This feature appeared on the cover of the November, 2014, edition of Sky Sport the magazine. It was written in the wake of Israel Adesanya's demolition of the 2014 King in the Ring 86II tournament and, due to his prodigious work rate, is a touch dated in regards to Adesanya's record and achievements.
Just off Upper Queen Street in the heart of Auckland is the aptly named City Kickboxing gym. Home to prestigious trainers Eugene Bareman, Tristam Apikotoa and ‘Lightning’ Mike Angove to name just a few, City Kickboxing produces some of the best. Championship belts line the wall, and Doug Viney’s 2007 K1 World Grand Prix cup takes pride of place besides the front door. Foam matting covers the floor not occupied by the full-sized mixed martial arts cage. In front of that is a ring. The faded logo in the centre speaks volumes; this ring sees usage. Frequently. At City Kickboxing, they’re for real. On Saturday mornings they spar. Angove walks amongst them exhorting and critiquing. “Keep your chin down” he urges Milo ‘The Thing’ King. Milo leans back to avoid a punch, unwittingly raising his chin a fraction too high. Angove misses nothing. “I’m sorry to have to do this to you,” he says, taking off his sock, rolling it into a ball and placing it against Milo’s chest. “Now hold it there.” Milo again faces the barrage of his opponent and Angove’s sock falls to the floor. It’s no surprise, however, when one considers his sparring partner.
Israel Mobolaji Adesanya is the best-kept secret in New Zealand combat sports. With a record of 37 wins, and just two losses, Adesanya is signed to Glory; the greatest stage in world kickboxing. It’s the equivalent of the UFC or old school K1, and yet he is still to receive the same mainstream exposure as many previous representative athletes. But as he says with a grin, “they gon’ learn”. As far as he’s concerned, fame is inevitable. There are some who don’t believe him, but he’s used to pulling off the unlikely. “I’ve been telling my parents I’m the best in the world since my first fight,” he says. His second fight, against an opponent with 12 wins and a single loss, was held under full Thai rules, which allow for knees and elbows. Adesanya doesn’t do things by halves. Born in Nigeria, Adesanya lived a nomadic early life, travelling with his family in pursuit of work for his father, an accountant. From Nigeria, they travelled to Ghana, a country of 27 million bordering the Atlantic on the west coast of Africa. From Ghana, they left for New Zealand when his father was employed in Rotorua. Adesanya attended Rotorua Boys’ High - but life as an immigrant in small-city New Zealand wasn’t always easy.
“School was hard at times, man. It’s never easy being the foreign kid, but there were other guys who got a hard time there too.”
Fortunately, he had an enduring passion for dance, incubated during his time in Ghana.
“Everybody in Africa can dance. People invent new dances all the time and then you see the same dances showing up here and in America.
“My dancing helped me get that street cred, you know? Seriously though, after talent quests and things like that I’d get people coming up to me like ‘Oh, that was dope,’ and from then on they’d treat me different. It helped. It still helps, because fighting is just like a dance, it’s just a rhythm.”
It was through dance that Adesanya began to embody the showmanship he exhibits today. It was dance, too, where he cultivated the beginnings of a champion’s mentality.
“My crew, the Broken Natives, we travelled all over the place ripping up dance competitions. We were the best in New Zealand and probably Australia too.”
When Adesanya’s father had a falling out with his employers the family moved to Wanganui.
It was in this small west coast town that Adesanya would get his first taste of fight sports, both the good and the bad.
“I met Kyle Gallacher, he’s fought in King in the Ring, and he told me about this gym and invited me to come along. When I was in Wanganui I even had a fight with Jamie Eades, who’s also fought in the King in the Ring against Kyle. It was good in Wanganui, and I don’t like to talk bad about anyone, but there were a few shady match-ups and a bit of dodgy shit going on.”
Against the wishes of his trainer, Adesanya took a mixed martial arts bout in Auckland. In his corner was Eugene Bareman, a multiple time New Zealand Muay Thai champion across several weight classes.
