The man who shaped Adesanya
Kiwi fighter has had a crucial influence in his corner, reports Mat Kermeen.
For all his flair and flamboyance, it’s hard to imagine UFC middleweight title contender Israel Adesanya not making a striking first impression.
But the man behind his rise to a UFC title shot says there was little to get excited about when he watched Adesanya get ‘‘annihilated’’ in his first mixed martial arts (MMA) fight a decade ago.
If Eugene Bareman wasn’t such a straight shooter, it would be easy to doubt his tale of when he first set eyes on the middleweight sensation who now has seemingly unbreakable confidence.
Hours upon hours of hard graft in the gym with extreme dedication from Adesanya and Bareman will be rewarded with an interim UFC title shot against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 in Atlanta today.
The middleweight interim title will officially be on the line following Adesanya (16-0) and Gastelum (15-3) both making the 185lb (83.9kg) limit yesterday.
Adesanya, who has had just five fights in the UFC after making his debut in February, 2018, tipped the scales at 183lb (83kg) and Gastelum 184lb (83.4kg) but it’s the Nigeria-born Kiwi who has a significant height and reach advantage.
He’s talked a big game all week as he fights to become the first New Zealander to win a UFC title
but Adesanya – who received the biggest reception from the crowd at the weigh-in despite being the co-main event for Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier’s interim lightweight title bout – was ready to get down to business when he addressed the crowd.
‘‘I’m tired of talking, who wants to see a fight?’’
Thousands of fans yelling Adesanya’s name is a far cry from his first amateur MMA fight in Auckland a decade ago.
As a favour to a kickboxing friend, Bareman agreed to corner a kid who had come up from Whanganui.
It was a historic night with Bareman cornering the future UFC star for the first time but it wasn’t memorable.
‘‘It was a terrible fight. He got annihilated,’’ Bareman told Stuff.
But with his athleticism and long body, Adesanya showed some signs of promise.
Bareman shook Adesanya’s hand, handed on some advice and said goodbye – not expecting to see him again.
But around six months later, Adesanya – who had packed up his life into a car and driven more than five hours from Whanganui – arrived at Bareman’s City Kickboxing gym in central Auckland. Bareman, who prefers to stay out of the limelight wherever possible, describes that trip as a ‘‘life-changing decision’’. When he arrived, Bareman told Adesanya he was welcome to train there but set him free to try out a few other Auckland gyms first.
‘‘That’s how fighting works. You’ve got to find the right gym for the personality.’’
But Adesanya felt he clicked best with City Kickboxing and soon returned. It wasn’t long before Bareman saw something special.
‘‘That moment came when he had his first kickboxing fight for the gym,’’ Bareman said.
‘‘He fought a guy that was much more experienced than him and he took the guy apart and while he was doing that he was entertaining the crowd.
‘‘That’s when I thought man this kid is really talented.’’
At that point, it became clear that Adesanya was capable and had the desire to reach the UFC and long-term goals and plans were nutted out between the pair.
For all of Adesanya’s natural athleticism, none of his success has come by accident. It was built on a meticulous and, at times, painstaking foundation of hard work on every MMA discipline.
‘‘I’m more proud of him for what he’s achieved outside of the ring. It takes a lot of work to get to this point but he keeps on putting in,’’ Bareman said.
Adesanya went on to carve out successful careers in kickboxing and boxing as he built experience towards the ultimate goal of UFC. He amassed a reported 75-4 professional kickboxing record and was 5-1 as a professional boxer.
Bareman and Adesanya turned down the UFC almost two years before his debut to keep developing and gain more experience.
‘‘It didn’t hurt us either because we were able to keep building value and we had something to take to the table when we went back to the UFC.
The pair are now hopeful they will have the middleweight interim belt to take back to the negotiating table for Adesanya’s next fight and if he does lift the belt in Atlanta it is likely that next fight will be a unification bout with New Zealand-born, Australia-based UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.
* Mat Kermeen travelled to Atlanta with assistance from UFC.
Israel Adesanya lands a kick on Brazil’s Anderson Silva during their Melbourne bout in February.