From Dancer to Fighter: How Israel Adesanya Battled His Way to UFC 243

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 2, 2019

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01:  UFC interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya (L) poses for a photo during a media opportunity ahead of UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on October 1, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Israel Adesanya (17-0) makes it look like he's been doing this his entire life. 

Whether dashing foward with a lightning jab, twisting his body to ward off a takedown attempt, or waiting for the perfect moment to strike with a slicing elbow strike, it's the kind of movement normally reserved for ocean documentaries.

But don't let the finesse fool you. His power is that of a laser-guided whip. His toughness, as shown in April's five-round Fight of the Year candidate with Kelvin Gastelum, belies his wiry frame and personal flamboyance.

Make no mistake about it, though: Saturday's main event with Robert Whittaker (20-4) in Melbourne, Australia at UFC 243—not far from their collective nation of New Zealand—with the undisputed middleweight title on the line, will be the toughest test of his life. He may not pass it: The odds are even, with Adesanya the very thinnest of underdogs, sitting -115 to Whittaker's -105 as of Tuesday afternoon.

Win or lose, it's clear the 30-year-old has all the makings of a star: charisma in and out of the cage and a world of talent to back it up.

So it might come as a surprise, then, that Adesanya hasn't been doing this for very long, at least relatively speaking. Plenty of fighters took up jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, or wrestling in middle school or even earlier. He didn't begin training in earnest—at City Kickboxing in Auckland—until he was 21.

Before that, he had another primary interest. But it's a base that appears to be serving him surprisingly well. In fact, you might say his true MMA "base" is dancing.

When Adesanya began fighting as an amateur, he was so raw that his current coach, Eugene Bareman, literally turned him away at the door. 

"He seemed just like a normal guy," Bareman told me last year. "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.'"

Before that, he was competing in and winning dance contests around New Zealand. Then, a love of Jackie Chan and Anderson Silva brought him into a muay thai gym. But he took dancing with him, and it served him well from the get-go. The first person to notice Adesanya's spark was not Bareman but his wife, a non-fight fan, who was drawn to his grace and flash in the ring. 

"The first inkling that he could be different was my wife came in the gym and said, 'I know that kid,'" Bareman said. "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."

On one level, that speaks to the showmanship Adesanya perfected as a dancer and—by his own admission and those around him—a natural-born performer. That, not actual fighting, is what initially guided him to MMA.

"I have always been an entertainer, all my life," Adesanya told fashion website Grazia in 2018. "If I could sing well, guys like Chris Brown, Jason Derulo [and] Justin Bieber would have been eating my dust."

Israel Adesanya @stylebender

🌕🦄 You can't take me anywhere...but I'm going places #keepthatsameenergy #youvechangedbro #aintnothingchangebutthechange https://t.co/noFN17jiep

Adesanya went on to say he might well return to dancing some day but MMA is "a vessel to express" himself in the meantime. 

As for his actual dancing, check out the videos interspersed throughout this article. They describe his ability better than I ever could, especially as I am not a dance writer. But look at the guy. He moves like the liquid Terminator, if the liquid Terminator hadn't been played by Robert Patrick.

Luke Thomas @lthomasnews

Lastly, but certainly not least, why it's impossible to understand Adesanya's striking game (and offense, generally) without feints: https://t.co/mTwSyzLkrx

As for his fighting, it's fitting that Adesanya has made a weapon out of movement itself. In a breakdown of his upcoming fight with Whittaker, MMA analyst Luke Thomas pointed out that feinting, or essentially trying to fool an opponent into thinking you're about to strike or attempt some other piece of offense in order to put them off guard, is a key component of his game.

"The truth about feinting is there are innumerable different kinds, especially in MMA," Thomas said. "You can feint a takedown. You can feint a punch. You can feint a kick, a knee, anything. You can do all different kinds of feints. It just really is a function of your creativity. And Israel Adesanya may be the best feinter in MMA."

Sometimes, a scalpel is more effective than an ax. And it's this kind of nuanced trick, along with other relatively unheralded tools like angles and footwork, that make a good fighter great—and make a knockout artist out of a guy who may not necessarily hold all the lifting records in his gym. That's surely the case for Adesanya, and it helps explain how he got so good so fast despite a relative dearth of combat sports pedigree.

Don't think that his dance background is apparent only in relatively indirect ways, though. After all, Adesanya was a champion kickboxer with an international reputation before he ever set foot in the UFC cage. Of his 17 wins, 13 were by knockout. That doesn't occur irrespective of the MMA training he received over the years.

Still, it's clear Adesanya is not your typical knockout artist. And yet, he still gets it done, with emphatic results.

Regardless of whether he wins the lineal title Saturday, he's doing things in an unorthodox way. And in his case, it shows that even if you don't have the classic attributes for a certain skill, all you have to do is dance through it.


Scott Harris writes about MMA and other things for Bleacher Report and other places.


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