NY State of Mind: Israel Adesanya talks UFC 230, title dreams, and getting high with Joe Rogan

It's been a heady rise to stardom for Kiwi MMA phenom Israel Adesanya.

The UFC fighter, known as 'The Last Stylebender', has reeled off three consecutive wins on the sport's biggest stage in 2018, becoming an instant fan-favourite with his blend of sniper-like striking and magnetic persona.

But Adesanya truly realised how high he was now flying - in more ways than one - during an encounter of a different kind.

"I went to [Joe Rogan's] green room at his comedy show last year and I was hanging out with him, and they were passing around the joint," Adesanya told Newshub.

"I checked it for a second, thinking 'I'm in Joe Rogan's green room smoking a joint - alright'. All that fame facade goes away and I felt like I belonged there."

That encounter resulted in an appearance on the comedian and UFC commentator's podcast - The Joe Rogan Experience - one of the world's most popular podcasts, registering more than 30 million downloads per month.

That appearance was a throwback to an earlier chapter of his life, when a wide-eyed Adesanya endured a 9-5 existence by day and trained by night.

"That podcast saved me from going postal at my old work," he said. "It saved me from the monotony of all that mundane shit.

"I'd just have it in my ear, laughing. My boss hated it, but I always found a way - hoodie up, whatever it took.

"Going from that to actually being on the podcast and talking some shit with him, drinking some whiskey - it was cool. Something I can just tick off the bucket list."

On Sunday (NZ time), Adesanya has a prime opportunity to take a giant step closer to another item on that list - a UFC world title. 

The 28-year-old will square off with Derek Brunson at New York City's iconic Madison Square Garden at UFC230 - just the third time the historic headquarters of fights sports has hosted an MMA event, after the promotion finally had a ban overturned in 2016.

"Ever since that happened, the ban got lifted, it's cool that we can carry on the tradition of combat sports in NYC," Adensaya said.

"You can have boxing shows, kickboxing shows there - but the future of combats sports is mixed martial arts.

"This is the truest test of combat, this is the new age gladiator sport. People just need to bring that money over here. "

The UFC has had Adesanya earmarked for stardom since his debut, following a first-round KO of Rob Wilkinson in Perth.

Adesanya coasted to victory against Hawaiian Brad Tavares in July.
Adesanya coasted to victory against Hawaiian Brad Tavares in July. Photo credit: Getty

His most recent win - a three-round dismantling of Brad Tavares - was billed as a main event, which saw him join a select group of fighters to have made such a rapid rise. That group includes the likes of transcendent Irish superstar Conor McGregor.

Adesanya isn't the type to shy from a spotlight. In fact, he's embraced it with the unbridled confidence that's helped fuel his success to date.

"I feel more comfortable, like I belong and I'm supposed to be here," he said. "I feel like none of these guys are better than me.

"I'm the guy they're all looking at. That's just the drive - it's not greedy, it's just drive.

"A lot of people, especially in Kiwi culture, tend to downplay their own achievements in order to make other people feel comfortable.

"I don't follow trends, I make my own trends. I'm the guy who will say what he wants to do and I'll put myself out there, and if I fall on my face and eat shit, then cool.

"Any time that's ever happened, I always know I'll be fine. That's my saving grace.

"I know that no matter what, this is just temporary. I'll be fine, I'll come back and I'll dominate."

NY State of Mind: Israel Adesanya talks UFC 230, title dreams, and getting high with Joe Rogan

That's where head trainer Eugene Bareman - the mastermind behind Auckland fighter factory, City Kickboxing - has seen the biggest growth in Adesanya, who's one of four UFC-contracted fighters in his stable.

"Israel has been pulled aside and picked out as potential star, so his media obligations have been huge," Bareman said.

"He meets all of them to their full, he does really well, but that's a massive distraction for someone who can't necessarily handle all of that, especially on fight week.

"Dealing with that - the bright lights, the pressure, the big stage - it's something he's dealt with before, but not in this capacity. That's where he's made the most improvement."

And the 'Big Apple' will provide the biggest stage yet for the undefeated Adesanya (14-0) to showcase his wares, with the stakes higher than ever.

The current landscape at middleweight is trending heavily in the ninth-ranked Kiwi's favour. A loss for former champion Chris Weidman to Jacare Souza on the same night in New York, coupled with the cancellation of Yoel Romero's bout with Diego Costa and the injury to Luke Rockhold, would see Adesanya right at the front of the queue to challenge NZ-born Australian Robert Whittaker for the belt.

Adesanya's opponent - Derek Brunson
Adesanya's opponent - Derek Brunson Photo credit: Getty

Of course, Adesanya must first negotiate his way past the significant challenge presented by Brunson (18-6). The 34-year-old American is a dynamic wrestler with exceptional power, who has a knack for drawing opponents into his chaotic style, then catching them with a shot in a scramble.

Auckland fans saw that first-hand, when he featured on last year's card at Spark Arena and switched Australian Dan Kelly's lights off barely a minute into their contest.

"It's his biggest downfall, but his awkwardness is also his biggest challenge as well," Adesanya noted.

"It's about me being able to calibrate him in the moment, read him in the moment, adjust to what I need to do, then take him apart.

"He's random, but even in that randomness, he still has patterns. So that's the thing, I can recognise those and so have these guys," Adesanya says, gesturing towards Bareman.

According to Bareman, the key to solving Brunson's unorthodox puzzle lies in one critical component - positioning.

"[Adesanya] has to out-position Brunson, first and foremost," he notes. "That's going to give him that split-second advantage that he's going to need.

"Brunson has no idea about position, he just goes on instinct. Israel can be one step ahead of him through the whole fight, if he has superior position."

Not that Adesanya is too concerned about what his opponent may have in store.

"I've just been working on myself, just doing me. At the end of the day, I can only be the best me I can be and I know, at my best, I can beat any of these guys - any one of them at all.

"There's probably been about 35 percent of the camp specified around his habits and what he's going to do, but the rest of it is about us as mixed martial artists."

The pair have traded plenty of barbs in the lead-up to their bout. Adesanya responded to Brunson's guarantee that he'd embarrass the "Last Pretender" by dismissing his "skid row bum fights-style, drunken wrestlin' bootleg-Chuck Norris technique".

After a press conference in Los Angeles in August, Adesanya filmed himself taunting Brunson from across a bar, before telling him he could show up to the fight "drunk as f**k and still whoop your ass".

"If you put a silhouette over us, and you see his style of fighting and my style, I can guarantee you people's visuals would be drawn more to mine, because mine is beautiful.

"This is mixed martial arts. This is artistry.

"You just can't compare. It's not even apples and oranges, it's like apple and the f**king core of an apple.

"You can plant that and become a seed, but he's not fertilising well.

"I want to whoop this guy's ass. I want to f**k him up badly."

Fortified by an ever-improving ground game, Adesanya foresees another demoralising defeat for his adversary this weekend.

"I have three [predictions] - first round KO, second round KO or I snatch his neck," he said. "I keep seeing myself snatching his neck.

"He has no chance. This is my fight, it's my fight to lose."

Should that play out as planned and Whittaker overcomes Kelvin Gastellum, he has no doubts as to what lies next on the menu.

"I get the belt, we do it right there at Spark Arena. I'll sell that b*tch out.



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