It was a clear statement from one of the biggest international athletes around. "You will never see me fight in New Zealand again," MMA champion Israel Adesanya said via his YouTube channel.
"That was one of my dreams, to headline a stadium in my backyard. That dream's dead in the water ... that's just the way I feel right now."
Adesanya's comments come after a particularly infuriating period for fighters from Auckland's City Kickboxing (CKB) Gym.
The backdrop: two failed attempts to form training bubbles throughout level 4. Dan Hooker, a top lightweight fighter, was among the group of coaches and fighters. They initially moved into the CKB gym so they could keep training for events, including Hooker's bout in Las Vegas this past Sunday, during lockdown.
The set-up was supposed to replicate a training camp/bubble from last year's level 3 lockdown — where fighters lived at CKB in the lead-up to the UFC's Fight Island bouts. At that meet, CKB had four fighters competing, including Adesanya.
Fast forward about a year and this set of training bubbles — the second which formed on a smaller scale at Hooker's Ellerslie gym — were deemed by police to breach the Covid public health order.
"[Police] advised us that due to a change in interpretation, our lockdown camp no longer complied with lockdown regulations," CKB coach and spokesperson Mike Angove said at the time.
The inconsistency was frustrating enough. More significantly, the development comes at the tail end of a raft of setbacks for athletes like Hooker and Adesanya during Covid. Setbacks which they say are indicative of the hierarchy of New Zealand sports. One which privileges specific sports like rugby, netball and cricket and continually disadvantages individual sports through preferential treatment.
This includes refusing to allow special training arrangements such as the CKB gym bubble, to granting MIQ exemptions for certain teams and their staff while others don't get a look in. The arrangement has pushed a number of our elite athletes to the brink. Surfer Paige Hareb pulled out of this year's World Surf League Challenger Series because she didn't know whether she'd be able to get back in via MIQ. Hareb noted the extra stress and uncertainty surrounding an MIQ spot wasn't worth it.
Tennis player Michael Venus decided to take his chance and head overseas for the international tennis circuit in April without an MIQ spot. As a result, his family have decided to join him while on tour.
Multi-sport athlete Braden Currie made a similar call last month after his pre-arranged departure date for overseas competitions fell after the level 4 lockdown was announced.
After weighing up his options, Currie decided pulling out of his fixtures would be detrimental to his career — one which he and his family rely on. He left without a guaranteed MIQ spot for his return.
It prompted his wife and manager Sally Currie to pen an open letter to Minister of Sport Grant Robertson outlining repeated attempts to deal with MIQ. She also pointed out similar scenarios for other athletes, and highlighted how athletes from team sports — including overseas nations — had been prioritised above top individual athletes from New Zealand. "I note the mainstream team sports are granted MIQ spots frequently to travel," Sally Currie said in the letter.
"I do not note any fringe sports outside of the rugby, cricket and netball being offered the same concessions. Grant, you are the minister of sport. Convince me that this is right. Because on the surface it is very wrong."
It's a point which hasn't been missed by Adesanya either. In declaring his offshore move, and disdain for the treatment of MMA athletes in New Zealand, he pointed to the same codes getting preferential treatment.
And while the Government, and Robertson, have said it's easier to sort logistics for team sports, it's an answer which continues to come up short. Further, and perhaps most disappointing, it's an attitude which minimises the importance of having all sporting codes on-board in our Covid recovery.
In particular, MMA. As one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports in the world it appeals locally and internationally in a way that leaves the likes of rugby and netball in the dust.
Adesanya, Hooker and CKB's stable of top fighters also command huge followings and represent a different type of sporting competition which unites fans and communities. Not to mention the widespread exposure they give New Zealand through their successes.
It's time the Government acknowledge that — and other athletes like Hareb, Currie and Venus. All deserve to be treated with the same respect alongside New Zealand's traditionally popular sports during Covid, and compete for themselves and their fans without feeling shafted by the Government.