In the legend of any good martial artist, there is always a wise older master who takes the young prodigy under their wing. In reality, these partnerships have produced some of the most stunning and technically brilliant competitors in all of history - Pacquiao and Roach, Tyson and De Amato. In Bareman, Adesanya had found a mentor under whom he could nurture his already formidable skills. For Adesanya, who even then aspired for greatness, it was clear he would have to uproot himself once again to begin his apprenticeship in the fight game for real.
“Euge is a samurai and I knew I needed to train at City Kickboxing, so one weekend I just left.”
At 190cm tall, 86kg, Israel Adesanya is lithe and graceful. He acts with an easy efficiency that hints at an intuitive, more visceral mastery of movement. There is an innate fluidity to Adesanya, and innumerable hours of applied training have polished out the almost imperceptible wrinkles in his game, wrinkles which make all the difference at an elite level. Nothing is accidental. On the Saturday morning I visited City Kickboxing, Adesanya was in preparation for the King in the Ring 86II. Coming off a TKO victory in a title fight with veteran Charles August, he was back in the gym under the watchful eye of coach and landlord Angove, a former New Zealand Muay Thai champion and current commentator for Sky’s combat sport broadcasts. Adesanya drilled defensive manoeuvres with Milo King. Angove watched with a scientist’s intensity, offering a stream of critique and corrections. The rapidity with which fighters of such a calibre absorb and implement advice on-the-fly is superb, and the pair visibly sharpened their technique within a couple of minutes. But when Adesanya began to show preference for a certain technique, Angove would take it away from him.
“You have to be ready for when things go wrong,” said Angove. “One day there’s going to be someone faster than you.”
It’s a fair question. Adesanya moves in ways nobody else can. King, a long-time training partner, knows this well.
“Israel shows you techniques that are perfectly fine if you’re him, but there is no way other people can do that stuff. Crazy jumping kicks and things like that.”
Adesanya unleashed his phenomenal speed and unorthodox techniques on a rampage through the New Zealand martial arts scene, fighting across several rule sets and weight classes. In 2013, the big leagues came calling.
In the Far East, away from the gaze of the Western combat sports world, a host of promotions pack stadiums across China with upwards of 15,000 people a show. Wu Lin Feng is one of the greatest.
“I quit my job in September last year to move to China,” says Adesanya. “I didn’t really tell anyone I was going; I just snuck out of the country.”
In the style of a gladiator stables, the fighters contracted to Wu Lin Feng lived, trained and fought together.
“I was based at a gym in the Hunan province. Everyone lives together and the promoters would be like ‘Oh, you’re fighting this guy from the gym next week, and then this guy next month. It was just business, you know? It was nothing personal.”
It is a given that a fighter on home soil will have an advantage but the extent to which corrupt officials influence fights in China is unparalleled.
“China was crazy,” says Adesanya. “They’d tell you ‘Ok, it’s a K1 rules fight,’ but then I’d get thrown and it’d turn into a Sanda fight and the ref would give the other guy a point. I was like ‘man, fuck these guys,’ so I’d either knock them out or beat them at their own game.
“Something I learned in China, man, is who to trust. You can’t trust everybody.”
During his seven months in China, Adesanya brought his professional record to 32 wins with just one loss. His sole defeat came in an extension round at the hands of Canadian Simon Marcus, in the semi-finals of an 8-man tournament. The defeat was controversial.
“He hit me twice in that fight, clean. I caught him so many times moving backwards, I rocked him twice. It shouldn’t have gone to a fourth round and watching the tape afterwards we were like ‘man we beat this guy.’”
As those who follow him on social media will know, Adesanya is never hesitant to show his feelings.
“I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make money. I want people to like me, but not everyone is going to like you so just do you.”
This self-confidence is an integral part of Adesanya’s game, and he says that’s a far cry from arrogance.
“These people, man, they don’t know how to be humble. It’s not humble to pretend you aren’t good at anything or to sit on the sidelines.
