Israel Adesanya’s emergence as a legitimate contender in the UFC’s middleweight division has become one of the hottest stories of 2018.
From kicking in the door with a second-round TKO over Rob Wilkinson to steamrolling over Marvin Vettori and Brad Tavares, the man dubbed “The Last Stylebender” was already rocketing up the 185-pound rankings at a meteoric rate. But following his skull-rattling first round TKO over Derek Brunson at UFC 230, Adesanya cemented himself as one of the most dangerous fighters in the division.
Even more shocking, his ascension from prospect to contender all happened in less than one calendar year.
But where did he come from? How did a 29-year-old, self-described “black Kiwi” go from watching Ong-Bak to dancing under the lights of Madison Square Garden?
Appearing recently on The MMA Hour, Adesanya walked through the humble beginnings that took him from his native land to planting roots in New Zealand.
“Long story short, [my family and I] were going to move to America in 2001 and then unfortunately 9/11 happened and then it looked like America was on the brink of war some some sh*t was going to go down,” said Adesanya. “Then, I don’t know, my dad said that we’re moving in New Zealand. And I was like ‘where’s that? Is that a new country?’ I was really naive. We went there, I think it’s just for better education. They wanted us to have more recognized tertiary education.”
The term “tertiary education” essentially refers to a third stage of education, which includes universities and various colleges.
However, for some, these degrees aren’t recognized in the western world. For this reason, Adesanya’s father moved the family across the globe.
“You see a lot of guys like cabdrivers - you know if it’s 4 a.m. and you’re drunk and you get into a taxi and start talking to the guy and you find out he’s an Indian guy from India, of course,” said Adesanya. “He used to be a maybe medical doctor. He moved to the States or wherever when he was 32, but his degree is not recognized in the western world. Now, he has to do med school all over again and you don’t want to have to do that sh*t for another year. So he just gets a job that can provide for the family because maybe the lifestyle over there wasn’t what you wanted.
“There’s no shame in it. You know you have to do what you do to do to provide for your family. So, it’s just that [my parents] wanted us to have better recognized tertiary education so that’s why we moved over to the Western world.”
As for the difference in education, Adesanya noticed right away his schooling in Nigeria was miles ahead from his new classmates.
“I repeated this class three times in three different countries,” revealed Adesanya. “In Nigeria, in Ghana and in New Zealand. So I did form one three times. (Note: In New Zealand, form one is the grade level for student between the ages of 11 and 12). When I was finally in New Zealand form one, we were doing sh*t I was doing probably when I was six years old. So when I was in class, in form one in New Zealand, I remember on one of my first days we were doing like times tables. I finished my test literally within like two minutes and then I like ‘I’m finished miss’ and everyone was like ‘Oh my God. He’s a f*cking prodigy. He’s a genius.’ I’m like, I was trying to find X back home. This is baby sh*t. This is nothing.
“So I’m not the most book smart kid or whatever. I learn different. I was never good at school. But they all thought like ‘oh he’s a prodigy.’ But the thing is, the curriculum back home was way harder than it ever is in New Zealand or even in America. But the thing is you guys have the opportunities. It’s very corrupt back home so a lot of people don’t really get the options I have. I’m fortunate enough that my dad was well-off, my family was well-off, so we’re able to go to private schools and stuff like that. But it’s a lot easier.”
Nowadays, Adesanya is an imposing 6-foot-4 and holds an enormous 80-inch reach. He looks very much the part of an elite fighter as he cracks his neck with the phrase “Broken Native” tattooed across his body.
It’s a phrase he coined himself and essentially translates to being the odd one out, a trait he felt throughout his high school career.
“I’m the runt of my people, physically and mentally,” said Adesanya. “I had to work to where I’m at. I was not an athlete in school. They called me butterfingers because I couldn’t catch a ball for sh*t in high school. I didn’t own my blackness enough. Literally there was a point through high school [in New Zealand] where I used to try and sound like [my classmates], I used try and be like them and talk like them. Just so I can fit in. I tried so many times to fit in but I could never ever fit in. I was always like, an outcast. At the end of the day, look at my skin. I’m all black and ironically that’s the country’s national rugby team’s name. I was never able to fit in properly and be accepted when I was a kid.
“So at some point, maybe around like 22 or 23, it took awhile as well, maybe 19, I’d say I started trying to just, like a video game character, customize myself. I’m player one. I keep saying I am player one in this. Everyone else in this is bots. From my first person view, in my head, I am player one and I’m looking at everything like ‘Sh*t. Who’s playing this? Who’s really playing this?’ We’re in the Matrix right now. Someone is just like making all of this sh*t happen.”
Never one to stay in one place for too long, Adesanya ran through the amateur kickboxing scene in New Zealand before moving to China to break into the world of professional mixed martial arts.
Dubbed the ”Black Dragon” by fans, Adesanya entered several of his fights under the Wulinfeng banner with the Chinese flag draped around him. But while the fans in his new home treated him with respect and admiration, he couldn’t ignore the way other black people in the country were treated.
“To me, because I’m a celebrity [they treated me nice],” said Adesanya. “But to other black people, sometimes they’re not very - [the Chinese] are all over Africa right now raping the land and they’re not giving anything back. So I’m not jaded about that. Eventually I’ll do something about it like you know I’m with the culture. I want to change that. But yeah I mean they were nice. My people, that were close me, were really nice.
“But the ones that never knew me, they treat me like sh*t and when they find out they’re like ‘aww.’ They call me the black dragon, Heilóng. That was my name. And then they kind of like flip the script. But I see how they treat other people as well. Like one of my friends Wes, he’s a French guy lives over there, he’s black guy and I saw how they treated him and it’s just not nice. So I was always jaded about that. At that time, I didn’t really have the push I can have so I kind of just play my role and I’d help them or I could but I never like how they treat my people.”
Now, representing his Nigerian roots with pride, Adesanya brings a flavor to the Octagon few fighters can match. With charisma oozing out of every pore along with with his video game-like skillset in the Octagon, Adesanya resembles more of a choreographer than a fighter.
This was none more evident than his post-fight dance inside the Octagon where he gave a shout out to his country with one of their signature dances.
“That’s the Shaku Shaku,” said Adesanya. “It’s a trendy dance in Nigeria right now and you know everyone’s f*cking with the culture, with Afro beat. A lot of Nigerian artists, they’re making a big out here. So they’re with the culture and everyone is trying to jump on their bandwagon. But, I’m original. I’m not a mutt. I’m a pure blood, pure bred. So I just showed love to my people because last time I spoke in my native tongue, I was blowing up over there.
“So this time I’m showing them, like, I’m still with the culture and let them know. Then, after that, I hit the Gwara Gwara. That’s from South Africa. That’s a little dance trend as well. And then I just galloped up and just showing love you know I was crumping and doing my own thing.”
But does Adesanaya ever look back and wonder how his life would have turned out if they had moved to the U.S.? Would he still be at the top of combat sports if his family had stayed in Nigeria?
For Adesanya, it didn’t matter where he ended up. He was always going to be great.
“I’ll put it this way, I tell my dad today I want to go back to school, he’ll freak out and be like ‘why what’s the problem? Are you alright?’” Adesanya revealed. “Your parents and people close to you, whenever you want to do something or you want to follow a dream, they’ll try and stop you. It’s not out of their hating, it’s just protection. They want to try and preserve you. Like ‘oh what If he fails?’ From the culture we’re from, they want to protect you.
“They don’t want to see you get hurt. But I knew what I was going to do. They always knew I was going to be the best. So I just had to prove it to the rest. And, yeah, now they are on board. I got my degree in ass-whooping and I’m trying to get my masters degree.”