Undefeated Kiwi UFC fighter Israel Adesanya is one of the hottest properties in the sport right now. While he is a lethal opponent in the ring he is not the old brutish, masculine definition of tough. He credits some of his success to his dancing background and is even open about being in touch with his feminine side.
This is obviously working for him. Prior to his undefeated 14 wins in Mixed Martial Arts, Adesanya won 6 out of his 7 fights in professional boxing and 75 out of 80 fights in kickboxing. Beyond his fighting career, he is focused on investing and growing his wealth through business. Going by his track record, he will be an intimidating opponent in any context.
We’ll start with a tough question first, what do you eat for breakfast each morning?
I don’t eat breakfast normally. I’ve been doing intermittent fasting for two years just by accident, just because of laziness. Normally I’ll train, then I’ll have something reasonable healthy, so maybe kumara mash, toast and eggs, avocado. If not, I just go to a fast food place like Pita Pit.
Do you follow any sort of nutritional diet?
Maybe two weeks out from a fight, I cut my portions down to just enough to train hard. Then fight week, I’ll be training hard so I’ll cut it down to enough to just function, move around and do media. That’s the only time, two weeks before the fight, where I’ll watch what I eat but otherwise I just see food and I eat it – see-food diet.
Can you talk about the mental side of things with training?
Right now, we’re seven weeks out leading up to the fight. So right now it’s 70% physical, 30% mental. But then by the time it’s fight week, it flips. It’s 80% mental and 20% physical because all the physical work is done. There’s not really much else you can do to add to your physical game, it’s all about how you operate the software.
With a lot of men, I can just smell the doubt, the insecurities, the fear. Everyone has it, I have it as well but I just know how to channel mine in the right place and the right time. I’m vulnerable, I’m not like every other fighter. I show my vulnerabilities because I feel like they make me stronger. Charlamagne [US radio host] says ‘Speak your truth because they can’t use your truth against you’. So that’s why I’m outspoken. I don’t try and hold back too much on a certain front. That way no one can use that against me because I’ve already said it myself.
You’re fairly prolific with social media, does that give you an advantage in terms of trash talk?
Some days everyone at the gym is just giving everyone s**t, so it’s like practice. But really, we love each other. You just know how to push buttons to get reactions out of people, it’s fun. We’ve been doing this for years, so that’s been prepping me up for all this trash talk.
But with the social media game, I did something this year that changed it a little bit with a video meme I did of Derek Brunson [MMA fighter] and it was a pretty big hit. But I think it gives me an advantage because I just be me, just keep that same energy.
You mentioned the vulnerability thing before and being open, where do you think that came from? What was the trigger for that?
All sorts of things. People from different walks of life that I’ve learnt from over the years. When I was a kid, I use to watch the Tyra Banks show religiously at home, and just the guests she’d have on, the topics she’s discuss, I’d always listen. I’m in touch with my feminine side and I’m not scared of it. I’m not like these wannabe alpha males, I don’t need to flex all the time.
So I think it started from that. Over time, knowing myself a bit more, exploring my feelings, being honest with myself, being objective, I just formed my own software operating system over the years.
Each fight, I call it new levels, new devils. Here’s a new level and some new devils I’ve got to deal with. So what I’ve been doing now is anticipating. After this fight, I’m anticipating my stock is going to quadruple, so I’m going to brace myself for that, because after my UFC debut, it just went BOOM! And then I wasn’t ready for the influx of attention, the influx of people. Even at the after party, I wasn’t having fun the way that I’d like to. I was constantly being bombarded by people. But I understand what the game is so I play the game.
When you talk about ‘new levels, new devils’, how would you define the last devil?
After the last one, I brace myself. I braced myself for the impact of me beating Brad [Tavares], my last opponent. I knew it was going to be the main event, all eyes on me. So I was like, here comes the wave.
