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How Israel Adesanya Transformed Himself Into a New Kind of MMA Star

The former middleweight champ has already reshaped the sport—no matter what happens in the ring.

January 24, 2023

Vest (throughout), $2,860, by Louis Vuitton Men’s. T-shirt, $30, by Puma. Jeans, $2,495, by Diesel. Belt, $395, by Moschino. Sunglasses, $685, by Balenciaga. Earring, his own. Necklace, $90, by Vitaly. His own gloves by Engage Fightwear.

Israel Adesanya, former UFC middleweight champion, is the most beautiful striker the sport has ever seen. Even at the highest level, the vast majority of MMA fights tend to be sloppy and hard to watch; by the third round, punches and kicks flop through the air like you’re watching a battle between inflatable tube men inviting you to take advantage of low introductory APRs. Adesanya, on the other hand, is precise. Surgical. At a lithe 6ft 4in, he moves with the fluidity of a Tekken character and possesses the hip mobility of a newborn baby. His kicks will flare up at one angle only to radically change trajectory at the last second, tracing an arc around your guard to smack you in the neck. He flows from one uncanny movement into the next, as if floating. If MMA—a chaotic, gruesome, theatrical sport—is balletic violence, Adesanya is prima assoluta.

One secret to his groovy mechanics? The 2005 David LaChappelle documentary Rize, about an aggressive style of hip hop dance called crumping, which, when it came out, inspired young Izzy to dance. “Something about crump just spoke to my spirit,” says Adesanya, “that rawness.” It’s his willingness to borrow from different disciplines that holds the key to his 23-2 MMA record, one of the things that sets him apart from his peers. “Flow, creativity, and open-mindedness,” he says. “To this day, I don’t care if you’ve trained for two years. If you show me something interesting, I’m like, yeah, I’ll try it.” 

Pants 1210 by Rick Owens. Headband price upon request by Puma. Necklaces  necklace  90 by Vitaly. Necklace  stylist's...

Pants, $1,210, by Rick Owens. Headband, price upon request, by Puma. Necklaces (from top): necklace (top), $90, by Vitaly. Necklace (middle), stylist’s own. Necklace (bottom), his own. Grills, his own, by Ben Baller. Gloves, his own, by Engage Fightwear. 

It’s a cold October morning in New York, a few days before his UFC 281 championship fight with his old foe Alex Pereira, when Adesanya, 33, and I sit in a lounge outside the photography studio to chat, his bodyguard not far away. (“My security’s not for my protection,” says Adesanya. “It’s for other people.”) In person he reads as taller than his listed height suggests, with broad shoulders and disproportionately long, sturdy feet, like he could wear trainer socks as no-shows. He rolls onto set with a gaggle of friends from his native New Zealand, one of whom is recording everything for Adesanya’s YouTube channel, FreestyleBender—a play on his nickname—where he “reacts to insane” UFC cards and offers free game, like detailed tutorials breaking down his own techniques.

That Adesanya is a professional fighter-turned-content creator in an ecosystem where content creators are reinventing themselves as fighters is instructive, because Adesanya represents something both aberrational and seemingly inevitable. In the often-regressive world of the UFC, Adesanya is a truly modern athlete—a thoughtful, funny, pearls-and-sneakers-wearing millennial who blurs whatever distinctions might still remain between jocks and nerds. An Izzy phrase like “I opened the fifth gate like Rock Lee” might as well read as ancient Babylonian to anyone born before 1985, but to a large subset of anime-fluent millennials and zoomers, it’s not only perfectly legible, but succinctly captures Adesanya’s whole vibe.

Jeans 2495 by Diesel. Sneakers 90 by Puma. Earrings his own. His own gloves by Engage Fightwear.

Jeans, $2,495, by Diesel. Sneakers, $90, by Puma. Earrings, his own. His own gloves by Engage Fightwear.

Grills his own by Ben Baller.

Grills, his own, by Ben Baller.

Adesanya was born in Nigeria, the oldest of five brothers and sisters. His father was an accountant, his mother a nurse. The family briefly moved to Ghana before they put down roots in New Zealand, where Adesanya was one of the few Black kids in his class.

He wasn’t much of an athlete. Tall and skinny, but he sucked at basketball and football. He took a little bit of tae kwon do as an adolescent, but what he really excelled at was table tennis, which he picked up in Accra. “That hand-eye coordination,” he says.

Adesanya really started to come into his own at high school. Particularly after he decided to try out for the school talent show by dancing to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson. “It’s a long song and I danced the whole thing,” says Adesanya. “And, uh, I shouldn’t have, in hindsight. I definitely should have cut it short. But I didn’t know how to perform or have stage presence. So I just got on stage and then people were like, ‘The fuck is he doing on stage? What are you going to do?’”

And then, in a moment of spontaneity, Adesanya hit a wave with his body. Energy flowing into his fingertips, cresting through his arms and shoulders, and then out the other side. The people who were privy to his audition were blown away, and in that moment, Adesanya realized that he could use his body to change how other people felt about him. That he could use his body to perform. “I could move them and make them react to what I was doing,” he says.

He performed in the actual talent show a week later, and ended up winning the whole thing. “I killed that one,” says Adesanya. “Won a hundred bucks.”

When he turned 18, he watched a movie that would change the  trajectory of his life: Ong-Bak, the cult martial arts film from Thailand starring Tony Jaa. Unlike the elegantly choreographed fight scenes in the wuxia films coming out of Shanghai, Jaa brought a  brutal realism to the screen thanks to his background in Muay Thai, using knees, elbows and leg kicks to beat opponents goofy.

