The remarkable story of Israel Adesanya's rapid rise to UFC stardom
Israel Adesanya is the UFC’s newest breed of superstar… from anime inspiration to outrageous showboating and break-dancing entrances, here’s how ‘Stylebender’ surged to the top
- Israel Adesanya has fascinating backstory and is gaining momentum all the time
- He made his UFC debut in 2018 and became middleweight champion in 2019
- Rapid ascent has been intertwined with engaging style in and out of the cage
- His ring walk for the title shot featured break-dancing with a group of his friends
Who had heard of Israel Adesanya two years ago? In this rapidly evolving sport, he went from relative unknown to the UFC’s next big thing in the blink of an eye.
In 2018 he made his UFC debut. In 2019 he was undefeated middleweight champion with a stream of highlight-reel finishes, break-dancing montages and a growing army of fans behind him.
Sometimes it feels as though the UFC have constructed Adesanya in a lab. He ticks every box you could want in an MMA superstar.
Israel Adesanya (left) beat Anderson Silva on his rapid rise within the UFC since 2018
A flashy exhibitionist of a striker, a man who opens up the African market and can wax lyrical with a mic in his hand. You wouldn’t be alone in drawing a parallel with Conor McGregor but the Nigerian-born New Zealander is cut from a different cloth.
The rise has been a remarkable one and ahead of his first title defence against against Yoel Romero at UFC 248 on Saturday, it seems a sensible time to pause for breath and retell Adesanya’s fascinating story.
He was born into a well-off family in Nigeria but his father was concerned that western university’s would place little value in the education he was receiving in his homeland.
The family considered a move to the United States but in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, thought the environment for immigrants would be too toxic.
Eventually it was decided that they would head for New Zealand where they settled in Rotorua.
It was a lonely place for Adesanya, who was 10 at the time. ‘I’ve always been the odd one out, the bat amongst doves, the pebble among stones,’ he’s since reflected.
Adesanya cane to New Zealand as a child from Nigeria and battled to fit in
As a teenager he turned to kick-boxing after being inspired by a Muay Thai film
A census at the time showed only one per cent of the city’s population were black so there were myriad complications for a young man uprooted from his home and planted at the bottom of the world.
On his chest, the words ‘Broken Native’ are tattooed as a reminder of his divided heritage and difficulty fitting in.
There was bullying and discrimination but Adesanya wasn’t driven towards combat sports until he was 18.
‘I never wanted to feel vulnerable, I never wanted another guy to kick my ass,’ he said. ‘I had to learn how to defend myself. They didn’t want to see a kid like me.’
And the final shunt into the sport he needed came after watching a Muay Thai film called Ong Bak. He loved the style and movement, which were talents he possessed in a very different form… dance.
‘I was a dancer as a kid, I’ve always been a show off, I’ve always liked to be creative.’
That foundation in dance is one with great value in combat sports. The overlap to fighting with precise footwork is undeniable and shared by the likes of legendary Ukrainian boxer Vasyl Lomachenko who’s father made him focus on dance for four years during his youth.
Fighters who could enthral with the fluidity of their movement always interested Adesanya as he told the Joe Rogan Podcast: ‘Prince Naseem Hamed was the first boxer I saw that made me pause and watch and just smile and laugh, the way he moved. I’ve always been drawn to guys like that, like Ali, Roy Jones, Pernell Whittaker.’
Kick-boxing was the first discipline the teenager worked at and he quickly began to make a name for himself, not only with the stunning movement and movie-like knockouts he was producing, but also a love of showmanship.
Footage of some of Adesanya’s early kick-boxing bouts demonstrates his showmanship
Yoel Romero is the man nobody wants to fight but is challenging Adesanya on Saturday
Old footage of Adesanya’s early fights show him lounging across the top of the ropes after one KO and taunting his opponents with his hands low before savaging them with spinning techniques.
In 2011 it was time to move onto the next chapter and he took the bold move of fighting professionally in China.
It proved to be the perfect furnace in which to forge his mettle: ‘I settled in and I won the fans over. They took me to heart you know and they started to call me the Black Dragon and I started winning,’ he said of those years.
‘I just kept getting in there, bam, week after week, month after month. You learn how to fight, how to get hit, how to be disappointed and how to bounce back.’
Adesanya floated between fights in the far east and Auckland, enjoying plenty of success and finishing with a record of 75-5 with 46 knockouts. Incidentally, he compiled a professional boxing record of 6-1 at the same time, most notably beating Brian Minto who later went seven rounds with Joseph Parker and faced Dillian Whyte.
But MMA gripped the interest of Adesanya and he made his debut in 2012. After 11 KO wins in succession he could no longer be ignored by the UFC and it wasn’t long before the striker made waves at the top level.
Adesanya is a huge fan of anime and it features heavily in his references out of the cage
Kelvin Gastelum was defeated by unanimous decision for ‘Stylebender’ to get his title shot
He moved like few before him and there were a number of quirks the uninitiated were intrigued by. Adesanya takes inspiration from anime, specifically a Japanese series called Noruto about a boy who longs to become the greatest fighter in his village.
Adesanya would make hand gestures from the show in the octagon and even based his nickname ‘Stylebender’ on the show ‘Avatar – The Last Airbender’ which features a main character intent on mastering the five elements in the same way he wants to master each martial art.
With every fight, the UFC would feed the surging middleweight a bigger name and in February last year he was matched up against Anderson Silva, a legend of the sport and hero of Adesanya’s.
It was a passing of the torch moment between veteran and rising star. Before the fight he said: ‘Anderson Silva was a guy I looked up to growing up because when I was younger, everyone had this perception that you had to be this big macho man to be a fighter and what not, but me, when I saw Anderson Silva fight I was like ‘who the f*** is this skinny black guy kicking everyone’s ass?’
Three of the middleweight’s friends were back-up dancers for his entrance at UFC 243
Adesanya’s fight against Silva felt like a passing of the torch moment for the middleweights
‘He ran through his division and I looked up to him then and I still do now. He’s a legend in this game despite all the bulls*** that’s been happening. I respect him a lot.’
Adesanya proved his skills against arguably the most gifted MMA fighter of all time and took his profile to another level.
A win against Kelvin Gastelum followed to set up the biggest contest of his life against Robert Whittaker for the middleweight title in the champion’s native Australia.
It was an Antipodean encounter of epic proportions and Adesanya stole the show before he even stepped into the cage.
He walked out with three friends who served as backing dancers and performed a dance routine that dominated talk on social media for hours.
Crucially he managed to back-up the showmanship with a picture perfect second-round KO to become champion at the age of 30.
Adesanya is the UFC’s next breed of superstar and a win would grow his legend even further
On Saturday, Romero is the fearsome villain of the piece.
Nobody wants to fight the teak tough Cuban wrestler but ‘Stylebender’ actively sought out the challenge.
‘This guy is someone nobody ever calls out but I want to test myself against everyone of this era who is a beast and he is a beast,’ he declared.
From Nigeria to New Zealand then UFC stardom via China, this Saturday has the makings of another compelling chapter in Adesanya’s dazzling, globetrotting story.
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