Sunday News

‘M agpie’ Sty lebender becomes

Controvers­ial fighting champ Israel Adesanya tells Adam Dudding why he allowed a documentar­y team to lay all his secrets bare.


“Mic check. One two …” Israel Adesanya is helping me confirm my recorder’s working. “Testicles. Test. Test. Test. Test. Test.” The recorder’s working just fine – and five words into the interview, before it’s even started really, Adesanya has announced himself: emphatical­ly male; slightly juvenile; kinda funny. Ready to entertain or provoke or irritate – and not really bothered which way it lands.

He’s talking to Sunday News becausea feature-length film about him, Stylebende­r, is about to be released. The director, Zöe McIntosh, is here too.

Stylebende­r is absorbing and impressive, and got a screening at New York’s prestigiou­s Tribeca Film Festival. I’m very interested in how McIntosh and her team got so close to Adesanya and his longtime mentor Eugene Bareman and followed them for years; how McIntosh built a rich visual style that takes it way beyond a simple combat-sport fly-on-the-wall; how this film connects to McIntosh’s back-catalogue of films that focus on charismati­c weirdos who swim against the tide.

But I’ve inevitably prepped far more questions for the film’s star: the Kiwi who’s reached the top ranks of the big-money Ultimate Fighting Championsh­ip (UFC); the guy with 8.4 million Instagram followers; the guy who hangs out with Zuck and who once lost a big brand deal with BMW.

Before all that though, I want to hear from Israel Adesanya about his bling.

There are diamonds in his earrings, and more on the huge ring on his left pinkie.

“I just saw it one time in Michael Hill and I’m like a magpie; I like shiny things. So I was like, ‘Oooooh, I do!’”

The diamonds are real, although “I used to rock CZs [cubic zirconia] back in the day, when I couldn’t afford them.”

The pearl necklace? It’s almost his trademark. He saw a black male model wearing pearls once and has worn them since, occasional­ly adding a diamond chain. They look great on black skin. Also, he likes “that it pisses some people off. People are like, ‘it's for girls,’ and I'm like ‘well, said who?’”

Then there’s the big gold watch.

“It’s a Rolex. My first Rolex. I’ve always wanted one. It's a sign of success I guess, for most people, because most people work their lives to get one of these.”

Adesanya is 34. On the day we meet, he’s the UFC middleweig­ht champion and fifth in the “pound-for-pound” ranking spanning all weight-classes (though both those facts will change just nine days later). A recent estimate put his fights-only earnings in the 12 months to August 2023 as $8.4m – and then there are the brand deals. He owns houses all over New Zealand and says he’s currently trying to buy some in Las Vegas.

He won’t say what all this adds up to, but “Dad told me two years ago what I was worth and my jaw hit the ground”.

It’s midday on a Friday in early September. Adesanya, McIntosh and I have squeezed into a booth at an empty nightclub in Fort Lane in central Auckland, mostly because Stuff visual journalist David White thought Roxy would be a good spot for photos before the interview, with winter light spilling onto a distressed-concrete stairwell.

When White asks Adesanya to move down a few steps for a different angle, the fighter has an obvious hobble. I ask if he’s sore and he just laughs.

“It’s part of the game.”

His next fight is nine days away – defending his middleweig­ht title against American Sean Strickland. Training tapers before a big fight, but he had a sparring session this morning at Bareman’s gym, City Kickboxing, and he’s knackered. This afternoon he’ll rest at home in Remuera.

The nightclub’s owner offers drinks all round. “I’ll take a cocktail,” says Adesanya. “Get me a pornstar martini please.”

The owner finds this hilarious and replays the conversati­on: “Wanna beer bro?” (in a manly growl), then “I’ll have a pornstar martini!” (effeminate squeak).

“Thanks man!” says Adesanya, with a grin. “Appreciate ya!”

A pornstar martini, he explains, is “delicious! I don’t drink beer. I’m not one ofthose grrrrrr men. Bourbon is the most manly drink I can stomach. I like sweet drinks. I mean who wants to drink something called ‘bitter’?”

It’s the kind of thing that keeps coming up in McIntosh’s documentar­y. Adesanya moves in a world of macho macho men, where fighters talk smack and smack each other about, but he enjoys underminin­g it. Besides the pearls and unmanly drinks, he gets his nails done. He goes to therapy.

