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Pop CultureOctober 3, 2023

Israel Adesanya is still fighting past demons


Mike Minogue watched the new documentary on Israel Adesanya and recognised how hard it is to leave bullies behind.

It would have been an entirely satisfactory piece of work. Imagine a documentary that unfolds with behind the scenes footage of the once unknown subject’s journey from utter obscurity, all the way to the crest of his chosen mountaintop. It’s interspersed with famous talking heads praising him for his abilities “between the ropes”; brief and sanitised strokes of background from family and childhood friends that hint at the potential that nobody – or everybody – knew was there, before culminating in an ultimate victory, a devastating loss, deep soul-searching and a final rallying  journey back to the top. We’ve all seen these films and, as a sucker for an underdog yarn – I enjoy the vast majority of them. But none have ever had me dissect them with friends into the wee small hours, and seen me line up at the cinema again within 24 hours to watch it again. 

Stylebender, director Zoe McIntosh’s feature-doco debut on MMA champion Israel Adesanya, did.

What she brings to the screen, and even more so, what Adesanya allows her to reveal about him, is staggering.  Through fly-on-the-wall moments with his counsellor – or ‘Possibility Manager’ – Janet and stories he tells us himself, we learn how a boy who was simply another face in the crowd in his home country of Nigeria, became the target of out-and-out racism and horrendous bullying when his parents brought his family to Aotearoa for, ironically, a “better life”.

Israel Adesanya after defending his middleweight title on March 7, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

He walks us through his school and describes events so traumatic that he became a bedwetter into his teens; a crime for which he was physically punished by his parents. When he reveals that one of his sanctuaries from the apparently incessant bullying was to hide in the library and devour books on dogs because a teacher was always present, it hit me like a kick in the guts. Growing up I was popular enough at primary school but, annoyingly, my bully lived next door. To avoid him I would go straight from school to the town library and bury my head in books until tea time. I would do anything to avoid the neighbour who, for some reason, seemed to take actual joy from making my life a misery. My reaction to this wasn’t to wet the bed, though. Instead I ground my teeth in my sleep, severely enough that every dentist I’ve encountered since has asked about it.

In no way do I think my experiences were even a drop in the bucket compared with the horrendous treatment that Adesanya endured in his new country. I suspect there are far worse incidents that occurred that he has kept to himself. What is so incredible is that he was able to take this trauma and convert it into an unimaginably positive outcome for himself. He chose, consciously, to not allow his bullies to break him. He made a decision to use his hatred for his tormentors as fuel to prove them wrong. To put himself through years of intense training that would eventually see him become one of the best martial artists the world has seen, and ultimately be crowned the UFC’s middleweight champion.

My own – far less admirable or financially rewarding – method of dealing with that experience was to cultivate a sharp wit and tongue that could be used to cut down any potential bullies before they could get started. This eventually led to discovering a capacity for comedy and storytelling that has led to a career in television and radio. I have no doubt I said things to people in my youth that hurt them and I’ve made my own apologies for that over the years. Those memories hurt more than my experiences of being bullied. But this self defence mechanism protected me, more or less, for the rest of adolescence. Adesanya’s method has led to more sore heads than hurt feelings, I’d imagine, and he has proved himself by winning these imaginary battles time and time again: with every MMA victory and every comeback from defeat.

His is an incredible story and what he has accomplished, given the circumstances, is phenomenal. Sadly, despite all this, you worry he may never quite put his demons to rest. At a time when he should be able to enjoy how far he has come, he instead actively seeks out more bullies, mostly online. He consumes their hate for him and internalises their negativity in order to defy them once more. You would think, given his childhood, that he would avoid these interactions but he seems unable to help himself. He actually seems addicted to it.

As his coach Eugene Bareman tells him. “Don’t say you don’t care about what people say, just don’t care what they say.” Adesanya responds that he is working on it and Bareman agrees. “It’s a journey.”

Israel Adesanya celebrates his victory over Rob Wilkinson. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

What is amazing about Stylebender as a film is someone in Adesanya’s position allowing his vulnerabilities to be exposed to the world. In a sport that is all about ego and “manliness”, Adesanya puts his trauma on display so that others, particularly young men, can see that greatness can come from darkness; victory is accessible to the downtrodden and strength is available to the weak.

There are certainly things that Adesanya has said in the public sphere that have seen him put at odds with the media and the public at large. When I read these things, I balance them by always knowing I have no idea where somebody has come from, their life experiences. Now, having seen this documentary, it’s coloured in my feelings, particularly around his apparent support of Jordan Peterson or, far worse, Andrew Tate. I wonder if  he is subconsciously challenging us. “If I do this, will you love me now? What about now? What about now?” as if he knows where these agitators sit in society and is seeking to generate more negativity, more “bullying” with which to fuel himself.

Stylebender reveals a complicated man who is undeniably goodhearted and infinitely talented. This can co-exist with someone who, given where he has come from, isn’t going to be perfect and might need from time to time, as we all do, a certain amount of understanding and patience.

Israel Adesanya is absolutely one of our country’s greatest ever sportspeople but it is his willingness to reveal his flaws to those who regard him as a role model, and the constant work he undertakes to better himself, that might end up being his greatest legacy.

I think he has been seeking only acceptance since he arrived in New Zealand and I hope this film goes some way to him achieving that.

Stylebender is in cinemas now across Aotearoa.
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