Podcast: The Detail

The lowdown on Israel Adesanya

Nigerian-born Kiwi Israel Adesanya is a world champ in one of the world's toughest sports - but will the recoil over bloodsports stop his path to a Halberg? 

New Zealand LOVES its sport.

Athletes are regularly honoured with knighthoods and damehoods.

They're held up as role models: cultural custodians who embody qualities of talent, graft, patience, and determination.

It's a bit more complicated when one of our finest athletes earns his living by beating the living snot out of other men in a blood-stained cage.

Over the past year, Lagos-born, Rotorua-raised Israel Adesanya has risen to the highest ranks of the world of mixed martial arts - culminating in a sensational bout in early October, when he defeated the Australian Robert Whittaker in the Ultimate Fighting Championship to become middleweight champion - the first in New Zealand's history.

Along with the Dagestan wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov, Adesanya is one of only two active fighters with no professional losses on their record.

He's a leading contender for the Supreme Award at the Halberg Sports Awards - but are the judges ready to celebrate these achievements, in a sport many people see as repulsive, unconscionable human cock-fighting?

Former kickboxing world champion Mike Angove says New Zealand has a rich history of high-achieving combat sport athletes who've been snubbed at the Halbergs.

"Joseph Parker didn't win a Halberg, despite winning the heavyweight world championship. David Nyika, double gold medallist ... David Tua, who fought Lennox Lewis - one of the greatest of all time - didn't win a Halberg. Ray Sefo, six-time world kickboxing champion, didn't win the Halbergs. I could go on.

"Our combat sports athletes have been ignored for a very long period of time, because of our focus on our primary sports."

No combat sport athlete has ever won the Halberg Supreme award - but Newsroom sports editor-at-large Steve Deane doesn't think that will be a factor in the judges’ minds.

"There'll be some on the Halberg panel [who loathe mixed martial arts].

"The other thing is, there'd be a lack of understanding as to the magnitude of his achievements: they wouldn't really understand how hard it is to get to the pinnacle. It's not easy - it's not just about winning in the ring.”

Mike Angove is unequivocal - Adesanya should be the locked-in winner of Sportsman of the Year, and the judges will need a very good reason not to give him the Supreme Award, in spite of the achievements of other leading contenders like Sophie Pascoe, Lisa Carrington, and the Silver Ferns.

But Steve Deane isn't quite so sure.

"I'd give Sportsman of the Year to Adesanya.

"Sportswoman ... I would go with [snowboarding gold medallist] Zoi Sadowski-Synnott.

"But I think the Silver Ferns will win Team of the Year - rightly so - and probably the Supreme Award as well."

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