And it came but then something else happened with my Instagram and this guy called Brendan Sharp, he use to be a UFC fighter but he’s a podcaster now. Him and Dana White [President of UFC] had a back and forth on my page and I didn’t mean to instigate it but it happened. It just got all this negative attention that I didn’t want and I wasn’t ready for.
So I just turned my phone off for about 5 or 6 hours and just tried to stay off it for a day and just recuperate myself and reset. My team can understand this so they don’t mind if we’re at a beach house and I just go off on my own and do my own thing because they know that I have to centre myself in a way. They understand this is new for me as well and as much as they can see it, they’re not feeling it.
As you rise the ranks of popularity and fame, do you feel the pressure?
Me and Dan [Hooker, NZ UFC fighter] have this podcast called Frenemies. At the end of it yesterday, we had this bit called Know Me, Know Me and he asks me all these questions and they really tell you to keep the swearing down. But this is how I speak, I’m not going to censor myself. It’s like someone telling me to fight and to only use only my left hand and my right leg. Just let me talk, let me flow, people will f**k with it and if they don’t, f**k them.
So I don’t like censorship and I know where that comes from. I use to go to this church as a kid and they instill values in you about sex before marriage and swearing. So there was a point when I was 14 or 15, and if I swore and I’d tell myself to stop and it got to the point where I’d hit myself if I swore again. It was a weird self-policing but from the higher-ups in that church. No one asked me to do that but they just instilled it into all of us.
I don’t give a f**k about anyone else apart from the people in my circle so I’m on this end where I’m not going to be PC, I’m just going to be me. I want to be able to express as much as I want to and as freely as I want to. Otherwise, I have to watch what I’m saying and I have to pause myself and it kills the flow of the conversation.
After growing up in a strict religious environment and then stepping away from that, how do you now define your moral code?
It’s my own operating system. As a kid, I remember asking my Sunday School Pastor, my parents, house mates, aunty and uncles, teachers, if God made the world, who made God? And they would still give me the run around. And at one point, one of my aunties said to me, ‘Stop asking that questions because you’ll go crazy,’. I didn’t think about it then but as I got older I realised that they didn’t know what was up. But back then, I looked at them and thought they are adults, they know.
Now my moral code is just be nice. It feels good to be nice, people forget all the time. I heard the other day, if you want to act out of anger, if you want to lash out and you don’t, you’re reprogramming your brain to be more loving and caring. I’ve been doing it for so long that I feel every time I do it, my fuse gets longer. There’s always a time when I’m about to snap on someone and I don’t because I know the repercussions.
Just be nice, it actually feels good, but people don’t realise that. I see it all the time, they’ll be sh**ty to someone and they might not realise what that person is doing or what they’re going through or why they are behaving a certain way. People forget – just be nice, that’s my moral code. I don’t want to hurt anyone – ha, ironic – but just be nice.
It is kind of ironic to hear you talk about being nice, how does that work together with MMA?
I am the least confrontational person ever. Sometimes if I’m in town with friends, there’s people who think that if they challenge you and they win, in their deluded mind they will be ‘the man’. And I just tell them, ‘Wait, you want me to knock you out for free? First of all, I get a $50,000 bonus just for that and I get paid mad money just to show up. Six figures, $100,000 – I can do mates rates for you right now, if you want to fight. If you haven’t got that on your right now, I don’t want to fight.’
I’m not with it. I’ve been like that before because of cultural teachings. Not just in New Zealand, but worldwide, you get that Tall Poppy Syndrome and I’ve been that before so I can recognise it when I see it in other people. Anytime now, if I catch myself hating on something, I’ll stop myself and ask why I’m feeling that way because this says more about me than the other person. So I have to check myself and reverse engineer it in a way so I can see why.
Looking at both New Zealand and overseas, do you feel that Tall Poppy Syndrome?
100%. It is heavy in New Zealand for whatever reason. David Dallas had this bar in one of his raps talking about how he’d rather build a plane that didn’t fly, than to admit that he didn’t try. Everyone doesn’t put themselves out there in case they failed. That’s been passed down for so long.
