Will we fall for our next global superstar?
Steve Deane ponders whether UFC superstar Israel Adesanya's love for New Zealand will go unrequited.
Two questions: Is Israel Adesanya New Zealand’s most accurate athlete? And is New Zealand ready to embrace him?
The first answer is straightforward, as proved by Sunday’s demolition of the UFC’s sixth-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson.
The Nigerian-born, Whanganui-raised Adesanya didn’t waste a joule of energy in dispatching Brunson with calculated precision via a first round KO. What’s more, Adesanya perfectly predicted how the contest against a fighter with a polished ground game would play out.
“I wouldn’t overstate his wrestling pedigree,” Adesanya said of an opponent he coined “Bumson”.
“He’s got a really blank-head style. It’s not calculated. He tries to drag you down and commits everything to taking you down. But when he fails multiple times, it’s the same shit. He realises he can’t take me down and he’ll start to panic. That's when I move in for the kill.”
So it proved. Adesanya comfortably avoided five attempted take-downs before catching Brunson on the way in on attempt number six with a brutal knee to the head.
“Everyone is asking me to predict, but I’m a calculated fighter not a psychic,” Adesanya told Newsroom combat sports analyst Mike Angove two days out from the fight.
“By my calculations, I have three ways this fight goes: I smack him up late in the first and finish him in the second round. I catch him off balance and starch him in the first round, or I might just submit him to prove to critics I have a ground game too. That's how I see the fight going.”
Had it not been for option two coming to fruition, option one most certainly would have. Brunson crumpled under a withering attack that impressed pretty much everyone, including commentator Joe Rogan.
“That man is a wizard,” Rogan said. “What he did tonight was beautiful, gorgeous, a work of art. And he did it against a dangerous cat in Derek Brunson. He made Derek Brunson look like he has no business in there with him.
“It was a coming-out party for a beautiful style bender.
“He throws these techniques perfectly with precision and accuracy. He knows when to throw it. He is a unique talent. He has got so much charisma, so much intelligence, is so well-spoken. There is so much about him.”
That Adesanya – who is surely on the fast track for a shot at Aussie champion Robert Whittaker’s title - will very soon be a global superstar seems beyond doubt. Whether he receives a commensurate amount of adulation at home in New Zealand isn’t as easy to predict.
With a brash, uber-cocky manner, Adesanya doesn’t at all fit the mould of the humble Kiwi sports star. He’s articulate, funny, smart, handsome and cool – but he’s never going to be an “aw shucks, I just got lucky and it was really a team effort and the forwards deserve most of the credit” kind of guy.
“I'm sitting pretty,” he said after defeating Brunson. “I've got the buffet in front of me and I'm about to eat.”
That isn’t the sort of sentence you’d hear beloved former WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker utter – although it does conjure up memories of David Tua declaring the next stop in his career after beating Shane Cameron would be the nearest Burger King.
Not that Adesanya doesn’t have an ‘every-man’ quality about him. A tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “good cxxx” might not be every Kiwi’s choice of apparel for a post-fight function, but it does rather suggest Adesanya’s world view contains more than a hint of working class Whanganui.
He might be the biggest star at a talent-chocked City Kick Boxing gym in Auckland, but there’s not a hint of prima donna about the way he goes about his work. By all accounts, he saves the thermonuclear rhetoric for the cameras.
The question isn’t really whether Adesanya will be adored when he wins, but whether Kiwis will stick with him when he loses. In the UFC, everyone loses eventually.
It also remains to be seen how much crossover appeal there is in Aotearoa for a star in a sport that, at its most basic, involves beating the ever-living shit out of someone in cage.
We Kiwis are okay with Parker and Tua dishing out some sweet science, and can even cope with a Mark Hunt haymaker or two without totally succumbing to squeamishness. But an Adesanya knee to the face, delivered in a cage already liberally smeared with the blood of previous contestants, is next-level violence.
Adesanya is indeed an artist, but he paints a gory canvas. He is a sporting genius, but genius is rarely fully understood, and doesn’t necessarily engender love.
It will be fascinating to see whether Kiwis fully embrace a man who came here as an 11-year-old boy; whose journey is succinctly encapsulated by the tattoo of Africa on his chest and the vivid inscription “broken native”.
Whether or not we clutch him to the nation’s bosom will tell us more about ourselves than him.
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