Combat Sports

Stylebender on the edge of glory

Israel Adesanya challenged Dutchman Jason Wilnis for the middleweight world championship at Glory 37 in Los Angeles on January 21. A victory would have underlined the Nigerian-born, Rotorua and Whanganui-raised fighter’s status as one of the best kickboxers on the planet, and paved the way for a lucrative switch to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Growing up, the future “Stylebender” was never much of a fighter. Dancing was more his thing. He was good at it. Good enough that it gave him some credibility with his schoolmates. For an easily identifiable oddity – an African growing up in heartland New Zealand – cred was an important commodity. It didn’t keep the bullies completely at bay, but it gave him a leg to stand on.

“My only way of getting cred in high school was dancing. That was my thing. Everyone would say ‘he’s a real good dancer’. That was my cool point. But you still get people picking on you.”

A fear that the weak global currency of an African education would consign their kids to becoming highly-educated taxi drivers prompted Adesanya’s parents to emigrate from Lagos to Rotorua. For 11-year-old Israel, the cultural shock was significant. For the first time in his life he felt different.

“It’s weird to say it, but I didn’t know I was black until I moved to New Zealand.”

A schoolyard altercation ended with Adesanya thrown into a bush. The principal asked his to describe his assailant: was he Pakeha or Maori?

“I was like: ‘I don’t know. He was white. Everybody’s white’.”

The ‘bullied-immigrant-kid-turns-to-the-local-gym-for-self-defence lessons’ narrative is well worn in combat sports. There was a touch of that in Adesanya taking up Muay Thai, but also a far more millennial motivation. Not long after his family relocated to Whanganui, the teenaged Adesanya came across The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series. He was hooked, but even then he had no intention of fighting.

“I was like ‘fuck that, you could never pay me enough to do that’. I wanted Dana White’s job. I was like ‘he has a cool job – he gets to pick who fights who’.”

Soon enough, though, he would enter the ring. After watching the iconic movie Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior he sought out his local gym. Six weeks later, the 18-year-old Adesanya had his first fight. He hasn’t really stopped. Since debuting in 2009, he has posted a 50-3-2 record in kickboxing, is 5-1 as a boxer (including a victory over Brian Minto) and 9-0 in mixed martial arts.

“I’m pretty sure I had over 20 fights last year. Show me another Western fighter who had well over 20 fights last year and all wins.”

In 2015, Adesanya incredibly won three fights in one night to claim the heavyweight King in the Ring kickboxing title before backing up three nights later to with the four-man Super Eight cruiserweight boxing championship.

Five fights in three nights in two different disciplines sits somewhere between rash and downright dangerous, however Adesanya did it in a doddle.

“I fight different. I don’t fight like these guys.  I fight smart. I don’t get hit. That’s the game. Hit the guy, don’t let him hit you. People complicate that. I just fight smart, do my thing, get out, get my cheque.

“Some guys just want to brawl. I like watching a brawl as much as the next guy but, no thanks. I don’t want to be 45 and like ‘hey son can you pass me my spoon please’.  I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be coherent, fit. I want to be able to play with my kids, travel. I want to be sane for the remainder of my years. I’m only doing this for a short period of my life. I am doing it to the max and I am going to enjoy it but I am going to be safe as well.

“It’s a short window of time. I’m going to get as famous as I can, make a shitload of money – millions and millions and millions of dollars – meet the right people, make the right connections along the way and then post-fighting I’ll have other avenues.”

Fighting out of Auckland’s City Kickboxing under trainer Eugene Bareman, Adesanya has steadily ascended the global combat sports ranks. A fighter with outrageous striking ability and an uncanny ability to avoid being hit, the 27-year-old makes his craft look easy – an impression reinforced by an endearingly cocky personality. It all seems so natural, however both the destructive machine his body has become and the man on the inside driving it are carefully nurtured creations.

“People look at me the way I fight, the way I portray myself leading up to a fight and think ‘fuck he is cocky, he is up himself, he thinks he is the man’. I’m like: ‘Of course’.

“Coming up people never told me I was the man. People always shat on me. They were like ‘fuck this guy, this little nigger, blackie, ra ra ra. So I had to teach myself to talk positive to myself, uplift myself. No one else was going to do that for me.”

There’s an air of effortlessness in the way Adesanya dispatches his opponents, bobbing, weaving and feinting out of range before closing the distance with lightning speed to deliver crushing kicks, punches and knees. Blended with his breezy Stylebender persona, his outrageous talent makes it hard to imagine the very human struggles he’s faced. He has transformed himself from a depressed metering and billing co-ordinator for a gas company into a fighter whose ultimate achievements could go on to eclipse even those of WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker.

“I hated every minute of it,” he said of the day job he quit in September 2013. Some days he’d find himself in tears as he approached the building. He’d tell his workmates that he would find a way out of the dead-end job, only to invariably return the next day, invoking sniggers.

“I was like ‘fuck you’. I am not going to quit. I am going to keep digging the tunnel like El Chapo.”

The tunnel turned out to be a flight to China to fight on a Wu Lin Feng (WLF) promotion. Adesanya was supposed to be easy meat for the local Chinese fighters. But he had other plans.

“When I moved over there I wasn’t going there to be on their team. I was going there for their boys to whip on. I was like ‘yeah, no thanks, that’s not the way my plans work’.”

He beat allcomers and was so impressive the Chinese promoters eventually recruited him for the home team, and began promoting him as The Black Dragon. As his earning powered spiked in China, so too did his standing on the global scene. Glory beckoned.

The Glory title fight is perhaps a bit of a surprise. Adesanya suffered a rare loss on his Glory debut in Istanbul in 2014 and hadn’t been invited back. It seemed the promotion – which was born out of the demise of K1 (the pinnacle martial arts promotion in which the likes of Kiwi pioneers Mark Hunt and Ray Sefo forged their reputations) – wasn’t overly taken by him.

Somewhat out of the blue, he received an invitation to a four-man eliminator tournament in Denver in October last year, where he duly defeated Canada’s Robert Thomas and Dutchman Yousri Belgaroui to claim the title shot against Wilnis. Compared to his “multi six-figure” contract in China, the money isn’t great. But Adesanya is eyeing a bigger prize.

“[Glory] are the biggest [kickboxing] company in the world. In Glory the eyes are everywhere. I am back in Glory for the eyes. And after that the prize.

“After this fight my stock is going to go up and I am going to make them pay me what I am worth. I know what I am worth.”

The UFC has also been knocking but Adesanya has no intention of joining the MMA goliath on a low-ball deal. A Glory world title will give him significant bargaining power. So the stakes Saturday are huge.

“For me it is just another day in the office. I know I deserve the shot. I am going to take it but I am not going to let it overwhelm me. After the fight, I’ll let it sink in but right now it is just another guy I can beat. I’ll beat this guy and become a world champion.

“Then I’m going to sit down with Dana and say ‘this is what I’ve done, this is my body of work’.

Israel Adesanya was defeated by Jason Wilnis at Glory 37. The Dutchman retained his world title thanks to a 49-46, 48-47, 48-47 unanimous points decision. The hotly-disputed result by was booed by many in attendance in Los Angeles. Adesanya’s cornerman Mike Angove posted on Facebook that he “felt like calling the police to report a robbery”. 

*This story first appeared on Summer Newsroom.

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