I was part of it as well, I didn’t want to put myself out there. But I learnt to counteract that when I moved to China. I had to do little exercises to learn to not give a f**k. But that was back in 2013, 2014 but now I’ll say what I want to say. So that was practice, I was always gearing up for this in every aspect. I’ve said that in interviews, I’ve prepared for this moment to be in the UFC, to run the UFC, in every single aspect. So yeah, I’ve prepared. There’s a method to my madness.
If we go back to the very start, what was it about martial arts that really attracted you in the first place?
It didn’t. I did Taekwondo as a kid. That was fun; kicking stuff, breaking boards. Then my mum pulled me out because I started kicking everything in the house and at one point I broke my arm. In the year 2000, I found dancing and I was really good at it so I just carried that on until now.
Then I found this movie called Ong-Bak in 2008 that made Muay Thai mainstream. I had my first fight after training for 6 weeks and I liked the feeling. It reminded me of when I was dancing, it was all about getting reactions from the crowd.
When I was fighting, the raw emotion and the fear that I had and was trying to control, that was all crazy. I did it, I overcame it and I just chased that ever since. I started watching the TV show The Ultimate Fighter in 2005 and when I first saw it, I thought you couldn’t pay me enough to do this. I wanted Dana White’s job because I would never get in a cage, but how the tables have turned.
So what draws me to it still is challenging myself because I know I’m the best. I feel like I have potential to be even better than I am but I just have to prove it to myself.
What hurdles are in your way?
Me. I’m my biggest hurdle, I’m my biggest enemy. I’m my biggest critic as well and my biggest fan. Right now, in this moment, nothing is in my way, everything is mine for the taking. I’m not going to f**k it up. I’m so glad that I’m getting the money that I’m getting now, and not when I was 21, 22. It would’ve been a disaster. I can imagine because of the thought pattern I had back then and the things that I valued back then.
But now it’s different. I would be walking past Footlocker back in the day and I would be like, ‘I can’t wait until I get these or get that.’ But now I’m here, I can get anything I want and it doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I like my material things but the things that I use to value back then don’t really appeal to me anymore. So I guess I’m trying to level up.
When you think about the financial side of things and giving up a job to pursue this, was that a wild leap?
Definitely. In Nigerian culture, you either have to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant or a big time businessman. That’s the Nigerian mentality. So for me to tell my parents what I’m going to do, you can imagine how they took it. I had to get my degree, which I never got, I dropped out.
But now, if I tell my dad I’m going to go back to school, he’ll freak out. He’s the biggest fan. He and mum will watch all my opponents last 7 or 8 fights on the UFC and just see how I’m going to beat him. So now they’re on board, it’s good. They can see the money coming in as well, I just bought my first house so they’re happy about that
Are there any weaknesses that you can identify in your next opponent, Derek Brunson?
He’s very sloppy but because of that, he throws a lot of wild things so I just have to be careful with that and aware. My parents said his wrestling is not as good as other people think and I agree and I’ll be better than him on the night. With Eugene [Adesanya’s coach], we’ve got some other shots we’ve selected for him.
My parents already know I’m going to beat him because you can just tell that when you look at him fight and you look at me fight, it’s just two different levels. This is art. It’s subjective but I feel like most people would be drawn to what I’m doing because it’s beautiful violence, rather than the sloppy style he’s going for.
Afterwards, I have a compassion. They were trying to do to the same thing to me, but I did it to them today. I respect that and I feel grateful for the chance to do that to them. But with him [Brunson], I don’t think I’m going to feel that. I don’t like him, I don’t like his approach to this fight.
At this point in your career, has there been a defining fight for you? One that really stands out?
There’s many defining fights. My UFC debut was one of them. King of the Ring, the heavyweight tournament, that I wasn’t supposed to win and I won. There’s many – beating Brian Minto in a boxing fight, he’s a former boxing heavyweight champion. There’s levels to it but even my last fight was defining because I did five rounds, I’ve never done five rounds and I did it easily against a guy that’s been in the UFC for so long.
