A Peacock in Ninja Shorts: KO Artist Israel Adesanya Is a UFC Star in the Making

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterNovember 2, 2018

Israel Adesanya (right) stares down Brad Tavares
Israel Adesanya (right) stares down Brad TavaresBrandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Israel Adesanya needs to earth.

It's been almost two days since Adesanya landed in New York City, and there's been nary a sliver of natural ground in sight. It's only Monday, but if this fight week is going to get off on the right foot, that foot will need to touch some dirt, posthaste.

"It's called earthing," he said. "It's a thing, I swear. Look it up. It helps with your electromagnetic s--t. There's really not a lot of grass in this city."

Here in his hotel room 47 stories above Times Square, earthing—for the record, a trendy if unsubstantiated belief that physically touching the ground fosters various health benefits—boils down to one option: Central Park. So that's the order of the day. Between a raft of media obligations, Adesanya and his camp lit out for the greensward, a slow parade north along Seventh Avenue.

Oh, and shopping. Gotta get some shopping in. And maybe another hot dog.

"I've had four hot dogs so far," Adesanya said. "Three of them were good."

As he walks, Adesanya samples his surroundings. Save for a quick overnighter a while back, this is Adesanya's first time in New York. Swigging periodically from a gallon jug of water, he cracks jokes, gazes up at skyscrapers, points at little things for his entourage to film, peers into storefronts, touches the hats and scarves of the table merchants.

Come Saturday, the procession heads into Madison Square Garden, where he'll take on fellow middleweight Derek Brunson at UFC 230. But he won't be a tourist there. He'll be The Last Stylebender, and you'll be the one who needs a camera. The undefeated striking virtuoso has amassed 12 MMA knockouts and a massive cult following. With a big win Saturday, that following could spill into the mainstream.

And it makes sense. Fast-talking and fast-striking, Adesanya is a different kind of fighter and a different kind of athlete. He likes his highlights hot, his threads cold, his drinks colder and his kicks bright blue.

He insists it's not a coming-out party, but it probably is. This is the first time the 29-year-old Adesanya (14-0, 3-0 in the UFC) has appeared on the main card of a UFC pay-per-view. It's a huge event, too, topped by a heavyweight title fight between Daniel Cormier and Derrick Lewis, not to mention the most famous roof in sports.

Adesanya's coaches worry it's too much too soon; Adesanya does not share those concerns, and neither does the MMA public.

"I'm a peacock in ninja shorts," Adesanya said. "I'm very flamboyant, confident. I'm not afraid to show who I am. ... When you have 'it,' you just know. I'm pretty much the best."

     

Style and Manners

The appeal is not hard to decipher. Adesanya is a combat computer, and his brilliant knockouts resonate with hardcore and casual fans alike. A skill set molded by years of muay thai, kickboxing and boxing means he has every strike in the book. What's more, his confidence and creativity give him the freedom to throw them from unexpected angles, and to talk all kinds of smack while he does it.

And when it's all over, when the other man lies unconscious on the mat, he's the Stylebender, reclining across the ring turnbuckle like it's a hammock, the only thing missing a cold cocktail and a Silky Johnson hat.

Adesanya grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, which, at about 21 million residents, is the most populous city in all of Africa. In Lagos, Adesanya said, you're either "super, super rich or super, super poor," and the Adesanyas were the former. Adesanya's mother was a nurse, his father an entrepreneur—a "hustler," in his son's words—working in everything from dry cleaning to real estate.

"There is good and bad, but rich and poor mingle and live among each other in a way," Adesanya said. "In America, you don't see that. Everyone has their own neighborhood; you can't go here, can't go there."

Photo courtesy of Israel Adesanya

According to Adesanya's younger brother, 25-year-old David, young Izzy was a handful from the beginning.

"He was always the most rebellious," David said. "My parents could not get him to do what they wanted him to do, and even if they did, he really didn't like it."

The original goal was for Adesanya to become a mechanic. That didn't pan out, in no small part because he flat-out didn't want to do it. His first true passion was dancing; he was competitive for most of his teenage years, and the movements are still evident in his fighting.

"He's always been obsessed with performing," David said.

Adesanya and his family left the country when he was 11. The original plan was to move to the United States, but it was 2001, and 9/11 put an end to that idea. Instead, they pulled up stakes for New Zealand, where his family believed the schools would be better. 

