When someone from the UFC media team added Israel Adesanya to our call, the UFC interim middleweight champion wasn’t aware he was speaking with a Nigerian journalist.
“Hello Israel,” I said. “I tried getting you for an interview when you were in the country,” I added.
“Sorry, where are you from,’? He asked; “Nigeria,” I said and you could immediately sense the renewed positive feeling of likeness for me.
He broke into Yoruba as we exchanged pleasantries.
Adesanya might have left Nigeria when he was 12, but he is Naija through and through. He lives, breathes and exudes it. Very much in touch with his Nigerian roots, the 30-year-old has ‘Broken Native’ tattooed across his chest with a large map of Africa which serve as a reminder of his cultural heritage.
“I’ve got Africa stamped on my chest, and I’ve outlined Nigeria because that’s my bloodline,” The Last Stylebender as he is fondly called, once said in 2018.
This affection for Nigeria is the reason the UFC media team sought a Nigerian journalist to speak to him ahead of his fight against undisputed champion Robert Whittaker on Saturday, October 5-early hours of Sunday, October 6, Nigerian time.
He has flown the Nigerian flag at the biggest stage, attaching a much-needed good press to a country that is constantly being painted in a bad light. He once made ring entrance to Afrobeats record Kana by Olamide and he told Pulse Sports that he is currently ‘vibing’ to Dangote by Burna Boy.
This is why Nigerians have also developed a huge fondness for him, cheering his every punch, kick, fight and win.
Adesanya had a chance to feel the love during a recent visit to Nigeria, his first in 12 years.
“It was humbling, from the airport, I wanted to sneak in but they mobbed me. They jumped on me, screamed and were very happy,” he told Pulse Sports.
“I came for inspiration, and also for my own selfish reasons. I came for the Suya, pounded yam and everything I miss about my country.”
Nothing was planned for his visit but as fate would have it, some special moments happened organically.
He paid a visit to his old primary school in Ikeja, met young athletes while training at the National Stadium in Surulere and some chanced meetings with young people.
These special encounters further reiterated to him the leadership role he has to play for young people in Nigeria.
“For me first is the leadership, from what I have seen is not good enough,” Adesanya said.
“Nigeria is such a great country, it should be the best country in Africa, but the past generations have ruined it.
“The future generation has seen enough of the bulls**t and have started taking notes.”
With his victory over Kelvin Gastelum in April, Adesanya became the second African-born champion in UFC history. The first is another Nigerian-born fighter Usman Kamaru who is the current UFC Welterweight champion.
Kamaru just like Adesanya is one who carries the Nigerian flag with pride and the root they share has connected them.
“Usman is my man, we connected in 2016 in Miami and since then he’s been on my side,” Adesanya said.
“We both became champions in the space of a month and it shows you the level of talent we have in Nigeria.”
It’s been a remarkable rise for Adesanya in the UFC where he has promptly gone 6-0 to earn star status with five performance bonuses. As a professional fighter, he has won all 17 of his fights with 13 knockouts.
His next fight will see him go up against middleweight champion Whittaker who has been away for 16 months. It was Whittaker’s absence that forced UFC head Dana White to reshuffle the division, a move that gave an opportunity to Adesanya. Since then, the Nigerian-born New Zealander has not looked back with victories over the likes of Derek Brunson, Anderson Silva and Gastelum.
The win against Silva was also special for Adesanya as it pitted him against his idol.
“He was someone I watched while coming up as a fighter, the win made the world know that this was my time, it let me know that I am the best in the world,” Stylebender said.
Adesanya further fuelled his growing reputation with the win against Gastelum in a five-round classic but it is Whittaker who now stands in the way for the undisputed title.
“He is a very fast fighter, but I’m fast as well,” Adesanya who is known for his lightning-quick speed and power said about his next opponent.
Time and where to watch the fight
Adesanya will be facing Whitaker in one of the main events of UFC 243 at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia on Saturday, October 5 (early hours of Sunday, October 6 for Nigerian time) to unify the two middleweight titles.
DSTV will broadcast The Last Stylebender’s fight on SuperSport 6 at about 3 am on Sunday.