Nigerian-born Israel Adesanya is making big waves in the UFC right now. The 30-year-old was only signed to the MMA promotion 22 months ago, but he’s already been crowned the UFC Middleweight world champion. A showman through and through, thanks to his background as a dancer (more on that later), what makes the fighter christened “The Last Stylebender” so unique is that he takes that showmanship into the octagon—and it works.
From the dance floor to the Octagon
Behind every good fighter is unshakeable self-belief, rock solid coaching, guidance and teammates who continually push you to be better than you were yesterday. It also helps if you’ve got a talent for movement, which is something Adesanya has in spades.
Incredibly, he didn’t begin training properly for a fighting career until he was 21, spurred on by a love of Jackie Chan movies and Anderson Silva fights. Prior to that, the 18-0 world champion spent his days spinning and grooving around the dance floor, competing in, and winning, dance competitions across New Zealand. He may have switched focus, but it couldn’t be denied that Adesanya’s foundation in dance gave him a good chance at carving out an MMA career, despite his raw start.
Adesanya’s current coach, Eugene Bareman of City Kickboxing in Auckland, remembers that when he first walked through the door Adesanya “seemed just like a normal guy…I was underwhelmed…he got his ass kicked”. Adesanya may have been a fish out of water when he first tried Mixed Martial Arts, with its focus on being an adept and efficient fighter at all ranges, even on the ground; but he walked into Bareman’s gym with an immaculate amateur kickboxing record of 32-0.
The feint as his primary weapon
One of the most exciting aspects of Adesanya’s ‘game’ is that he’s turned that art of feinting into a lethal weapon. Feinting is all about misdirection—making an opponent think that you’re about to throw a certain punch or kick, but, in reality, you go for something completely different. Plenty of the current crop of UFC fighters make use of feints in their game, but nobody uses them in quite the way that Adesanya does.
It would take a whole other article to fully describe the dance styles that Adesanya once perfected and competed in. But unlike the more codified and recognisable techniques of ballet or modern dance, they focus on improvisation, creativity and self-expression, as well as technical execution—crucial skills if you want to be good at feinting. Combine this base with a total of 80 muay thai and kickboxing fights (75 of which were wins), as well as 6 professional boxing fights, and you have in Adesanya a true craftsman of combat.
Road to glory
Given the impressive stats that Adesanaya racked up during his kickboxing and boxing years, it really was only a matter of time before he got the chance to prove himself worthy of a title. That opportunity came along earlier in 2019 after 17 wins, 13 of which were knockouts and 5 of which were won in the UFC.
It was confirmed that on October 5th he would challenge reigning champion, Robert Whittaker, for the middleweight belt. The odds favoured both fighters at one stage, but it was clear in the days before the fight that Adesanya was the favourite to win the UFC 243 main event, and sites like FoxBet were offering different waggers according to different trends and statistics. What we weren’t expecting, though, was that he’d do so in such an impressive style, both in and out of the ring.
For example, unlike in the WWE, UFC officials frown at walkout performances. But Adesanya, being the creative mover that he is, has been pleading his case to perform for the crowd on his way to the cage for a long time. His wish was finally granted come fight night, and The Last Stylebender treated us all to a truly spectacular choreographed dance, ably supported by three of his pro dancer friends, two of whom were his dance teachers back in the day.
Entering the octagon in such a flamboyant way was for sure a risky decision. If he lost the fight it would go down in history (albeit for the wrong reasons); but, of course, he didn’t lose the fight. Adesanya went on to deliver a vicious left uppercut to Whittaker during the second round, which left the former champion flat on his back on the canvas and made the 30-year-old Nigerian the undisputed UFC Middleweight Champion of the World.