Without the move, Adesanya may never have taken up fighting. He enrolled in karate while in Lagos, but his mother pulled him out when he started kicking everything over. In New Zealand, Adesanya didn't fit in with the largely white student body. Fights were more common.

"I had to learn how to defend myself," he said. "They didn't want to see a kid like me."

As a teenager, three things sparked Adesanya's love of fighting: Ong-Bak, Jackie Chan and Anderson Silva. The first is a muay thai cult film, and the other two, well, you probably already know about those.

Photo courtesy of Israel Adesanya

"Everybody hails Bruce Lee, but Jackie Chan is who put me on [to martial arts]," he said. "I liked the way he fought, it was more comical. Bruce Lee mesmerized, but Jackie Chan was lit. … I used to say you could never pay me to do this s--t, but [that changed] when I saw Anderson Silva on DVD. He was this skinny black guy, and he was so playful but he also f--ked them up."

This speaks to Adesanya's affinity for style. That may have started in earnest while he was a teenager, but its real roots were in Nigeria. Adesanya wants to be the Manny Pacquiao of Nigeria, to be a favorite son. 

Nigeria already has a global reputation as a fashion leader, particularly in sports. Earlier this year during the World Cup, the Nigerian national soccer team uniform caused a sartorial frenzy, selling out within minutes of its release.

Adesanya and his home country appear to recognize that unique sense of style in each other. For Nigeria, Adesanya said, it's grounded in very real aspects of the culture.

"I think, being Nigerian, that culture, we're not a shy bunch," he said. "If I'm generalizing, when a Nigerian walks into a room, you'll know. We don't dim our shine or talk ourselves down for anyone. ... In Nigeria, we're very comfortable expressing our confidence and being passionate people."

Just as the rich and poor of Lagos mingle in ways that might be unfamiliar in the American experience, so too does Nigerian culture mix brashness with humility. Plenty of Western cultures see flamboyance and automatically tack arrogance on to it. But these things are not necessarily one and the same.

"We have a lot of values," he said. "Some things are as simple as manners. I meet people sometimes and they walk past you without saying 'Hello' What do you say to your parents when you wake up in the morning? You acknowledge them. In the Western world, it's not always something everyone does.

"But," he added, "with a fight, you're trying to fight me, so it's a different situation. If I'm fighting, f--k your manners."

            

'I Know that Kid'

Adesanya's fight career did not exactly explode out of the gate.

His amateur kickboxing debut happened in 2008. The opponent was far larger than the untested Adesanya.

"My first fight was nerve-wracking," he admitted. "I was scared. As soon as I got to the ring, I saw why the guy wasn't at weigh-ins. Do you remember David Tua? He had that same high-top fade, and he was almost as big. He was supposed to be 80 kilograms (176 pounds), but he was about 93 kilograms (205 pounds). My coach took the fight anyway without asking because he knew I'd get worried."

No algorithmic shortcut can tell you how you'll perform in those kinds of situations, with real bodily harm staring you squarely in the face. That data is purely experiential. Adesanya got in there.

"I was clean and cold," he said. "No one could tell anything from my face. I hit him with a teep [kick] within the first 10 seconds, and it gave me the confidence to keep going and get the win."

Some time later, in advance of one of his early MMA amateur fights, one of Adesanya's cornermen asked a friend to assist him. A seasoned trainer and accomplished martial artist, Eugene Bareman was a serious coach, and Adesanya was far too raw for Bareman's standards.

"He seemed just like a normal guy," Bareman said. "He'd watched Brazilian jiu-jitsu on YouTube a week ago, maybe done some judo. So I said, 'OK, this is not what I expected.' I was underwhelmed. He got his ass kicked, and I was like, 'OK, you go on your way, I'll go on my way.'"

Fast-forward to the time when Adesanya showed up, unannounced and uninvited, at Bareman's gym, City Kickboxing in Auckland. Adesanya wanted a chance. Bareman told him to check out some other gyms. Adesanya did just that, then returned to Bareman.

Bareman signed him up, but there wasn't much more to the story. That is, until a third party intervened.

"The first inkling that he could be different was my wife came in the gym and said, 'I know that kid,'" Bareman recalled. "My wife knows nothing about fighting, no interest at all. If she goes, she doesn't pay attention. We were at the fight, and she was in the crowd while I was backstage. His fight had been really spectacular. He jumped on the ropes, flexed around, talked to the guy, got in his head, got a knockout. It was a crude version of what he is now."

