Israel Adesanya

The Nigerian-born Kiwi made his UFC debut in 2018 and took the middleweight title the following year. We look back at how “The Last Stylebender” announced himself in style in 2018, making his Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award at the 2019 Fighters Only World MMA Awards a formality.

Adesanya burst onto the world stage in 2018 when he made his UFC debut at UFC 221 in Perth Australia. The fighter showed few nerves and he made light work of Rob Wilkinson whom he finished in the second with a flurry of strikes. Just nine weeks later, Adesanya returned to the Octagon and defeated Marvin Vettori via unanimous decision in another dominant display.

Not willing to rest on his laurels, Adesanya then headlined his first fight in Las Vegas where he dismantled veteran Brad Tavares and defeated him convincingly on the scorecards during International Fight Week 2018. Adesanya’s reward was then a fight with Derek Brunson at Madison Square Garden and once again he rose to the occasion and destroyed his much more experienced opponent via TKO in the first round.

It was a year that will long live in the memory of UFC fans worldwide and was enough to convince the MMA community to vote Adesanya the winner of 2019’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award.

Speaking at the ceremony in Las Vegas, Adesanya explained why the award meant a lot to him.

“Back in the day, in my one-bedroom apartment, I used to be an avid reader of Fighters Only and I had a huge stack of them that I’ve kept to this very day,” Adesanya recalled, addressing the Las Vegas crowd. “This is very cool to get this and an incredible honor. I started in the UFC in just February last year and it took me a little over a year to become a champion. Not many people do that and I’m appreciative, I’m grateful to be in this business.”

The World MMA Awards attracted the biggest names in the sport to celebrate the achievements of fighters all around the world. Being there for the first time, Adesanya was clearly proud to be in such prestigious company and to have been recognized by both the public and his peers for his accomplishments in 2018, but he was not overawed by the experience.

“Tonight is all about everyone in the MMA community coming together and looking at what we’ve all achieved as a sport and it’s great to play a big part in that,” Adesanya said. “It was amazing to be nominated for two awards but to come home with one, man, that was just a really special moment for me. To also have my gym, City Kickboxing, recognized and nominated on the same night, it was just incredible.”

Having gone 4-0 and also featured in high profile fights in Las Vegas and New York, Adesanya had a debut year that will forever be perceived as one of the greatest in UFC history. After clocking up valuable time in the Octagon as well as finishing two of his fights in style, some would say it was the perfect year and Adesanya wouldn’t disagree.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything about the way things went in 2018,” Adesanya said. “There are variables in this game where you have to adapt and I felt like I adapted and overcame them very well over the year. To win four times and to win at somewhere like Madison Square Garden, it almost sounds too good to be true.

“Winning the award just shows that I’m doing everything that I said I was going to do,” he continued. “I already have the interim title and I’m about to fight and unify later this year. I believe I’m the one making this division exciting again so I’m just super happy with that. Winning Breakthrough Fighter of the Year to me just shows that I’m letting everybody in the division know exactly what’s up.”

His prediction proved correct, of course as he stopped Robert Whittaker in the second round of their epic contest at UFC 243 and he has since gone on to defend the belt successfully three times. His rule over the middleweight division shows no sign of coming to a premature end.

Behind every great fighter, there’s almost always a strong team. City Kickboxing Gym in Auckland, New Zealand also had an incredible year with the likes of Dan Hooker, Shane Young and Kai Kara-France also picking up wins under the UFC banner. Adesanya believes that much of their success is down to the gym’s inspirational head coach, Eugene Bareman and the way he cultivates a culture of true martial arts.

“Our record in the UFC right now is 11-1,” Adesanya said. “We’re just a little gym from a corner of the world in New Zealand and we’re owning the game. I think it just speaks volumes about what we’re doing and a large part of that is down to Eugene because he’s not afraid to hire experts and incredibly intelligent coaches to come into our team and help us and that’s a big thing. Not every coach is man enough to do that.

“Eugene is all about creating a family through martial arts,” he continued. “A lot of fighters these days treat their coaches like their teachers and they need to be told to turn up on time or to clean the mats. With Eugene he’s our sensei, he’s our leader and we have that respect for him like true martial artists. We keep the code of martial arts in our gym and I think that’s why all of us are tightly bonded.”

Bareman’s influence spreads wider than what plays out in the Octagon. Adesanya paid tribute to the guidance he’s been given from his head coach as he’s progressed through the ranks and he believes it’s played a significant role in his development and success.

“Coming up in the game, Eugene has been like a big brother to me and he’s taught me about life,” Adesanya reflected. “Before the UFC, when I was struggling for direction in my life he helped me out a lot. There were times when I felt like I wouldn’t make it in this game and he was always there to pick me up and let me know that I would.”

Adesanya’s busy schedule continued into 2019 and after beating Anderson Silva in February he went on to challenge Kelvin Gastelum for the interim UFC middleweight title. The fight itself was an epic five-round war where both men had their moments where they came close to finishing the fight. Ultimately, it was Adesanya who went on to get his hand raised via unanimous decision and looking back on it now, he believes it was one of the greatest UFC title fights of all time.

“I think that fight will go down in history as one of the best fights ever,” Adesanya said. “The fight was like a movie with all the moves, the spins, the drama. Both of us got knocked down and got back up. Kelvin had never been dropped before and he’s Mexican, tough as nails. I dropped him more than anyone ever has in a title fight. It really was like a movie. You can’t write that s***.”

Having beaten Robert Whittaker to unify the title, Adesanya remains undefeated as a middleweight (his one loss to date came at light heavyweight against Jan Blachowicz). A long winning streak has previously proven to be a burden to others in combat sports, but even in 2019 Adesanya was philosophical and unafraid at the thought of losing.

“Look, I lose every day in the gym,” Adesanya said. “I get tapped out every day and I lose sparring rounds. That’s what makes me get better though. I’m not afraid to try out new techniques and I never want to be one of those guys that just wants to be the best guy in the gym and be the superstar. I’m always improving and training with guys that kick my ass so that when it’s time to shine, I shine like a diamond.”

With the Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award in the bag, Adesanya now has his sights set on making 2019 just as successful. Awards, trophies and belts will forever be something he strives for, but Adesanya is a fighter who clearly values the journey more than the outcome.

“For me, recognition like this is just cool to have,” Adesanya said. “I don’t live for these rewards though. I have the same attitude towards the belt and keep saying to everybody ‘F*** the belt.’ It’s all about just having new challenges and creating memories like my last fight.

“I appreciate the awards like I won this evening, but they aren’t what motivate me,” he continued. “The Fighter of the Year award will come to me because of the hard work that I’m putting in now. You can count on that.”

Jim Edwards