As the most notorious figures in boxing and mixed martial arts collided in The Money Fight this weekend, Don Rowe sat down for a few beers with with Israel Adesanya, a multi-sport veteran of almost 100 fights, to talk about fame, defeat and the realities of a sport centred around dishing out brain damage. Supported by Garage Project. Photography by Joel Thomas.
New Zealand has always punched above our weight in combat sports. From David Tua in boxing, to Ray Sefo and Mark Hunt in Japan’s k1, Kiwis have excelled on the world stage when, by the holy rule of population size, they simply shouldn’t. Now that foundation has produced a new generation of athletes who are inhumanly tough. And they’re starting to take over the game.
Auckland’s City Kickboxing is a gladiator camp of athletes literally making a living with their hands. Every weekend they’re in China, Turkey, Australia, the United States. A mercenary existence, cracking skulls for money. Israel Adesanya has led the charge.
He’s a fashion model, regular podcaster, undefeated mixed martial artist, and rightful Glory world kickboxing champion. He’s obsessed with cartoons, dancing and his dog Millionaire. He’s brash, flashy and rubs more than a few people the wrong way.
In 2015 he won six fights and more than $20,000 in just three days across kickboxing and boxing – all at a weight division above his own. And all within a week of losing his best friend. I was ringside, sitting just behind Israel’s parents. After assassinating Australian heavyweight Dan Roberts, who outweighed him by around 10 kilos, with a single punch, Adesanya walked to his parents, kissed his mum and embraced his dad. “One more”.
It wasn’t just one more to victory, or one more to the $10,000, but one more to honouring the memory of Jamie van der Kuijl, who was killed in a rural car accident, and proving beyond any doubt his mental strength. It was the most powerful – and intimate – moment I’ve witnessed in sports.
And so who better to watch Mayweather vs McGregor – the ultimate ‘who would win’ martial arts nerd fantasy, flavoured with all the excess both good and bad of show business and prize fighting: the drama, the athleticism, the showmanship and, of course, the violence.
We met in time for the main event. The bar was split clean down the middle with average joes and pro fighters, mostly distinguishable by the bling. Adesanya mimicked McGregor as he walked to the ring, hands up as if the battle was already won. By the opening anthems he had tucked his gold chains beneath a Nike shirt, itself tucked into his jeans Bruce Lee-style. He was shadow boxing before the bell and borderline manic as the fight began and McGregor took an early lead.
By the tenth round as McGregor slowed, Adesanya looked tired himself. But, as with McGregor, he was smiling even in defeat – happy that martial arts had proved its place as a sport absolutely capable of transcending into pop culture, and elevating athletes to the status of gods.
Well, what do you make of that?
This was my rugby world cup, my superbowl. And my team lost. But, I’m still repping the team. I’m not taking off my jersey off and switching sides. Nobody likes Mayweather, I don’t like him personally, but as a martial artist I can absolutely appreciate his skills. But in this game I’m with McGregor – he’s doing what I did on a much, much bigger scale.
McGregor didn’t get knocked out cold, but he did get stopped. Describe what that’s like.
When I saw McGregor slowing down I knew he was still moving, still defending, but I started to worry because Mayweather the whole time was coming forward. Mayweather kept his word. In the Pacquiao fight he said he’d come forward and never did, but this time was different. Before the fight McGregor said ‘Let’s see who takes the first backwards step’, and it was Mayweather. But by round four onwards Mayweather started to press McGregor. I can respect that. He knew it was time to put hands on him.
But in terms of the stoppage, well, first of all, McGregor robbed the bank. He clocked the game. $100 million doesn’t lie. But he’s a fighter through and through and I’m sure he’s disappointed. He wanted to make a statement, let everyone know he’s the man, and I believed he was going to do it. In true fighting, the art of fighting, McGregor is a master. You saw the first half of the fight, he showed the world he can box.
And for me, I want to be that guy that’s doing it like McGregor. I want to be a household name, I saw a picture the other day and I thought it was so powerful. It’s a simple picture, there’s him, Mike Tyson, Kanye, The Weeknd, Kevin Hart. That’s where I want to be. That’s where I want to get.
Much like Mayweather, you’re very defensively sound and don’t take a lot of damage. But this year you got knocked out in Brazil. What is that like?