Years of work later and here we are, understanding that the teaching revealed the unteachable. His kicks are likely his best weapon, and he can throw them high, to the body or to the legs, and he can do it with either foot. His punches also are damaging. Sometimes it seems he worries less about output than about bringing the house down with the perfect strike, but his timing and angles give him more tools than the average fighter.

His real weapon is between his ears. At times, Adesanya literally manipulates opponents for his own gain, as he did in his fight against eight-year UFC veteran Brad Tavares, reaching across the distance to touch his opponent and move him into position for a beautifully angled strike. He dances in the cage and the ring, and not just to irritate or even intimidate. He does it to mesmerize. No matter how he dances, he's always in the right place.

"No one moves and reacts like him," said Dan Hooker, Adesanya's teammate at City Kickboxing and a rising fighter himself in the UFC's lightweight division. "No one is as calm as he is. He's always reading and reacting and analyzing. Some guys lose control and get into a frenzy, but not him. I learn a lot from him just by watching him on the pads."

Adesanya constantly works on his game, including the ground game he knows he'll need if he's ever going to challenge for a UFC title. He's far from the first athlete to seek out the unconventional, but things like earthing and special breathing techniques help further distinguish him from the stereotypical UFC fighter.

"Everything I do is authentic," he said. "It's me."

       

Time for a Party

He's no Conor McGregor, but Adesanya's getting more famous. That's especially true back in Auckland, but it's still evident in star-cynical Manhattan.

Scott Harris

As he tries on the blue sneakers in a huge store in the trendy SoHo neighborhood, one person comes over for a handshake and a picture. Then another. Even people who don't know who he is know he is someone. Adesanya has swagger, but he's warm and polite, again displaying that combination of traits that many expect to be binary.

"He'll go out of his way to say hello to people," said Abiola Beckley, who has been friends with Adesanya since they were teenagers. "Before he got famous, every car that went by, he waved."

Adesanya also makes no effort to hide the fact that he likes being recognized. Well, kind of. He's still a little conflicted about it.

"F--k fame," he said, "but I like the perks."

Adesanya is certainly no shrinking violet, drawing almost as much attention for his brash verbal jousting as for his fighting.

"I'm so good on the mic," Adesanya said. "I'm quick-witted and quick with it."

Adesanya has made mistakes, such as using a gay slur directed toward Brunson.

But in a world where so many fighters either make it intensely personal or deadpan about how each fight is just another business trip, Adesanya's lust for life and MMA radiates through the screen.

Another manifestation of this is the social life he makes no effort to hide. Win or lose, the New York nightlife may want to batten down the hatches after UFC 230.

His coaches, teammates, friends and results all confirm Adesanya's work ethic. When it's time to do the job, the job gets done. But Adesanya isn't bashful about enjoying the spoils of the work, either.

"He's got switches," Beckley said. "When he's not in camp, he likes to have fun and go out. But when he's in camp, his social life is out the window."

According to family and friends, a typical night out begins with pregaming, then dinner, then clubs, then eating again before heading home, sometimes not until 4 a.m. An icy bourbon and cola is Adesanya's cocktail of choice. 

"He's the happiest drunk in the world," Beckley said. "He's comfortable with himself. He'll walk past me and smack my ass. If he's comfortable around you, he'll just do whatever he wants."

At the moment, the smart money has the Stylebender on the positive side of the ledger at UFC 230. OddsShark favors Adesanya by -325 to handle Brunson. Brunson is no bum; he's a three-time NCAA Division II wrestling All-American with an 18-6 MMA record and a No. 6 spot on the UFC's official middleweight rankings (Adesanya is No. 9).

The argument against Adesanya is that Brunson's wrestling could neutralize that electric striking. Adesanya wants to prove that wrong, but he's going to do it his way. It's hard to know what that might look like unless you walk a mile in his bright blue sneakers. Everyone will have that chance come Saturday.

"I don't say 'good luck' to my opponents. I say, 'Bring your best,'" Adesanya said. "There's no manners then. You're getting a different me. It's a different side of the same coin. Or a cube. Yes. I'm a cube. A Rubik's cube."

     

Scott Harris is a feature writer for Bleacher Report.

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