By Chuck Mindenhall
Photos by Eric Williams
Styling by Ugo Mozie, Grooming Judith Stevens
Project Manager Lfeanyi Nwune, Assistant Collins Chukwubueze
At 6-foot-4, Israel Adesanya is built like a hallucination—like a long shadow come to life off the wall. He is an angular uprush of energy and power, made up of sharp angles and eye tricks. He can snipe people from great distances and kick a tea saucer off a forehead in one rapid movement. His fight IQ might be the highest in mixed martial arts, as he anticipates (and counters) tendencies better than any other fighter going. In other words, he’s a natural for the cage.
And if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that everything that’s happened to Izzy in the three years he’s dominated the UFC has been carefully premeditated. It started in his first fight with Rob Wilkinson in Perth, Australia, in early 2018, when Adesanya lifted a leg and (symbolically) marked his territory all over the UFC’s Octagon before and after the fight.
What the hell was he doing? He was getting in front of the temptation at the time, that’s what. Having already been an outspoken kickboxing champion before his MMA career, people wanted to compare him to fighters like Anderson Silva or Conor McGregor, UFC superstars who could properly orient the senses to the kind of transcendent talent he was. Adesanya wasn’t having it. Everything he was could be found within the 80-inch wingspan that stretched between the first Izzy Adesanya and the “Last Stylebender.”
So he hiked up his leg to announce his arrival and off he went. Nine straight victories in the UFC in just two-and-a-half years. A middleweight title. Pound-for-pound rankings takeovers. Global superstardom. Sponsorship deals and stacks of cash. As a current resident of New Zealand, he has emerged as the king of Oceania. As a native of Nigeria, he is the firebrand of Africa. As a star in the States, he was pegged to do color commentary for the Mike Tyson-Roy Jones pay-per-view. Izzy’s UFC run has been equal parts meteoric and historic, and he has taken every step in stride, as if he knew how things would play out all along.
In fact, when MMA journalist Ariel Helwani first reached out to Adesanya for an interview, Izzy responded like a man 10 steps ahead of the game. “I’ve been expecting your call,” he deadpanned. As a former professional dancer in his younger days in New Zealand, choreography isn’t just a series of bodily moves for Adesanya—it’s also anticipation of how others dance when they truly hear your music.
Yet in discussing his next step, which is to move up a weight class to take on the much bigger Jan Błachowicz for the light heavyweight title in early 2021, Adesanya says nothing about it was premeditated. Or maybe there was a little subconscious table setting. Sometimes he’s not sure where the cosmos meet up with fate, which is OK so long as he knows he can kick the other guy’s ass.
“I don’t know if fighting Jan was part of the plan, but I think maybe it was?” Adesanya says. “Yeah, it was. It wasn’t part of the plan to take the [205-pound] belt, but I was going to do like Anderson [Silva] and just showcase as a light heavyweight. But you know, now destiny awaits.”
Destiny is a word Adesanya likes, because he truly believes in it. That’s why he never hesitates to fight a guy like Silva, whom he beat just a year after his UFC debut. He’s not afraid to fight a Cuban juggernaut like Yoel Romero, even when the danger-to-upside ratio in facing a beast like that was working severely against him. It’s why he couldn’t wait to fight Paulo Costa, his Brazilian rival who is built like a bodybuilder on Venice Beach. He believes whoever is put in front of him is destined to fail. Including the Polish champion Błachowicz, who will outweigh Adesanya by a good 20 pounds come fight night.
“The universe just threw me the ultimate alley-oop with Jan,” Adesanya says, just as casual as ever. “So I just had to run with it and dunk it. For me, what gets me up in the morning, I need to do things that are dangerous. I just need to do something that’s dangerous, and right now that’s going up to 205 and taking the light heavyweight strap.”
Danger is part of life as a UFC champion, as around every corner there’s a fighter gunning to take you down. From Adesanya’s perspective, even as a champion, it’s been a two-way street. Many times it’s Izzy himself who antagonizes a challenger to egg him on for a fight. He did that with Romero, and he did that with Costa. But one of the reasons people love him so much is that he’s not afraid to poke up, either. Over the last few months Adesanya and former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones have been going at it on Twitter, potentially setting up—at some not-so-distant point in the future—one of the biggest fights in UFC history.
The spindly Adesanya taking on the indomitable Jon Jones? That’s the kind of reckless audacity that made Conor McGregor into such a big deal a few years ago. It also demonstrates the unflinching nature of Adesanya’s self-belief.
“That feud is overrated, to be honest,” he says. “My focus is on Jan right now. Everyone wants to tell me, ‘Jon this, Jon that.’ Jon can focus on what he’s doing. Let him go up to heavyweight. After fucking 11 years in the company, he’s finally doing what I’m doing in three years in the company [by moving up and challenging for a second belt].”
Adesanya grew up a fan of the cult classic Muay Thai film “Ong-Bak.” That’s a fairly expressive place to start, yet the fact that he incorporates cinematic spinning kicks and punches into the literal realm of fighting gives him the vintage feel of a 1970s kung fu film. It helps that he looks the part—a cross between Grace Jones in “Conan the Barbarian” and The Iron Fist.