I remember coming to on the floor and trying to get up. I put my arm down and it felt like they were noodles. I couldn’t post on my hands. I didn’t make the count, I got up, I’m standing there and this little kid is standing ringside clowning. I couldn’t believe it. He was right in front of me, completely taking the piss. So first of all I wanted to do something about that, but obviously I couldn’t.
I remember bits of pieces leaving the ring with my coach Eugene. I remember being outside, I remember it being warm, and I remember that I didn’t really talk. Eventually I asked him what happened and all he said was ‘You didn’t bring your hand back quick enough. The left hook got you.’
But I’m glad it happened because now there’s no fear. Every fighter has the fear in the back of their mind. Everybody thinks ‘I don’t want that to happen to me’. It’s the absolute worst case scenario, but it’s also about as bad as it gets. Now it’s done. Now I fear nothing.
You’ve delivered more than 30 knockouts across three sports. Describe what it’s like to knock someone out. How does it feel to know that you’re giving someone possibly very serious head trauma?
I feel like a shark. I feel like a shark. And it’s different across different sports. In kickboxing sometimes they get to stand back up. Sometimes they don’t, they’re just dead, but sometimes they do. And if they stand up, I find the shot, and put them down again, because I know the blood is in the water. That’s when I feel that animosity, I feel like a predator. My reptilian brain takes over, the human animal comes through and it feels primal. It’s like, ‘let’s finish this’. It’s primal.
There have been times when it felt bad, when I didn’t feel good about it. There were fights I knew what would happen, but my coach says to me, show them the same mercy they’ll show you – zero. That’s right before we go in there. Samurai shit.
You’re a prizefighter – you’re in this for the money. This is your job. How does that effect your willingness to finish people off?
Well I’ve fought my friends and it’s still the same. Take Slava Alexichik, another guy from Auckland. He’s my friend, we’ve been around the world together. But when I fought him I was behind on rent, I owed my landlord, I’m sleeping on the floor. I need this money. And now I don’t care who he is. It’s cold. I don’t want to sound like a psychopath, I’m a very emotional guy, I cry all the time, I’m a Drake type of dude – scented candles, all that shit – but at that moment I’m cold. It’s kill or be killed. He could have been my brother, it’s still him or me, and today you picked the short straw. This sport isn’t for everyone, man.
So whether you win or lose a fight, someone is likely to get badly hurt. How do you prepare for that?
If you had a hidden camera in my house man, you’d see some weird shit. I’ve gone through everything. I’ve been through the fight. Even my flatmates, they’re still probably not used to it now. You’d hear me talking to myself randomly, doing interviews, visualising the end of my fights. I get choked up thinking about it, I’m like fuck, it feels so real now, it feels like a memory.
I have my phrases, that are like my prayers I say to myself in the morning. Five of them. I was always picked on and bullied and shit. People were always talking shit to me, to my face, telling me shit about me like you ain’t shit – so why would I help them by sabotaging myself? I look at myself, I tell myself good things. I tell myself good things about me to lift my spirit started, I started doing that in my late teens, early twenties, so now it’s just habit, it’s just me. That’s like the basics but then it gets deeper.
You lost your best friend and training partner a few days out from your attempt at winning both heavyweight kickboxing and cruiserweight boxing titles inside a week.
I was just numb for that. I remember my sister took a picture after the fights and I just broke down. Like when I went back backstage and I just started crying. And it wasn’t only me. With someone like that it’s devastating to the whole team. We’re still feeling today. Me and my friends, I take their mannerisms, people I look up to. I’ve taken so many of his mannerisms. I know what he’d be saying. I how he’d react, I know how proud he’d be, how stoked he’d be, how happy he’d be I just, whenever I get in there, if I ever feel like I can’t do it, I think ‘what would Jamie do’.
I could just go on and on but guys like that are hard to come across so when you find them you hold on to them, you never let them go. I’m still holding on to him. I take him with me wherever I go. Jamie, I was a lot closer to than others I know who’ve passed away. He was my boy. It was tough.
One thing that strikes me about City Kickboxing is this sport is treated like a science. Eugene is the mad scientist. How would you convince people who don’t believe that?
