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.”
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.
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?’”