Kiwi MMA fighter Israel Adesanya on his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson, dance, and title dreams ahead of UFC 221

Another brutal training session at Auckland's City Kickboxing has come to a close and the stench of sweat and hard work is almost palpable as the constant echoes of gloves on pads give way to laughter and light-hearted chatter.

"Hey! Quiet on the set!"

Israel Adesanya's imposing 6 foot 3 frame combined with his larger-than-life character make for an undeniable presence, and as the camera starts to roll there's no questioning that he's cut from a different kind of cloth.

"I'm flamboyant. Like a peacock in ninja shorts," he says with a sly grin when asked how he'd describe his fighting style.

"I'm always acting a fool, that’s just me. You got to keep it light, this is a hard game sometimes."

"He's one of those unique personalities that gets people to gravitate towards him," says teammate and UFC lightweight Dan Hooker. 

"His fighting style is just a reflection of his personality."

The 28-year-old recently became New Zealand's newest UFC fighter and is arguably already its most promising, despite being yet to step foot inside an Octagon.

Undefeated though 11 mixed martial arts bouts, "The Style Bender" is true to his moniker. A terrifying blend of precision striking and speed moulded into a lengthy frame, with the kind of fleet of foot crafted by years of dance, an early passion of Adesanya's which he's recently rediscovered.

"I was never an athlete but I was a dancer, and I was very creative at what I did. Me falling in love with dancing and choreography helps me with my retention and muscle memory.

"When I come to the gym and learn something, the sequence and the pathways are already easier to memorise, so they play into each other very well."

Now just a week removed from his impending debut at UFC 221 in Perth, the man known as "The Style Bender" is putting the finishing touches on his preparations for Australian Rob Wilkinson.

The African-born Kiwi has forged a reputation as a genuine triple-threat in the realm of combat sport, his path to his newfound career as a mixed martial artist a long and winding one.

Leaving the shores of his native Nigeria at the age of 10 as his family sought a more recognised education for their kids, Adesanya found solace in the world of combat sports as a means of coming to terms with his newfound life in Aotearoa.

"The smell of Rotorua was the first impression but I love it now. I miss it when I go back. I can smell the bacon and eggs," he says, taking a deep breath.

The family would soon shift south to Whanganui, where he was first introduced to the art of Muay Thai, and the cultural learning curve continued.

"The kids would ask me weird questions like 'do you ride elephants back home?' and I was like 'what'?"

"I think they had a misconception from what they see on TV and what Africa's really like. They only show you kids with flies on their faces when there's more to Africa than meets the eye."

Adesanya shot to the top of the kickboxing world with Glory.
Adesanya shot to the top of the kickboxing world with Glory. Photo credit: Getty

It was as a kickboxer that he first graced the world of combat sports, running through all comers on New Zealand shores with three "King of the Ring" titles before working his way to the sport's pinnacle with Glory, its premier international promotion.

Glory provided the stage for Adesanya to make his most lasting global impression, as his measured brand of dynamic striking and startling athleticism saw him capture both the middleweight contender tournament in 2016 and the attention of the wider combat sports community.

He was still able to find time for a flirtation with boxing, accumulating a 5-1 record and two Super 8 titles in Auckland, while dipping his toes into the world of mixed martial arts on a part-time basis with a string of highlight reel finishes in China and Australia.

Suddenly he had multiple promotions chasing his signature after his impressive initial forays into MMA, a dalliance which began with some grappling on the side and evolved into a fully-fledged passion.

The UFC had been knocking for some time, and Adesanya finally answered, in doing so committing fulltime to the sport and leaving his prolific 75-4 professional kickboxing career in the rear-view mirror.

"Everyone wanted a piece so it was good – I like options. The UFC is the pinnacle of combat sports and that’s facts."

"Since October of 2015 they’ve been pressing, trying to get us for the UFC in Auckland in June last year. Then the end of last year it all summed up real quick and they really wanted us, so I knew the ball was in my court. I played hard to get a little bit."

With three avenues on offer, it was the multi-disciplined demands of MMA which won Adesanya over.

"There's so much to learn. There's what you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know which is just infinite. And that’s the challenge, just to keep learning, constantly learning forever.