Not that you should mistake Adesanya for some sort of gender studies 101 student. This is a guy who’s also expressed enthusiasm for reactionar­y intellectu­al Jordan Peterson and misogynist­ic influencer and alleged rapist Andrew Tate.

“I didn’t want this film to be used, especially in this day and age, with the whole super-woke agenda of transgende­rism and kids. I didn't want people to be like, ‘Oh, another f…ing woke film about boys painting their nails’. No, that’s not what

I’m saying. All I’m saying is: Don't even be like me – be like you. Just express yourself authentica­lly as you – whatever the f… that means for you.”

Israel Adesanya was born to a well-off family in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1989, first of five children. In 2001 the family moved to New Zealand to improve the children’s educationa­l opportunit­ies. They ended up in Rotorua, where Adesanya learnt for the first time that being Black was something that could get you bullied. He earned street cred and relief from school bullies, by proving to be a talented breakdance­r and krumper. Then he discovered martial arts: muay thai, kickboxing and eventually MMA.

Fast forward a decade and he’d abandoned a graphic design degree, moved to Auckland, persuaded Eugene Bareman to take him on, demonstrat­ed extraordin­ary determinat­ion, won fights, signed with the

UFC, been anointed 2020’s sportsman of the year at the Halberg Awards, and ended up with McIntosh’s film crew on his shoulder as he blew up from quite big in 2019 to absolutely massive in 2022.

That line connecting a bullied little kid to a swaggering, trash-talking UFC fighter is partly what drew McIntosh in. She’s fascinated by characters who face an “inherent struggle”, and “those struggles that happened to you when you're young are so formative of your adult life”.

Some of the most powerful scenes in Stylebende­r are of Adesanya’s counsellin­g with “possibilit­y manager” Janet Redmond, where the pair unpick the ways in which his fighting may or may not reverse the powerlessn­ess young Israel felt while being dangled over a school urinal.

Adesanya agrees bullying informed his career, but also: “I loved fighting. I loved Jackie Chan. I loved video games.”

There’s a thing that happens in the leadup to a fight, says Adesanya, where his personalit­y shifts and he becomes less available. “Early on, my mum would be offended but now she understand­s. I had to explain to her: ‘Mum, I’m going to war; there’s a war within, and sometimes I might not be able to respond to your call. It’s not a slight at you’. Now she understand­s

– smart woman – and she doesn’t bother me about it.”

I’ve watched more MMA clips in the past fortnight than the rest of my life and yep, at times it does look like war. Sometimes, though, it looks like two exhausted, bloodied young men dragging their injured bodies around a small playground and occasional­ly kicking each other. I don’t suppose I’ll ever quite get it.

But Adesanya’s vast global audience does. And satisfying their needs goes far beyond fighting like a champ a handful of times a year. At one point I’m mid-question when Adesanya lifts his phone and pans around the room.

I lose my thread and he chuckles: “You’re fine, you’re fine. It’s a little … for my TikTok or something later on.”

He posts the video for his one million Tiktok followers later that day.

Adesanya makes fame look fun. He enjoys the weird perks. Exhibit 1: the photo Mark Zuckerburg posted of himself posing alongside Adesanya and fellow fighter Alexander Volkanovsk­i during an MMA sparring session at Lake Tahoe.

“That was dope,” says Adesanya. “That was one of those break-the-internet moments. Me and Mark, we text. If I need to talk to him I can text.”

Same with Dwayne Johnson.

“Me and The Rock! I don’t abuse these privileges or go “Hey bro, how’s your day going?’ But if I need to talk to him I can just… ” – he mimes texting – “‘Hey man!’ And that’s f–ing cool!” Fame can also suck. In December Adesanya was with his siblings in Whanganui. It was Christmas time, and there were plans to go to a bar. When Adesanya asked where they were heading, his brother’s face fell.

“He was like, ‘Uugh’, and I’m like, ‘What?’, but that reaction just told mewhatitwa­s.Itwas like, ‘If you come, then it’s going to be …’” Adesanya trails off.

“I felt upset. I was just like, oh my siblings don’t want to hang out with me. Cos everyone just wants to talk to me.”

Out for lunch, say, the family will be trying to banter among themselves, but with fans clamouring to be near him, “there’s a whole energy system overhead directed at me, and they often just sit there and watch, and it gets boring.

“No one wants to sit and watch me get: ‘Oh my God. You’re the man. Oh you inspire me!’

“You want to say, ‘Look, I don’t give a f– about you to be honest. I give a f– about my family.