I know they’re jealous because I’m three fights in and I’m making more money than some of the champions. They don’t like me because they think I talk too much. Sure, everyone can talk. But if I was just talking I wouldn’t be here. It’s the skills that I possess but they don’t want to admit it to themselves. They can either hate or be motivated by it.
From the world of martial arts, is there any way of thinking that any ordinary person could apply to everyday life?
There’s many and that’s what I love about this. If I didn’t have this, I’d probably be working some job that I hate. When I was fighting in China, I know guys who were fighting that didn’t like it, they were just good at it and were getting paid good money to do it but it wasn’t something they wanted to do. This is something I want to, this is something I’m very good at.
How long were you fighting overseas for?
I lived in China for a year but I’ve been fighting for the company on and off for years. I went and lived there to further career which was good. I’d just wake up, eat, train, sleep, repeat. It’s a blueprint that we created. Go there, do your bit and then come back. You level up so much because you’re fighting every two weeks. One month, I fought three times. You can’t get that in New Zealand. It’s something you can’t buy, experience. You fast forward the process. I needed that and I’m grateful for that time.
You’ve got the coolest nickname in UFC, Style Bender. Can you talk about where that comes from?
It’s from a TV show, The Avatar. There’s four nations: fire, earth, water and air. The Avatar is the one who can master all elements and he’s the one who can bring peace and balance to the world. So watching that show, I got a lot of gems from it. But it related to my life in a weird way. I feel like I have to realise my destiny as the Avatar in this game and master all the elements of martial arts. For me it’s different, I’m player one and everyone else is a boss. I just play the game.
There’s some real talent coming through in MMA in New Zealand. What do you put that down to?
To be honest, our gym. We’ve got five of the best New Zealand UFC fighters in one gym. This is New Zealand’s top team. People don’t want to admit it sometimes but we are the best and the work proves it. We’re the ones doing the most right now.
We have a different mentality, we’re actually cool with each other. You go to most other gyms and it’s a different vibe. Here, everyone is humble, contrary to popular belief. If you can humble yourself and put some work in, you’ll go far. So I put it down to the teachers here. They’ve passed down some gems to us and they keep us in line.
You’ve still got a long way to go and a lot of things to do. Have you thought about what you’re going to do when you hang up your gloves?
I want to have my own production company, that’s one of the first things I want to do. I just got my first house so I want to get a massive real estate portfolio, like a network of real estate. I want to have multiple sources of passive income.
I’ve learnt some things along the way, I’m smarter than I look. I’m not book smart but I know some s**t. With the production company, I just want to bring my ideas to life. I did graphic design for three years and I learnt animation but I was too naive and young at the time to really implement it so I dropped out. But if I have a production company, I can produce and hire people to bring whatever I want to create to life and sell that to the world.
I want to make something that’s going to blow up and stick around. I’m not one of those guys who’s just going to hang up the gloves and that’s it. I’ll probably just travel the world as well and just enjoy. F**k fame, I just want to disappear from the public eye. I know this is not forever, a lot of people get caught up in it.
A lot of people you see on the TV, New Zealand super stars in their own field, I just cringe so much. During their interviews, they’re just giving the same answers. I just always know the answer they’re going to give to the questions: ‘I like to thank God, my family, my team.’ I can read that word for word, I know what they’re going to say. Just speak your mind. It’s the Tall Poppy thing where they don’t want to put themselves out there. You’ve just won the World Cup or the World Championships, speak your mind! How do you actually feel? Just express that for a little bit.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Just don’t do what you don’t want to do. You don’t have to.
But another thing in for young men in general is to just stop flexing, there’s no need for it. Just empower each other.
With women, they need it right now because they’ve been marginalised for years. This whole girl power thing, I’m with it. But, I feel like men need it as well. Men need to empower each other as well. Stop flexing, stop trying to always one up each other, especially amongst friends. I battle everyday, when I hang out with my friends, I don’t want to be trying to one up each other. Just relax, have fun, be nice.