Whanganui expat and UFC middleweight world champion Israel Adesanya is on the first step to becoming just the second combat sports athlete in 56 years to receive Halberg Awards recognition, with the announcement of the initial nominations today.
Adesanya joins world championship-winning rowing sisters Kerri and Jackie Gowler as the Whanganui contenders amongst the 70 nominations put forward for the 57th edition of the awards.
The finalists for each category from the nominees will be announced in January, ahead of the televised ceremony of the 57th ISPS Handa Halberg Awards at Spark Arena in Auckland on February 13.
A voting academy of 30 judges, many prominent former sports stars, will vote by secret ballot to determine finalists and then the winners for the Sportsman, Sportswoman, Para Athlete/Team, Team and Coach of the Year categories.
Adesanya, who won the UFC title in Melbourne in early October, has been nominated for the Sportsman category, but to even be named a finalist he has tough opposition from the likes of Aussie Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson and shot putter Tom Walsh - the 2018 Halberg supreme winner.
Kerri Gowler has received two nominations from her sporting body for the Team of the Year, as she and Grace Prendergast won women's pairs gold in Austria in September.
They then jumped in the women's eight boat with sister Jackie to win another world championship gold medal, with both crews put forward for the Halbergs.
As well as Adesanya's nomination, his City Kickboxing coach Eugene Bareman has been put forward for Coach of the Year.
In the over 50 years of the Halbergs, boxer Barry Brown is the only combat sport athlete to previously win an award, way back at the fifth ceremony in 1953.
Kiwi MMA luminaries have expressed their concern that combat sports are not considered equally with other more 'traditional' codes for the judging of the awards, while a former judge in Brendan Telfer stated back in October there may still be a prejudice against "cage fighting".
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Adesanya addressed the need for combat sport athletes and coaches to be recognised for their hard work after he accepted both the International Sportsperson and the Supreme Award at the 2019 Ray White Whanganui Sports Awards in November.
"Even for like the Halbergs, for me, these don't really mean much, but for me, it's about the young people coming up [in my footsteps]," he said.
"Their passion is fighting, or martial arts in our sense, and then eventually they'll get recognised.
"They'll get recognised as legitimate athletes, not just some thugs - 'aw, they just like to kick and punch bags or whatever'.
"People don't understand the work that goes into this, the hours, like when Eugene calls Adam [Johnson] at 2am and they're discussing tactics.
"I've seen Adam, when I was in Ireland, dissecting Anderson Silva, frame by frame, seeing what Plan A is, what his Plan B is, you know?
"It's just cool, just to see, we're starting to get recognised as proper athletes."
Gowler has been nominated for the Halbergs team category multiple times since 2014, while in November she and Prendergast were named Female Crew of the Year at the 2019 FISA (World Rowing) Awards ceremony in London.