“It reminds me of the David Dallas song The Wire, and he has a line about not wanting to try too hard in case you fail, that shit, a lot of people would rather say ‘Aw, I wasn’t giving it my all,’ but I’ve never been afraid of putting myself in the line of fire.”
Adesanya’s belief is built on a firm foundation and solid work ethic.
“I’m listening to the right people, man; Euge Bareman, Tristam Apikotoa, Mike Angove. I’ve got my boys Jamie van der Kuijl and Blood Diamond working with me.” he says. “No man has ever broken me, aside from my coaches in training. I train too hard and too smart to lose to these guys out there. They don’t even think like I do.”
This consistent physical and technical improvement is also supplemented by focused mental development.
“I was doing mindfulness meditation for a while,” says Adesanya. “I like to do yoga every now and again, bikram, but it’s about being present. Gratitude is the right attitude, man.
“Don’t think, just do. Like Bruce Lee said; empty your mind. Be like water my friend. Even doing pads, don’t think about what’s outside. Be what you’re doing.”
In August, 2014, Adesanya appeared live on Sky at the King in the Ring 86II; a one night, 8-man elimination tournament. The previous iteration of the event saw newcomer TY Williams triumph over a field of far more experienced fighters to take out the belt and a sizeable cash prize, staking a claim as the best cruiserweight in the country. But that tournament was missing Adesanya.
Thirty seconds into the first fight of August’s event, it was clear that this time things were going to be different. After grooving to the ring accompanied by a crew of back-up dancers, Adesanya came out of the gate with an incredible flying knee, traversing half of the ring and cracking opponent and sometime sparring partner Slava Alexeichik, dropping him for an eight count. Alexeichik found his way back to his feet, having some success with a few hard shots over the next three rounds, but it would be the most adversity Adesanya encountered all night. In his semi-final bout, Adesanya made short work of Pati ‘The Arsenal’ Afoa, knocking him down with a lead leg roundhouse to the head before leaving him unconscious with a savage combination of punches. Almost instantly, medics rushed the ring with an oxygen mask as a badly hurt and bleeding Afoa struggled back to consciousness. It was a violent knockout, and it perceptibly changed the feeling in the ASB Arena. Whoever would go on to face Adesanya in the final had their work cut out for them. As it turned out, the main event saw a rematch several long years in the making, years which had seen both contenders develop and grow as fighters.
With his father and brother in his corner, the ‘Kyokushin Kid’ Jamie Eades had despatched both Zane “Hybrid” Hopman and reigning champion TY Williams back to back, itself a significant feat. Against Adesanya, however, his run came to an end. Quickly. Visibly damaged from his earlier fights, both of which went a full three rounds, Eades made his way gingerly to the ring. Six rounds with opponents of the calibre of Hopman and Williams is basically like being in a car crash, and Eades was obviously tender. In contrast, Adesanya was immaculate. As in his opening fight, it was a flying knee which sent Adesanya’s man to the canvas. Bloodied and with significantly more ring time than Alexeichik had when he recovered, Eades stayed down. It was an honorable defeat and yet there was no question of what would have happened had Eades went another round. Not one person in the arena doubted Eades’ formidable toughness and skill, but it was clear who was king. True to form, when interviewed in-ring, live on Sky Arena, Adesanya had a message for the doubters - “I told you so.”
Since taking out the tournament, Adesanya has kept up the pace, flying to China to bring home another victory cheque, taking out an easy victory over a local favourite. Promoter and former world champion Ethan Shepp has secured Adesanya to fight on an upcoming Knees of Fury card in Hamilton against England’s Joe Boobyer and further opportunities await in the Glory World Series. Shepp believes Adesanya is destined for the top.
“He’s a special talent, he’s just got that x-factor. I’ve got no problem saying he is going to be a future world champion.”
For Adesanya, fighting is a lifestyle and, at his current victory rate, a good living too.
“Fighting is life. If you wake up every day, you’re fighting. You get out of bed, you’re fighting.
“All I want to do is eat, sleep, train, repeat.”