Grant Chapman: Are the Halberg Awards ready for Israel Adesanya?

OPINION: Mixed martial arts face a major public relations challenge, if the burgeoning sport hopes to be truly embraced by the Halberg Awards.

But if, by some chance, Israel Adesanya or Eugene Bareman walk away with one of New Zealand's top sports honours tonight, organisers may then need to explain how such a violent pastime represents the ideals they hold so dear.

After a groundbreaking year in the Octagon, MMA are represented in three categories at the annual awards ceremony - the 'Oscars' of NZ sport - with UFC middleweight champion Adesanya heavily favoured for Sportsman of the Year and mentor Bareman among contenders for Coach of the Year.

Adesanya's title victory over Aussie Robert Whittaker in October is also among the Sporting Moments of the Year, determined by people's choice.

His exploits have certainly captured the imagination of a younger 'social media' generation, as well as older punters lusting for a gladiatorial spectacle that sport used to provide, before political correctness intervened. 

For that reason, 'The Last Stylebender' may fare far better with the fan vote than the judges.

Because, for all their worthy achievements, he and Bareman operate in a world that seems to promote everything NZ administrators are trying to stamp out in mainstream sports.

At a time when 'athlete welfare' is paramount, UFC fighters seem intent on inflicting as much grievous bodily harm as possible on their opponents.

There's a reason traditionalists dismiss MMA as 'prison fighting'. If these attacks took place outside the ring, they would legally constitute assault.

At a time when sports are drastically sanitising their rules to avoid long-term brain injuries, in particular, MMA condone vicious blows - punching, kicking or kneeing - to the head as legitimate fairplay.

Israel Adesanya celebrates his UFC world title victory
Israel Adesanya celebrates his UFC world title victory. Photo credit: Photosport

While administrators are at pains to provide youngsters with more caring and nurturing sporting experiences, MMA offer a career pathway that few parents would choose for their kids.

In a nation that prides itself on staying humble, even in the face of success, UFC - the sport's shop window - markets itself as brash and in-your-face, with trash talk almost as key to success as the ability to render a rival senseless.

Somehow hard-hitting, jive-talking, hip-hop-dancing Adesanya doesn't quite fit the Kiwi brand.

To some extent, the same has probably applied to boxing over the years, with former British Empire welterweight champion Barry Brown the sole Halberg winner - it was then known as the NZ Sportsman's Trophy - back in 1953.

Even Joseph Parker's 2016 WBO world heavyweight title got him only as far as the finalis, despite his image as one of the quiet nice guys of pro boxing.

Of course, as always, the truth is slightly different.

Below the brash and violent UFC exterior, mixed martial arts - at the grassroots - has probably saved lives.

MMA trainer Eugene Bareman in his natural habitat
MMA trainer Eugene Bareman in his natural habitat. Photo credit: Supplied

If you've ever read an MMA profile written by Newshub's Stephen Foote, you'll understand that many drawn to the gyms around New Zealand and the world are struggling with inner demons or feel marginalised by society.

Fighting - or training to fight - provides a positive outlet for them to channel that alienation.

Talk to Adesanya or fellow Kiwi UFC star Dan Hooker away from their natural habitat, and you'll find they're actually really nice guys and real students of their craft, likening the fight game to chess.

For all his bluster, Adesanya declares "I prefer dogs to people" and spends his spare time rolling around the floor with his puppy.

Bareman seems like one of the most humble men in sport - an archetypal 'Yoda', who's far more comfortable holding pads for a fledgling fighter than the title belt of a world champion.

Perhaps the Halbergs and Israel Adesanya have more in common than you might think… but more importantly, what do that judges think?  

Grant Chapman is Newshub online sports editor.

Join us from 6pm Thursday for live updates of the 2019 Halberg Awards.