"If I wanted to take the easy path id have just done boxing. There's a blueprint – get signed, fight some bums and start to build your career up until you get to a point where you fight for a world title."

Going toe-to-toe with fellow UFC fighter Dan Hooker.
Going toe-to-toe with fellow UFC fighter Dan Hooker. Photo credit: Supplied

Adesanya's coach and owner of City Kickboxing, Eugene Bareman, has witnessed first-hand his entire evolution as a fighter. It's a thriving relationship dating back to 2009 which almost never materialised.

"When he first walked into the gym and said "I want to fight for you guys", I said to him that he should shop around for other gyms," revealed Bareman.

"I think he went away and did that and he ended up coming back to this gym and then I took him under my wing, so to speak."

He soon saw he had something exceptional on his hands.

"After a few fights I realised he was a bit of a talent. He had some special athletic gifts that other fighters didn’t have.

"His athleticism is second to none, it's through the roof. You just have to guide him and point him in the right direction and he picks up things really fast. He's one of those guys I can show something to and within 5-10 minutes he's doing it almost perfectly."

With an initial four-fight deal now signed and sealed, the hype surrounding his debut is quickly building, not just in New Zealand but across the MMA landscape worldwide.

His eye-catching arsenal of educated strikes, perfected over years of professional combat, lend themselves well to the highlight reels which are so critical in forging a name among the cut-throat competition of the UFC and its ever-expanding fanbase.

Almost as important is the ability to sell a persona, which is where Adesanya's authentic brand of homegrown charisma could well see him on the fast-track to stardom.

"Since I've been fighting I've had a lot of hype, I never really paid attention to it. You know they say don’t drink your own KoolAid but you’ve got to sip it once in a while. Just don’t get drunk off it."

"If you have it, you know it. Some of the greats, they have it. I'm the next to come up."

Adesanya carries an irrefutable aura of confidence, and you get the sense that the middleweight's blend of unabashed charisma and could see him on the same trail to fame originally blazed by transcendent superstar Conor McGregor.

And when you ask of his UFC aspirations, the influence of the Irishman is clear.

"To get rich and f**ck off. I want to do what he [McGregor] did, rob the game then getaway clean," he says bluntly.

"I want the belt, don’t get me wrong, but I only want the belt because it means more money, more notoriety. I want to be a household name, be on Jimmy Kimmel and all that shit."

"I just want to be mainstream by the end of this year. Fought four fights and be top five in the world. I'm climbing the ranks fast, I'm not here to f**k around."

Surveying the promotion's middleweight ranks and its champion, Kiwi-born Aussie Robert Whittaker, Adesanya has no doubts (obviously) that he measures up favourably. Two years ago he spent time helping then-light heavyweight contender Anthony Johnson as a sparring partner as the hard-hitting American prepared for a title shot with the infamous Jon Jones.

"I've met some of them and done some work with some of them so I know how I stack up against them. So I can't wait.

"I just envision me and Robert [Whittaker] someday fighting in Spark Arena for the title, I'm going take it off him right here."

Coach Bareman has no hesitation in echoing those very sentiments.

"He will go on to become the middleweight champion of the world. 100 per cent," he says without the slightest hint of doubt.

"That’s our goal. Even before he was in UFC we like to set goals and stuff, and that was it from early on when he walked in here."

Hooker concurs.

"He's going to the top. In the next couple of years he’ll be in world title contention."

Kiwi MMA fighter Israel Adesanya on his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson, dance, and title dreams ahead of UFC 221
Photo credit: Supplied

On this humid Saturday morning at Bareman's gym, a place he originally opened with the intention of catering solely to general fitness, you get a glimpse into what's been behind Adesanya's rapid growth as a fighter.

A mixture of casuals and hardened professionals, including Kai Kara-France and boxing prospect Junior Fa, make their way around a station of exercises under the close tutelage of Bareman who keeps time. Adesanya holds court in the ring where he makes his way through a rotation of sparring partners, until he sends the call-out.

"Dan!" he yells, motioning towards the ring.

"The Hangman" obliges and the pair square off for what seems an eternity, taunting one another in between blows. Bareman lets the two go at it for a total of 15 minutes, the duration of an entire three-round UFC bout, without the breaks.

