Israel Adesanya: UFC champion on fame, free speech and New Zealand boycott
A world-class striker, an elite performer and an enigma on the mic – the mention of the name Israel Adesanya sparks a number of opinions from MMA fans.
But for the 32-year-old UFC middleweight champion, the reaction that he would like people to hear his name is much simpler.
“I would like them to smile. Like a good feeling. Yeah, I just want people to have a good memory when they hear my name,” he told BBC Sport.
Meeting Adesanya at a hotel in London for this interview, he reveals a side of his personality that only those closest to him can see.
Here he tells BBC Sport the struggles of being famous, why he believes in freedom of speech and why he will never fight in New Zealand again.
“Winning is like coffee – you feel boosted and then you crumble”
Adesanya, who was born in Nigeria but lives in New Zealand, says one of the most important lessons he learned on his rise to stardom in the UFC is to protect his personal space and energy.
“Nobody writes a book about how to be famous and how to deal with it, so you have to write your own,” says Adesanya.
“I watched the traps of a lot of famous athletes, actresses, actors and musicians, and saw how they got into it, so I avoided being one of them. those tabloid stories.
“People don’t care – they just want to take your peace and your time.
“Everyone needs peace. I’m a social butterfly, I’m outgoing when I want to be, but there are times when I need to be with my own thoughts and be at peace with myself- same.”
Adesanya is one of the most dominant fighters in the world.
Dubbed the Last Style Master in reference to an anime character, he’s held the middleweight title since 2019 and has defended it five times, convincingly fielding the best talent the division has to offer.
His last victory is a unanimous decision on the great rival Robert Whittaker.
Following previous fights, Adesanya revealed that he suffered from bouts of depression once the initial buzz and elation of victory died down.
When asked if he was again worried about a possible deterioration in his mental health upon his return to New Zealand, Adesanya insisted not.
“I know how to handle these things now,” he says.
“It’s a bit like drinking coffee, it’s a stimulant and then you have a crash.
“I was so energized that when I got home and ended up being alone, for about two weeks, I was really depressed and like ‘what is this?
“It was all these negative feelings and self-talk. But I went to therapy and it helped me. One tool is to have the right people around me who stay real with me, that’s paramount. “
“It’s also knowing that this is only temporary and will pass, and knowing who I am.”
Since making his UFC debut in 2018, Adesanya has stood out from other fighters on the roster.
He’s as sharp on the mic as he is with his striking, exemplified by the mental and physical dismantling of Paulo Costa in their 2020 fight – a performance Adesanya considers his best in the UFC.
He is as flamboyant inside and outside the octagon, his mastery of kickboxing mirrored by his desire to express himself on a daily basis.
Ahead of his fight against Whittaker last month, Adesanya revealed another side of his personality by painting his fingernails – a trait he encourages others to embrace.
“I implore you to do it – it [doesn’t matter] what everyone thinks,” he says.
“If someone is pressed against you because you paint your nails, that says more about them than about you.
“It’s not hurting anyone, disrespecting anyone, it’s just expressing yourself. Don’t let people decide how you want to live your life.
“What you see is always the real me. People when they meet me say ‘man, you’re very different from what you are on TV’ and I’m like ‘well, you’re not trying to beat me !'”
Adesanya says his openness comes from growing up with strict parents.
“I hate being controlled, I hate being told what to do, being manipulated and people trying to tell me how to live my life,” he says.
“I like freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and I guess that’s where my rebellious side comes from.”
“I will never fight in New Zealand again”
Adesanya’s rebellious streak and fierce loyalty to those close to him was evident when he criticized New Zealand’s governing bodies in September.
Angered by the way his teammate Dan Hooker had been treated by authorities during the lockdown, Adesanya said he would never fight in New Zealand again.
“They were giving the netball teams and the All Blacks special privileges to practice, so we were like ‘oh cool, we’re going to practice at our facility’, but then the police came and said ‘no you don’t. can’t do that,'” he explains.
“Dan has been contacted by the police over a dozen times and they’ve said ‘if we catch you in the gym again we’re going to arrest you’.
“So I was like ‘you don’t need me – you have rugby, netball – you’ll never see millions in tax revenue from my fights’, that was my way of protesting.”
Adesanya says the governing bodies’ treatment of Hooker reflects how they view MMA compared to other sports in the country.
“If they did it to me [threatened to arrest] I had a built-in excuse that I’m too brash or too loud or whatever.
“But when they did that to Dan, I realized it wasn’t even about me anymore – it’s about our sport.
“It’s these old chiefs who prioritize traditional sports and I’m like ‘what is tradition?’ Tradition is what you make of it.”
After turning his back on New Zealand, Adesanya is aiming to take the UFC to Africa.
Although it currently has three African-born champions in Adesanya, Kamaru Usman and Francis Ngannou, the series has never hosted an event on the continent.
“Fighting in Africa is a dream we have and it is going to come true. One way or another, willingly or hard, we will achieve it,” Adesanya said.
“Just last night I saw a mural of me painted on a wall in a village in Nigeria. The fact that someone took their time to paint a large mural on a wall in a village is just amazing to me.
“For them to want to express art like that, makes me feel all good feelings and humbled.”