It depends on their preconceived notions about the sport. Some people have a stance on certain issues and they’re just totally incapable of changing that stance. Other people are more flexible with their models of how the world is. They’re open to suggestions. And for the people that are open, it’s like learning chess. This is a game of inches and milliseconds. And there’s no such thing as luck. If I’m trying to hit someone in the head and it worked, there’s no luck there. It’s science. But to be honest I think people are starting to understand. The game is getting more cerebral, and as organisations like the UFC start to create real depth in their analysis, with proper statistics and breakdowns like a game like the NFL, it’s starting to change. And that’s only going to add to people’s enjoyment of what they’re watching.
One thing people need to understand is the relationship between coach and fighter. With me and Eugene I feel like a character in a video game and he’s on the controller. He picks the moves, I make it happen, and someone gets knocked out. We have a special dynamic. When he calls a shot, and I feel it’s there, it fires straight away.
There’s also a certain intimacy there. It’s one on one, this is different than a coach and his 30 man rugby squad. You’re flying together, staying together.
We’ve been around the world. He’s my friend first and foremost. That’s our relationship. And that’s what makes it work. But we’re also very different. When I’m in my house I’m nesting, but in public I’m very extroverted. I swing between both. But in public he’s much more introverted. We’re like yin and yan and it flows. We’ve travelled the world, we’ve been to China, Brazil, Turkey, everywhere. And we’re very close. After I got knocked out I took a lot of time out because Eugene doesn’t want to see that happen ever again. Concussion is no joke. And when I was going through other more personal stuff he basically said if you don’t train, you don’t fight, because I’m never taking you into a fight unprepared. He cares about me alot, and I love him a lot.
He puts a lot into this, into us. His wife told me at night he’s falling asleep watching footage of my opponents, crashing out with the laptop on his chest. He’s watching video constantly. He’s obsessed, which is great for me. He puts as much as he can into it, and so if I lose, it’s hard. Flying home after a loss is really, really hard. I hate it. He goes into his head and I go into mine, and we’re both just running through the coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s hard, but very intimate.
Fight sports are full of stories about master-student relationships. Why is it so important?
Every samurai needs a master. I don’t want to be a ronin. Being a ronin is cool but they end up being journeymen and they don’t realise their full potential. For me I need someone to hold me accountable. I’m crazy. You think Jon Jones is crazy? I’m crazy. I’m just not stupid. And so it’s about surrounding myself with the same people.
I watched a documentary on minimalism recently and I had something of an epiphany. I’ve been cutting out a lot of clutter in my life. That’s with possessions and that’s with people. I see it even now, there are certain people who recognise where you’re going and they try and position themselves to leech along for the ride. And that’s where a coach likes Eugene helps. Because I want people and things of substance only in life. I’m a simple guy. It’s hard though because even from being a child you see Pimp my Ride and you see Cribs and you see these celebrities with 70 cars, and you’re conditioned to want that as part of your success, and as a way to define your success. Over the last few years I realised I don’t need that. I don’t need that. But what I do need is a tiny house. Look at this, I’ve got 800 photos of tiny houses right here. Oh and 3000 memes.
You fight across styles, you’re in there to get the cash. What is it about being a prize fighter that demands this certain… mana?
If you have it you have it, and if you don’t, you don’t. I really feel that way. But there’s one big difference; I’ve seen Tyson, I’ve seen Mayweather and the mansions and the cars and all that – I don’t want it. People get lost in other people’s dreams because they can’t see past the conditioning. It’s the same outside of prize fighting too, you need to question everything, work, love, marriage. You have to decide what it is that you want, and to figure out your dreams.
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I’ve been going through a metamorphosis lately. I went through a breakup recently, two weeks before my last fight. I put it all aside until after the fight. Then I stayed in bed for four days. I wouldn’t get up, I wouldn’t eat until like 9pm, and that was a fight like any other. Anyone watching from the side can tell you how it is, and that it’s not going to break you, but it’s only when you’re in it that you know how hard it is. And that’s when you learn who you are.
So now I feel invincible. I want to be immortalised. But to do that you have to put yourself on the line. And it’s the same in a relationship. You open yourself up and you put yourself on the line and it’s like reps at the gym. It’s all reps and exactly like Bruce Lee said: Don’t pray for an easy life, you have to pray for the strength of character to endure a tough one. And I’m getting tougher.
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