Adesanya was enamored by Jaa’s hardness. He researched a local Muay Thai gym and attended his first class, where it was quickly revealed that he was a natural. “The coach there was looking at me because he held the kick shield, and he wanted me to roundhouse kick it,” explains Adesanya. So he kicked it. The coach’s face lit up like he’d just struck gold. “And I remember he was like, ‘Again.’”

Bracelet  21500 and bracelet  32000 by David Yurman. Ring  8400 by David Yurman.

Bracelet (left), $21,500, and bracelet (right), $32,000, by David Yurman. Ring (on right hand), $8,400, by David Yurman.

Most practitioners train for two or three years before competing, before taking their first fight. Adesanya took one just six weeks later—and won. His fighting career took off from there. He’d spend hours on YouTube, studying the sport’s legends like Buakaw—particularly a highlight reel titled “The Dog from Bangkok”—and other kickboxers like Thiago Alves, who was in the UFC, and Ray Sefo in K1. Adesanya would soon spend the next decade-plus of his career dominating the kickboxing world. He’d amass a record of 75 wins and five losses—the two most significant defeats coming at the hands of his nemesis Alex Pereira, the “Poatan.” The mountain. The unconquered.

Pereira, an indigenous fighter from Brazil, is a formidable opponent for Adesanya. On paper he’s just as tall and long, at 6ft 4in, but is somehow much larger. He walks around at 230 pounds, and, over the course of a few weeks in fight camp, somehow pulls off an extreme weight cut down to middleweight at 185 pounds before rehydrating for the fight.

It’s Pereira’s left hand that’s a unique kind of nightmare, however (his nickname comes from the Tupi-Guarani words for “stone hands”). He isn’t quite on Adesanya’s level in terms of finesse, but he possesses scary power—four of his five UFC victories have ended in KOs. So it goes with Pereira: tough, skulking, looking for the death blow.

Beating the Poatan has long been Izzy’s white whale. Pereira’s first kickboxing victory over Adesanya, in 2016, was a controversial split decision. In their rematch the following year, Pereira knocked him out with a left hook. In 2017, Adesanya made the jump to MMA; in 2021, the UFC officially signed Pereira, too, setting them both up for a third fight at UFC 281, this time for the middleweight throne.

“I like being in this position. This is where I thrive,” Adesanya told me before the fight. “I put all the pressure on myself and I have all the pressure of the world on me as well. But I thrive in this position. I mean, this is what greatness is about. If you really want to be great, you have to do things that challenge you. That challenge your mind.”

Madison Square Garden, a warm night in October, plumes of vape smoke rising to the rafters. The main event starts a little after midnight. Pereira enters first, to a doomy tribal incantation. Adesanya, the overwhelming Garden favorite, enters next, walking serenely out to an orchestral rendition of the Jigsaw theme from Saw.

Tank top 590 by Amiri. Pants 5425 by Versace. Sneakers 65 by Puma. Ring his own. Earring his own. His own gloves by...

Tank top, $590, by Amiri. Pants, $5,425, by Versace. Sneakers, $65, by Puma. Ring, his own. Earring, his own. His own gloves by Engage Fightwear.

Over the next four rounds, Adesanya seems to have an edge over Pereira, slipping punches, roughing him up with jabs and leg kicks. A right cross followed by a tricky left hook wobbles Pereira at the end of round one, but he’s saved by the bell. By the time the fifth and final round rolls around, the match is all but Izzy’s to lose. Pereira knows he needs to go for the knockout, and starts stalking Izzy like a Terminator on a mission to avert a nuclear war.

Then, with two minutes to go, Pereira stuns Izzy with a left hook and quickly proceeds to jump all over him. A flurry ensues. The referee calls  a stoppage (which would later prove controversial, as it was maybe a beat too early) and the shock ripples through the Garden crowd as we collectively try to process what just happened. To my right, a teenaged Izzy fan, there with his dad, starts bawling.

Here he is: Alex Pereira, the new UFC world middleweight champion.

For most fighters, losing three fights to an opponent you should have beaten would be devastating. But something remarkable happens. In the post-fight press conference, Adesanya, wearing a big fur coat that would put Jon Snow to shame, adopts a surprising stance for an MMA fighter: gratitude.

“I’m grateful,” says Adesanya, when a reporter asks how he’s feeling. Although his every killer synapse was just activated at the highest level, he seems at peace. “What a life. What a moment. What a crazy ending, similar to the last time. The same story.”

Perhaps the most modern thing about a competitor like Israel Adesanya isn’t that he wears pearls and loves anime and appears on Hot Ones. It’s that in the UFC, an organization that often courses with fusty machismo and Monster Energy fumes, he chooses to practice a radical form of vulnerability, and therefore acceptance.

“For me, [getting knocked out], it frees me, because I’m like, oh, what’s the worst that can happen? Oh wait, it did. How was I afterwards? I was fine. Easy,” Adesanya said before the fight. “It frees me completely. Because I’m like, if it happens again, I’ll be fine.”

How Israel Adesanya Transformed Himself Into a New Kind of MMA Star

Chris Gayomali is GQ’s articles editor

Photographs By Julius Frazer
Styled By Brandon Tan
Grooming by Valissa Yoe using Armani Skincare 
Tailoring by Ksenia Golub

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