Another downside to super-sized fame: super-sized consequenc­es when you say something dumb.

UFC overflows with trash talk: hyperbolic threats and beefs spouted during weigh-ins or interviews. In March 2021 Adesanya aimed some invective at US middleweig­ht Kevin Holland, including the line: “Bro, I will f–n rape you.”

The comment was widely condemned, but Adesanya didn’t want to apologise.

McIntosh’s coverage of the behind-thescenes meltdown that followed is gripping. She never gave creative control to the star of her film, and these scenes prove her assertion that “it’s not a promo puff piece”.

“What's beautiful about the film is you’re seeing all these facets to Israel and it's not censored,” says McIntosh.

“I think prior to me filming, Israel was probably used to doing fight promo stuff. And I kept saying, ‘Hey in order for this film to resonate and have a universal audience, we really need to be going beyond the fight themes and go deeper.’

“And to Eugene and Izzy's credit they


“You really do see warts and all of these characters.”

Eventually, Adesanya walked back on his comment via an Instagram post, and things settled down. Two years on, though, Adesanya still won’t describe that post as an “apology”.

“I wasn’t sorry, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

He says he was simply trash-talking “another guy who was talking some shit back to me”.

Does he accept, perhaps, that with his millions of avid followers, he has some responsibi­lity to choose his words carefully; not to belittle the power of the word “rape”, for example?

“How did I belittle it? It’s violence. What I do is very violent.”

Well exactly. And using the word “rape” is sexualisin­g that violence, which doesn’t seem ideal.

“It wasn’t sexual at all. I was just trying to tell him I’m going to own you against your will, without your consent. And I just said it in a quicker way without using those exact words.”

We go back and forth a little, but I suspect we’re not going to get much further relitigati­ng a two-years-old social-media scuffle. At the time, deputy PM Grant Robertson said there was “never a time” to make flippant comments about rape. BMW called off a planned brand ambassador­ship. The fuss briefly drove a wedge between Adesanya and Bareman.

So I doubt, as McIntosh, Adesanya and I sit chatting in a deserted nightclub with an empty pornstar martini glass and my little list of questions, that UFC’s poundfor-pound number five is going to have his mind changed by me right now.

“Well,” says Adesanya, ever-willing to argue the toss.

“You actually can. I like to listen. If you give me new informatio­n and it makes sense to me, boom, in a moment you’ll see a paradigm shift.”

He then tells of the time he was on Mike Tyson’s podcast Hotboxin’ and Tyson insisted Adesanya was a “role model” and Adesanya argued he wasn’t, then they disagreed about the definition of “role model”, and Adesanya was unsure but he was listening and thinking, and that evening, “back in the AirBnB, I texted him going like, ‘You’re right!’ because I had time to sit down and think about it myself.”

Which is good to hear.

There’s no question Israel Adesanya likes to do his own thinking. But Mike Tyson must be a bit more persuasive than me, because it’s been a while now, and

I’ve still not received a text from Israel Adesanya telling me I’m right.

All I’m saying is: Don’t even be like me – be like you. Just express yourself authentica­lly as you – whatever the f… that means for you.”

Israel Adesanya

On September 10, in a surprise result, Israel Adesanya lost his middleweig­ht championsh­ip to Sean Strickland at UFC 293 in Sydney causing his pound-for-pound ranking to drop four places to 9th.

Stylebende­r is on general release from September 28.

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 ?? PHOTOS: DAVID WHITE / STUFF, INSTAGRAM, SUPPLIED ?? Israel Adesanya with Zöe McIntosh, director of the new feature documentar­y Stylebende­r.
PHOTOS: DAVID WHITE / STUFF, INSTAGRAM, SUPPLIED Israel Adesanya with Zöe McIntosh, director of the new feature documentar­y Stylebende­r.
 ?? ?? A scene from Stylebende­r: Adesanya enjoys underminin­g assumption­s about machismo and masculinit­y.
A scene from Stylebende­r: Adesanya enjoys underminin­g assumption­s about machismo and masculinit­y.
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 ?? ?? Adesanya with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and UFC’s Alexander Volkanovsk­i, in their “break-the-internet” moment.
Adesanya with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and UFC’s Alexander Volkanovsk­i, in their “break-the-internet” moment.
 ?? ?? Israel Adesanya at the Stylebende­r premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival with his parents Femi, left, and Taiwo.
Israel Adesanya at the Stylebende­r premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival with his parents Femi, left, and Taiwo.

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