"We call each other 'frenemies'," Hooker laughs afterwards.

As his teammate attests, Adesanya isn't one to take his natural gifts for granted.

"He's a very skilful guy and the good thing I know is he has the work ethic to back it up.

"He's one of the hardest workers in the gym, he's in here pushing himself every day. He'll push himself to the extreme."

The concept of teammates in MMA may seem odd to the uninitiated, but there's no denying the unique bond formed by daily combat, something Adesanya labels akin to "soldiers in a battlefield."

It's certainly a case of premium steel sharping steel at City Kickboxing, a gym which has become a breeding ground for New Zealand fight talent. Veteran heavyweight Mark Hunt – who will feature in the co-main event in Perth - helped establish the country as a valuable market for the UFC, and in doing so has laid a platform for the next generation of Kiwi MMA hopefuls.

"Our viewership is huge, per capita, it’s a big market," says Coach Bareman.

"Mark Hunt is obviously in the twilight of his career and they're looking for new people from this part of the world to attach themselves to. That’s where Dan and Israel and whoever else is coming through our region can really do big things."

It's a burden of responsibility Adesanya – now the fourth Kiwi on the current UFC roster - is happy to bear, predicting New Zealand's MMA stocks will skyrocket "all the way up" in 2018.

"[Hunt] has unknowingly been grooming us. Once he goes he’s passing the torch, leaving room for us, the new generation, to take over," he says with a clear hint of reverence.

"There's rumours of the UFC coming back to Spark Arena maybe this year and I know if they do they're going to stack the card with Kiwi talent.  I hope to see at least 6 guys from this gym in that, including myself."

Kiwi MMA fighter Israel Adesanya on his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson, dance, and title dreams ahead of UFC 221
Photo credit: Getty

First and foremost, however, there's the small matter of negotiating the challenge of Rob Wilkinson on Sunday. The grappling specialist and Adesanya share a certain degree of history, having both competed in the Australian Fighting Championship promotion.

"Before this fight I couldn’t pick him from a line-up, but I knew he had the AFC championship and he kept on talking shit about me when I won it.

"I was expecting he'd pull out of this fight – four guys declined this fight before he did. I know he thinks he's got something. They tell you to never underestimate anyone, but they forget to tell you to never overestimate them either"

On paper it's a prime example of the age-old 'striker vs grappler' conundrum, but the Kiwi – who sports a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu - is more than confident wherever the fight may go, and that includes the mat.

"I've been grappling for a long time. People don’t know this, they just see me kickboxing but I've been grappling since 2010. No one’s ever got to see that part of my game as much or use my ground work because I never really get kept down."

Adesanya is more than happy to showcase his striking for now, and expects to provide the death knell to the Australian's UFC dreams after "Razor's" unconvincing debut loss in September.

"I just see after this fight he's getting cut. You lose one time in the UFC by knock-out, he's going lose the second fight by even more vicious knock-out. You got to make room. "

"Mate, it’s going to be a bad night for Rob Wilkinson, I can guarantee you that," adds Hooker with a laugh.

The prospect of the fight has consumed him since signing on the dotted line. The grind of training camp is over, all of the hard work's been completed. A bundle of kinetic energy, all Adesanya wants is to be in that moment. Emerging from the tunnel. Blinded by the lights, but definitely not overawed by them.

"Walking out with Dan [Hooker] at UFC 219 I was like, it's the same shit. I've been here before, it's just a different cage. I've fought in  front of 50 to 60,000 people in China. Same shit, different day.

"I'm just waiting for that roar. Right now everything is just bland for me, this is when I start to get cold. That moment when the arena erupts – that’s what I'm waiting for. I crave that feeling."

The Octagon door clinks shut. Announcer Bruce Buffer completes the introductions. What's going through his head?

"Nothing. By that point, I'm dead on the inside," he says with a blank expression.

"You feel the energy and feel the moment but don’t let the fire burn you, just use it as a harnessed flame that you can flame throw or 'hadouken' whenever you want."

The unwrung sponge laying in the middle of mats that was once Adesanya's training shirt says it all. There's a storm about to strike UFC's middleweight division, and it's been brewing for years.