Of all the superstar emergence from the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Israel Adesanya’s rise has been the most sterling and fizzy. He has attained the currency of Conor McGregor without the Irishman's infamy and the respect accorded to the likes of Jon Jones albeit with more endearment.
In the blink of an eye, the Stylebender as he is nicknamed, has lit up the UFC stage- the biggest in mixed martial arts-with a perfect mix of charisma, showmanship and inexhaustible physical agility which has made him the ultimate showman of the UFC and a genuine superstar.
Unbeaten in seven UFC fights, Stylebender has earned star status in the UFC with his refined range of skillset, considered the most diverse in the championship. But in addition to all of these, he believes being Nigerian lends him a hand.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Adesanya left the shores of the West African country and settled in New Zealand with his parents at the age of 10. But despite holding a New Zealand passport, only a few exude Nigeria more than the Stylebender.
“I might have a New-Zealand passport currently, but I’m a Naija boy through and through,” he told Pulse in an interview. “I’m black, my parents raised me right, my culture never left me. You could take a boy out of Nigeria but you could never take Nigeria out of the boy.”
This is what he believes makes him special; an exceptionality that has carried him all through his fighting career.
“Maybe na juju, maybe na our ancestors whatever, but I just feel like we are different,” he said.
“Even from the dot, from day one before I started fighting in MMA, I always knew I was different.”
It’s in the same vein the 31-year-old UFC star has always predicted that Nigerians will one day take over the UFC. “They are going to run the game for a long time. I'm happy to be the guy that's kinda like paving the way,” he said during a 2019 interview with American gigantic podcaster and UFC commentator Joe Rogan. Nigeria does have two champions currently in the UFC; Adesanya himself who holds the Middleweight belt and Kamaru Usman who is dominating the Welterweight division. There’s also Sodiq Yusuff who is quickly making a name for himself in the Featherweight division and heavyweight fighter Kennedy Nzechukwu.
I asked Adesanya why he made that prediction. Was it what he saw when he visited Nigeria and trained with some fighters at the National Stadium in Surulere? No, it wasn’t.
“It’s something that I have known all along cause I’m a Yoruba Boy, I’m a Naija boy, there’s something about us that is different and like I said, it’s just getting into a point where it’s like Nigeria is trying to get privy to MMA.
“It’s time to know what it is. Once they know that football isn’t the only way to express yourself through sports and that you can actually do this in mixed martial arts, I think it’s game over for everyone.”
That’s one of his plans for Nigeria; to introduce as many youths as possible to MMA. He has spoken in the past of his plans to build fighting gyms in Nigeria.
With his success, he has already started doing that and many Nigerians will be watching again when he takes on Brazilian fighter Paulo Costa in the early hours of Sunday, September 27, 2020 (Nigerian time).
It was for the media run ahead of this fight that he spoke to Pulse in this phone interview.
Adesanya established legitimacy in the UFC due to the calibre of fighters he faced and defeated. From his debut, he always wanted to take on the biggest challengers.
In a few years, he has taken over the stage on his terms with wins against the division’s elites. There was that unanimous decision win over future UFC Hall-of-Famer Anderson Silva at UFC 234 in February 2019. It was followed by another at UFC 236 against Kelvin Gastelum with whom he delivered a UFC classic which is widely regarded as one of the best fights in the championship.
A second-round knockout win over Robert Whitaker at UFC 243 in October-which Adesanya said is his most memorable fight to date- unified his Middleweight belt before another via unanimous decision over Romero.
In Costa, however, Adesanya faces the division’s most ferocious puncher. The Brazilian has also had a fast rise, obliterating opponents with his ferocity, power and strength. However, the predictability with which he fights is a striking weakness which many pundits believe Adesanya would exploit. Adesanya does have the skillset to take advantage. A refined artist, Adesanya is known to be the most sophisticated striker ever seen in the UFC and MMA and his prime kickboxing abilities have been tipped to be what will win him this bout.
“Yea of course, I believe that heavily. But also my coaches are the ones who break the fighters down and we form a formula, a blueprint of how we are going to take this guy out,” Adesanya said.
In a documentary released by the UFC ahead of the fight, Costa’s trainers reveal they have been working with sparring partners similar to Adesanya to prepare the Brazilian fighter.
That doesn’t make Adesanya uneasy.
“He brought in two guys apparently from that documentary, the countdown that you were watching... but honestly the only thing that they had that was similar to me was their reach, maybe their height. But everything else they are just the same as everyone else.
“They tried to imitate me but that’s an impossible job. You might have to hire me but they can’t afford me.”
Since he first took the Middleweight belt from Gastelum in April 2019, Adesanya has been fighting from the position of a champion but it doesn’t make any difference for him.
“Not really, I feel like this is just another fight. Like I’m never really worried too much about being the favourite or the underdog.
“I even like it when I’m the underdog and I kind of relish in that role even now. They are all saying oh ‘this guy is going to knock him out, this is the next guy. They always say that every single fight. ‘This is the guy, this is the guy’ but every time they fail, they cry and they lose their money.
“So yea, it’s the same thing every single time so I don’t really like relish in what they do but in what I feel about myself and I feel like I’m still working; I’m not done, I’m only almost halfway to where I want to be.”
'He’s not about that life'
In addition to his mix of power and finesse with which he takes out opponents, Adesanya has on several occasions, mentioned in passing of the physiological game he plays with them. Long before he throws his first strike, he looks for clues of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He saw it in Romero’s eyes, for Whitaker, he once talked about that body language that gave the Australian away.
Has he seen any in tough-talking Costa? Not really. “I’m not in his eyes yet, because he wore glasses when I met him face to face but I checked him at the hotel when I met him and he wasn’t really about that action.
“All the jabs, all the yelling and flexing when I was in the cage fighting someone else, face to face with him, he had none of that, so I already know he’s not about that life.”
In this rapidly evolving sport, Adesanya has attained superstardom with a stream of highlight-reel finishes and break dancing montages. He steals the show with his flamboyant dancing before he even steps into the cage.
The perfect mix of personality, showmanship, look and skill have turned him to be the star of the UFC. He has opened up the African market for the sport and fronted the cover of video game, UFC 4.
So it was a little off, when Dana White, the president of the UFC said he wasn’t a fan of Adesanya’s style of dancing his way to the cage. The Stylebender, however, does not care about White’s views but said he does not have anything planned yet for the upcoming fight which will be without fans.
“Wetin concern me? I do what I like cause I’m an entertainer,” he said.
“Right now there are no fans, so I haven’t really focused on anything like that. I have just been focused on the fight. I don’t really care about what Dana White thinks.”
Where to watch
Adesanya’s next fight will be held at the Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Nigerian time for the fight will be in the early hours of Sunday, 3.am and as usual, Nigerians will be awake, cheering. “Mr Alagidi, me I nor dey hear word. You have to cheer me,” Adesanya said.
“Every single time I step in there, I dey wear Naija for my chest, I dey wear Africa for my chest, so, you are going to feel me.”
The fight will air on SuperSport Action, Channel 201 on DSTV.