Israel Adesanya: UFC champion on fame, freedom of expression and boycotting New Zealand

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A world-class striker, an elite entertainer and an enigma on the mic – the mention of the name Israel Adesanya elicits a number of opinions from MMA fans.

But for the 32-year-old UFC middleweight champion, the reaction he would like from people when they hear his name is far more simple.

“I’d like them to smile. Like a good feeling. Yeah, I just want people to have a good memory when they hear my name,” he tells BBC Sport.

Meeting Adesanya at a hotel in London for this interview, he reveals a side to his personality only those closest to him get to see.

Here he tells BBC Sport about the difficulties of being famous, why he believes in freedom of expression and why he will never fight in New Zealand again.

Adesanya, who was born in Nigeria but lives in New Zealand, says one of the most important lessons he has learned during his rise to stardom in the UFC is to protect his personal space and energy.

“Nobody writes a book on how to be famous and how to deal with it, so you have to write your own,” Adesanya says.

“I’ve watched the pitfalls of a lot of famous athletes, actresses, actors and musicians, and seen how they have dealt with it, so I’ve avoided being one of those tabloid stories.

“People don’t care – they just want to take your peace and your time.

“Everyone needs their peace. I am a social butterfly, I’m extroverted when I want to be, but there’s times I need to be with my own thoughts and be at peace with myself.”

Adesanya is one of the most dominant fighters in the world.

Nicknamed the Last Stylebender in reference to an anime character, he has held the middleweight title since 2019 and defended it five times, convincingly dispatching the finest talent the division has to offer.

His most recent win was a unanimous decision over great rival Robert Whittaker.

In the aftermath of previous fights, Adesanya has revealed he suffers from bouts of depression once the initial buzz and elation of victory dies down.

Asked if he was worried about any decline in his mental health again when he goes back to New Zealand, Adesanya insisted he was not.

“I know how to deal with those things now,” he says.

“It’s kind of like drinking coffee, it’s a stimulant and then you have a crash.

“I was surrounded by so much stimulation that when I went home and was eventually by myself, for about two weeks, I was really depressed and I was like ‘what’s this about?’

“It was all these negative feelings and self-talk. But I did therapy and that helped. One tool is having the right people around me who keep it real with me, that’s paramount.”

“It’s also knowing this is just temporary and this will pass, and knowing who I am.”

Ever since his UFC debut in 2018 Adesanya has stood out from other fighters on the roster.

He is as sharp on the microphone as he is with his striking, illustrated by the mental and physical dismantling of Paulo Costa in their fight in 2020 – a performance Adesanya rates as his best in the UFC.

He is as flamboyant inside the octagon as he is out of it, his mastery of kickboxing mirrored by his desire to express himself in everyday life.

Before his fight against Whittaker last month, Adesanya revealed another side to his personality by painting his nails – a trait he encourages other people to embrace.

“I implore you to just do you – it [doesn’t matter] what anyone thinks,” he says.

“If someone is pressed with you because you paint your nails, that says more about them than it does about you.

“It’s not hurting anyone, disrespecting anyone, it’s just expressing yourself. Don’t let people rule how you wanna live your life.

“What you see is always the real me. People when they meet me say ‘man, you’re a lot different to what you’re like on TV’ and I’m like ‘well, you’re not trying to fight me!'”

Adesanya says his open-mindedness 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 streak comes from.”

Adesanya’s rebellious streak and fierce loyalty to those close to him was evident when he criticised New Zealand’s governing bodies in September.

Angered at how his team-mate Dan Hooker had been treated by authorities during lockdown, Adesanya said he would never fight in New Zealand again.

“They were giving the netball teams and the All Blacks special privileges to train, so we were like ‘oh cool, we’ll train in our facility’, but then the police came and said ‘no you can’t do that’,” he explains.

“Dan got contacted by the police over a dozen times and they said ‘if we catch you at 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 of tax revenue from my fights’, that was my way of protesting.”

Adesanya claims Hooker’s treatment by the governing bodies 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 loudmouth or whatever.

“But when they did that to Dan I realised it wasn’t even about me anymore – it’s about our sport.

“It’s these old heads who prioritise traditional sports and I’m like ‘what is tradition?’ Tradition is what you make it.”

After turning his back on New Zealand, Adesanya has set his sights on taking the UFC to Africa.

Despite currently boasting three African-born champions in Adesanya, Kamaru Usman and Francis Ngannou, the series has never held an event on the continent.

“Fighting in Africa is a dream we have which is going to be actualised. Somehow by hook or by crook, we’ll make it happen,” Adesanya says.

“Only last night I saw a mural of me being painted on a wall in some village in Nigeria. The fact someone took their time out to paint a big mural, on a wall in some village is just amazing to me.

“For them to want to express art like that, makes me feel all the good feelings and humbled.”

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