In 2015, Israel Adesanya was the biggest star you never heard of, a guy capable of succeeding in the UFC who made a conscious decision to wait.
Of his many skills, perhaps his greatest is patience. Adesanya knew the time had to be just right, that there needed to be a collision of forces which would deliver him to the UFC when he was ready not just to compete or be another of the 500-plus fighters on the roster, but to dominate.
He would make the move only when he felt he was ready not to be just another guy but to be the guy.
While he built his fighting skills in part by throwing himself in uncomfortable and difficult positions, he worked concurrently at building his name, learning how to market himself.
He was born in Nigeria in 1989 and moved to New Zealand with his family in 2001. He quickly grew to love New Zealand and still is based in Auckland, but moved to China in 2013 as he was at a career crossroads in his life.
He had a job doing data entry he didn’t care for and had come to a point where something had to give.
“For me, it was about progression in life,” said Adesanya, who faces Derek Brunson in an important middleweight bout Saturday on the main card of UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden in New York. “In 2013, I went through a really great depression. I had to make a change. I had to make a move. S–t like that happens because life forces are forcing you to level up, level up, go on to the next thing. I needed to put myself in a difficult situation, out of my comfort zone.”
He was plotting everything out. He believed that one day he would have the ability to not only compete in the UFC, but to dominate. And he wasn’t content to just dominate in the cage, but he wanted to take what Conor McGregor had done in terms of building himself and push it to the next level.
And so Adesanya worked on parallel paths. On the competitive side, he fought as a straight kickboxer and in muay thai. He boxed. He did jiujitsu. He fought MMA. He developed his own style.
Adesanya was 32-0 as an amateur in kickboxing and 75-5-1 as a pro, but he never followed the traditional approach to the sport.
“I was an oddball in kickboxing because of my style,” he said. “I’m different. I’m fleet-footed and I understand how to move and work the system.”
In 2015, he had five boxing matches, seven kickboxing bouts and three MMA fights.
“I also competed in a lot of jiujitsu tournaments that year,” Adesanya said.
When he moved to China, it was a culture shock, but he learned to adapt. He fought frequently and in 2016 had more than 20 fights.
At the same time, he was working on his persona, building what he knew would be a star-level personality.
“Imagine me, a big [6-foot-4] black man walking around in mainland China,” he said. “I got stared at like I was Bigfoot. … Being there and having all these eyes on me, taking pictures with people, signing autographs, it got me ready for moments like this. I knew this was coming. I plan out every single detail of this game. It’s all been plotted out, all the way down to the finest details.
“ … I was just in Central Park and I had this big camera crew following me around. People were staring at me and most of them had no idea who I am, but they were asking me for a picture just because of the way I carried myself and the camera crew. They figured I must be famous with all that, so they wanted my photo. I learned this from all of my experiences: People don’t care who you are, they just like the clout. Most guys, they don’t understand that and because of it, they get lost in the sauce. I’m never going to get lost in the sauce because I’ve been mapping this life out for a long time.”
He’s an unconventional fighter not afraid to try risky moves. In a lot of ways, he’s reminiscent of a young Jon Jones. Long before Jones was being hailed as the greatest MMA talent of all-time, he was watching videos on YouTube at night and trying the moves in the gym the next day.
In Adesanya’s last fight, a dominant victory over Brad Tavares that some felt was too much, too soon, he showed that Jones-like trait. Fighting out of the southpaw stance, he knocked Tavares’ lead hand down and then threw a wicked, but short elbow that opened a massive cut.
“I’d never done that move in sparring; I’d never done that move ever,” Adesanya said. “It was my ‘African Intelligence,’ if you will, my AI. You need that artificial intelligence. My muscle memory just knew what to do in the moment. I was able to flow and get it done. It was sick. It just felt right, that it was the move to make at that point in the fight. And that comes from what I said before, having put myself in all these situations and gotten all these experiences from around the world and just having the AI to get it done when I needed it.”
If he beats Brunson, which will be a big task, he’s going to be at the top of the middleweight rankings after just one year in the UFC. He’s already 3-0 in the UFC in 2018 and a win over Brunson would almost certainly put him in the division’s top 5.
It would also boost the hype train exponentially. He’s so talented and charismatic, one might say the sky is the limit in terms of how big he can become, but that’s not enough for the brash Adesanya.
“People say, ‘The sky’s the limit,’ and I’ve always wondered why they would say that,” he said. “Whoever made that quote, ‘The sky’s the limit,’ didn’t know about the universe. This s–t is endless. There are no limits, man. Conor changed the game and he paved the way. He did those big numbers and I’m one of the guys who is going to carry that forward. It’s all been planned exquisitely, and everything has been put in place. Don’t blink, because now, the plan is in action and is about to be unveiled before your eyes.”
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