 10, is a New Zealand citizen and has proudly draped the New Zealand flag over his shoulder in the UFC octagon, but decided on this occasion to pay tribute to his "ancestors", a decision he says was inspired by the death of his cat.
"My cat passed away on February 10th," Adesanya said in an interview with ESPN's Ariel Helwani. "I was listening to [music on] my old phone that whole day and you know when you're like 'I haven't listened to this track before' and you just listen to old music. And music has a way of evoking different emotions out of you.
"It just created this 'hyperbolic time chamber' in my car and I was a vessel and I was just getting these messages of how this show is going to look and how I was going to produce this show. And I was like 'yes this is how it's going to look'. And it was a little tribute to my cat maybe because of the way my ancestors revered cats."
The 30-year-old Adesanya made a typically eye-catching entrance to the octagon at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas – which was illuminated in green, a likely nod to the colours of the Nigerian flag – as he walked out while two women threw flower petals at his feet.
In his previous fight against Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 in October last year, Adesanya proudly displayed his Afro-Kiwi roots in another iconic entrance where he and three dancers performed a dance that mixed elements of the haka and hip hop.
Adesanya, who had previously explained that his cat was run over in the street outside his house, said he took its death pretty hard and that his latest octagon entrance was "inspired by her death".
"Someone f***ed with my cat," he said. "That really hurt me and was something I had to deal with. I know people don't really care much about like animal companions and what not but she was someone I was hoping would be around for the next 20 years.
"I don't think I could get another cat because she was the sweetest. But for me that gave me the inspiration. Just being inspired by her death. I was just like 'life is short'. I know for some people it's just a cat but anyone can get run over at any moment."
Apart from Styris' reactionary criticism, Adesanya was also booed by fans after his five-round fight against Romero, a bout that was more of a tactical chess match rather than the high-action fight fans are used to with Adesanya.
The unbeaten UFC champ admitted that the fight may have been "boring" but said he had no regrets with the way he approached it, with his opponent not willing to engage with him.
"100 percent the weirdest fight I've ever been part of," he said. "Even for me, as a fan, the most boring fight I've ever had, and I don't have boring fights. It's not my style, it's not my gig. It wasn't boring because of me. Just check my resume and see I come to fight. I'm not an actor, I'm a fighter.
"For me I was thinking 'don't give in. don't get frustrated'. It sounds stupid. There's a guy standing there not doing anything, you should go and hit him right? But he's not not doing anything. He's 100 percent defence. He's waiting for that split second so he can unload that 'knockout blow'.
"I just didn't stand there and do nothing. I was moving. A fight is meant to be like a dance. I was fighting, I was probing to get reactions. And Romero was like 'no I'll wait for you to come to me'.
"A guy like Kelvin [Gastelum] and Whittaker as well, they brought it. They brought the f***ing fight. And you know me, I'll go after it. I'll bring the f***ing fight. But I'm not going after it when I'm the one with everything to lose."
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