Israel Adesanya embraces his celebrity after meteoric rise in UFC, just don't call him a role model

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

By any accounting, Israel Adesanya’s fight schedule in 2015 was mind-boggling. “The Last Stylebender” competed in three sports that year and went to battle a total of 15 times.

He went 3-0 with three finishes in mixed martial arts fights. He was 5-0 with one KO as a boxer and was 7-0 with six KOs as a kickboxer. That makes his recent UFC schedule, in which Saturday’s middleweight title unification bout with Robert Whittaker in the main event of UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia, look like a light jog in the park.

It was a foundational year for Adesanya, who was developing as a fighter and now the confident, outrageously gifted fighter he is now.

A large part of who he is now — a 17-0 interim world champion and No. 14 on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list — was forged during the crucible of 2015 when he averaged 1.25 fights a month.

But none of those fights were as impactful to him that year as one he did not even take part in as an athlete.

How UFC 193 shaped Adesanya as a fighter

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: UFC interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya during a media opportunity ahead of UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on October 01, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
UFC interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya during a media opportunity ahead of UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on Oct. 1, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

“I remember the walk from UFC 193,” Adesanya said of the show in which Holly Holm stopped Ronda Rousey to win the women’s bantamweight title in the biggest upset in the sport’s history to that point in front of a record 56,214 fans in Melbourne. “I remember the athletes making the walk [to the Octagon] and I envisioned myself doing the exact same thing I’ll be doing this weekend.”

Holm was as high as 20-1, at least briefly, on some online sportsbooks when the fight was first announced. Rousey entered the fight 12-0 and her three previous fights had averaged barely over 20 seconds. After defeating Bethe Correia in Brazil at UFC 190, Sports Illustrated hailed her as the world’s most dominant athlete.

Holm answered a slew of questions about Rousey’s dominance prior to UFC 193, and she was perceived as all but inconsequential to the show as “RouseyMania” was in full force. Holm’s resolve never wavered, though, and she believed she had the talent and the plan to win.

Then, she went out and did just that. That resonated with Adesanya, who in less than 23 months in the UFC has become one of the promotion’s brightest stars.

“I’m used to being famous now,” Adesanya said. “I’ve learned how to be famous and a lot of people don’t prepare for it and it’s something that can change life for the better or for the worst. I’ve prepared for it to [be to] my advantage.”

Adasanya has the ability to be one of those transformational stars the UFC has every now and then. They had it with Rousey and still do with Conor McGregor. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz crossed over in the sport’s early days, and Khabib Nurmagomedov is now building a massive worldwide fan base.

Adesanya: Whittaker fight will be ‘best night of my life’

He’s got a unique personality and a unique fighting style. The way he speaks, the way he dresses and the way he fights have all created an enormous amount of interest. He’s worked at making himself popular and has more than a million followers on Instagram.

He’s one of two UFC champions of African descent — welterweight champion Kamaru Usman is the other — and has had a major influence in the spike in interest in MMA in Nigeria.

“I know there are kids who are looking up at me because of what I’ve done, and see my success and think, ‘If that guy can do it, so can I,’ then I love that and that’s great,” Adesanya said.

But much like basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said a generation before him, don’t call him a role model. It’s not a position he seeks or embraces.

He’s building his own life and career and not seeking to be a mentor to anyone.

“I’ve been saying I’m not a role model and I’m not a guru,” Adesanya said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, my son looks up to you. How can you say the word ‘c---’?’ Well, they’re watching me beat the f--- out of this Mexican [Kelvin Gastelum] at UFC 236 so me saying a bad word, it is what it is. I’m not supposed to be a role model for them; let’s get it real. I do what I do for a job. This is fighting. This is a bloody sport. It’s not a nice sport. I’m just going to keep the same energy in the midst of the chaos. If people want to take the chance to watch, to see what I bring and try to use it to better themselves, yeah, OK.

“But I’m not one of these guys who’s going to try to be a role model and be an angel because I want to get a Nike sponsorship. Remember when [UFC light heavyweight champion] Jon Jones first came around, he wanted that sponsorship and so he was fake as s---? I’m not about that.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 15: Robert Whittaker (L) faces off with Israel Adesanya (R) during a UFC Australia press conference at Federation Square on August 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Robert Whittaker (L) faces off with Israel Adesanya (R) during a UFC Australia press conference at Federation Square on Aug. 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)

What he is about is winning, and putting on the most entertaining bouts possible. When he was a kickboxer, he knocked out a fighter and while the referee counted over the prone boxer, Adesanya laid on the top ropes, as if he were relaxing.

He defeated Gastelum in arguably the best fight of the year at UFC 236 in April, though he said he wasn’t himself in that fight. He vaguely referenced issues, though he declined to elaborate other than saying he feels great now.

“That fight was a gut-check fight, but that fight I came in with a different mentality,” Adesanya said of the Gastelum fight. “[Derek] Brunson, I had fun in that fight. Anderson Silva, I had fun in that fight. But Kelvin Gastelum, something else was going on in my mind with my life outside the Octagon.

“I didn’t have fun in that fight and that fight was a spiritual fight. I needed to go through that fire like I did. It was like a rebirth. This fight, I am just looking to have fun.”

He envisioned himself making the walk to the cage while he was a fan, soaking in the crowd noise and imagining the cheers were for him.

Saturday, he’ll get to experience the real thing before what is expected to be another record crowd. And he’s more than optimistic.

“I believe it’s going to be the best night of my life,” he said. “And I’m ready for this. Believe me, I’m so ready for this.”

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