It’s Adesanya’s depth as a champion that gives him the “it” factor, and over the last few years he has emerged as one of the game’s great storytellers. He speaks his mind succinctly and has a way of curating his own experience on social media. For instance, when a ranking comes out naming him the top pound-for-pound MMA practitioner going, he captions it by saying, “It’s provocative, gets people going…” He speaks of elevation in a grounded way. He is both active participant and observer.
As much as Adesanya loves to poke the bear on social media, his preferred canvas for telling his story is on his own skin. He has tattoos all over his body, from the back of his neck coursing down his legs, across his chest and through his arms, and each one goes into what he refers to as a kind of open biography. “I remember the feeling of getting each one, the feeling of what I was going through in life at the time when I got my tattoos,” he says. “It’s like my own diary in a way, my own storybook. It’s just my story to tell, I guess.”
The stories are varied. Adesanya got his first tattoo when he was around 21, right as he was just getting started as a kickboxer. As his career has grown, so have the murals on his body—some of them done impulsively, others which he got trusting that the meanings would reveal themselves over time. He refers to his first tattoo as his “secret,” as personal “memorabilia for my body.” Really, he says, it was just to “feel the pain” of getting a tattoo and see if tattoos were for him. Turns out they were. He’s been adding art to his body for the last decade, going back to the popular Rod Dawson at Stained Skin Tattoo in Auckland whenever the urge strikes.
There’s the dragon/crocodile figure he got the first half of just before his fight with Derek Brunson at Madison Square Garden. He calls that figure “Kunta Kinte,” based on the figure from Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” He has a tattoo of Toph, his favorite character from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which inspired his “Last Stylebender” nickname. As a big fan of anime, he has the Naruto reaper death seal around his navel. He even has an amazing tattoo of Deadpool going down the length of his rib cage on the side of his body.
“That’s just a cool image,” he says. “If you even look at my character when I fight, if you were to pick someone in the UFC who was a badass, kicks ass and expresses himself unapologetically, Deadpool does that. But honestly, it just looks cool as fuck. It’ll look cool as fuck when I’m 85 or when I’m 102. It’ll always be cool as fuck.”
Most noticeably, though, are the tattoos on his chest. Swinging down his shoulders off his neckline are the words “Broken Native,” which is, paradoxically, a big connection to his past.
“Broken Native, that was the name of a crew of mine from back in the day,” Adesanya says. “I coined the name, and I realized that it embodied my life. Everything I’ve done, you know? I’ve never done things like everyone else that came from where I come from, or even in class in school—I never adhered to whatever everyone else was doing if it didn’t feel right to me. I was always the odd one out. The broken native was just a way of stamping my chest, saying ‘this is the bat amongst doves,’ you know?
“And the tattoo of Africa right underneath, they’re not mutually exclusive,” he continues. “They just happen to juxtapose well together.”
Inside the tattoo of Africa you’ll see a silhouetted lion, along with the country of Nigeria outlined on the west coast.
“The map with the lion inside it and Nigeria outline, that was just a stamp on my chest,” he says. “You know, I have it to represent my people no matter that I live and call New Zealand home. My skin already says that enough, because I’m Black, but I stamp it on my chest and my people, my heritage, my ancestry, my bloodline, the warrior race that I come from is stamped on my chest. So people recognize a king when they see one.”
There’s not a single drop of ink that Adesanya says he regrets, though instinctively some of the tattoos he got for one reason or another have begun to report back with bigger meanings. Just as he suspected they would.
“I’ll give you an example of that,” he says. “I’m born on the 22nd of July, on the cusp of Cancer and Leo. I’ve got the Naruto reaper death seal on my navel. Inside that I have two of the characters from ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’ the Ocean and Moon spirits—two koi fish that swim around each other in a circle, kind of like the yin and yang. I had an epiphany three weeks ago where I realized, ‘Holy shit—I had my star signs tattooed on me without even realizing I did it.’
“I have the lion on my chest,” Adesanya continues. “That’s me when you see me fight. That’s the Leo coming forth, the guy who takes charge, who’s sure of himself. And then you look at my navel, and I have the two koi fish which look like the Cancer symbol, the star sign. They’re just chasing each other’s tail. It looks like an expression of the Cancer symbol. I realized that while I was stoned and I was going super deep on myself. I was like, ‘Whoa, I actually did this before I realized what it was.’”
The tattoos reveal themselves along with the man, and right now Adesanya is The Man. Should he win the light heavyweight title from Błachowicz, he will join the rare group of dual-division champions in the UFC. After that he doesn’t have a plan. Or, maybe he has an inkling of what happens next, just as he’s had an inkling all along. Maybe it’ll be that fight with Jon Jones. Or maybe it’ll be to defend the middleweight title, the weight class he doesn’t have any intention of straying too far from.
In any case, it’s all unfolding as it should for a man who can genuinely be called a fight game original.