By Bryan Fonseca - @BryanFonsecaNY
One of the more high-end restaurants in Midtown Manhattan, The Palm on West 50th street, opens up at 12 noon. A lunch reservation is held for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has taken over the city in anticipation of their UFC 230 pay per view event coming this Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
The luncheon features one of the promotion’s fastest rising stars, Israel Adesanya, an undefeated middleweight, nicknamed the “Style Bender.” 15 minutes later, in walks the 6-foot-4 Nigerian born-New Zealander, fresh off an appearance with Complex, which included a conversation with Action Bronson.
“I owned the room. It was mine. I claimed it,” recalls Adesanya to TSFJ, swaggering with confidence.
At The Palm, Adesanya orders a grilled chicken salad, still trying to shed those last few pounds before Friday morning’s weigh-in. To him, that’s lightwork.
“The weight's easy for me, I’ll get that down,” he utters, with conviction. “Everyone says, there’s two battles: The battle on the scale and the battle in the fight. F**k that! There’s one battle, that’s the fight itself.”
Adesanya’s path to the brink of stardom is as abnormal as the rapid rise of the sport he currently competes in.
He’s only been a full-time fighter for five years, a decision made while quitting a boring data-entry job back in 2013. He had done taekwondo as a child and had already been competing in mixed martial arts and kickboxing by 2013, later venturing off to professional boxing as well. Overall, he’s 75-5-1 in kickboxing, 6-1 in boxing and 14-0 (with 12 knockouts) in MMA, giving him a 95-6 pro record across combat sports.
Adesanya now enters his fourth fight in the UFC this Saturday, against sixth-ranked Derek Brunson, easily his most high-profile fight, despite main-eventing a UFC on FOX card in Las Vegas this past summer.
The PPV card placement, floor seats at a New York Knicks game on Monday night, a tailored luncheon in his name the following afternoon, and the remaining week-long media rounds in the world’s paramount city: Adesanya promises, he’s seen this before.
“That’s how I planned it. I took my time to get to the UFC,” Adesanya says, highlighting his previous experiences in Australia, China, Malaysia, New Zealand, Turkey, Brazil and the United States before entering the octagon.
“I knew eventually once they saw what I could do, they’d say, ‘Oh sh*t. This guy’s not like everyone else.’ I knew all this was going to come so I was ready for it.”
Not rushing into the UFC is a move admired by the likes of the promotion’s head color commentator, Joe Rogan, who had Adesanya on his podcast this past summer and commended the 30-year-old for his patience. Adesanya says he was hyperactive as a child but gained patience through experience, like losing his first amateur MMA fight around 10 years ago.
“I had three weeks of jiu-jitsu on YouTube and I said, ‘Oh, I got this sh*t.’ And luckily there were no punches on the ground because he would’ve beaten the sh*t out of me,” he recalled, with a laugh. “He won the fight. He took me down, I got up, he took me down again. I just got rag-dolled … I had no takedown defense, I had no idea what I was doing.
“But if I had won that fight,” he continued. “‘Get me a pro fight now!’ That would’ve been me. You either win or you learn. It’s never a loss, always a lesson. I’m so glad that happened, and every time I lost in something, I’m glad it happened in hindsight.”
Now, he studies religiously. He was never a straight-A student, but this is different. To him, this is actually fun.
“I don’t throw and hope, I aim and fire,” he said. "My UFC debut was calculated. When I know guys are done, I go at them, but I pick them apart slowly: The body, the leg, the head. A lot of guys just go for the head because they see blood, they see red like a shark. They swing and hope they knock guys down.”
Adesanya adds that even the task of running through the media obligations are meant to test your patience, which can also break down fighters before even entering the octagon.
While he enjoys it, he urges that he’s one of one.
“A lot of guys, they’re too scared to show themselves. They’re too scared to say what they want to do in case they fail. I’m not scared to fail because I’ll always come back. I’m not scared to win or succeed. A lot of guys don’t feel they deserve to succeed. I put too much work into this for so many years,” he proclaimed.
“I prepped for all this. It feels like a memory. It feels like I’ve done all this sh*t. When I first came to New York I said, ‘When I fight here, my names going to be in the lights in Times Square.’ I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it’s been and I know next time I’m going to headline.”
On Saturday night, barring any last-minute shuffling, Adesanya is scheduled to open up the main card as the first PPV fight to air. His opponent – the aforementioned Brunson – enters with a record of 18-6, along with a standing above the Style Bender in the rankings.
Brunson’s lost 3-of-5 heading into Saturday and comes in as an underdog. Two of those losses, one to Anderson Silva by decision in 2017 at Barclays Center (but not without controversy) and Jacaré Souza earlier this year via knockout, come against some of the best to ever work in the division.The Law vs. The Last Stylebender (ESPN)
Adesanya’s highlighted Brunson’s chin as a major deficiency and even predicted a first or second round finish as a result. Oddsmakers lean this way as well, as Adesanya's a -300 favorite to win at UFC 230. In turn, Brunson’s actually proposed that this is a step down fight, and he’ll be the one to earn the quick victory.
“I expect to breeze through him,” Brunson said confidently at Thursday’s Media Day. “I’ve been in there with elite strikers and they all say the same thing. Uriah Hall (who Brunson defeated by first round TKO in September, 2016) talked the same thing. I heard this all before. I’ve been here before. It’s nothing to me.”
Adesanya points to his world experience as a major advantage, adding yet another bold assumption, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Brunson had been knocked down in sparring.
“He’s only fought a limited amount of guys with a limited amount of styles,” Adesanya said of Brunson on Tuesday. “If he comes out like the way he did against Robert Whitaker and try and bumrush me, first round knockout, guaranteed. You know what, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already been dropped or knocked down in sparring … But if he comes out like he did against Anderson Silva, it doesn’t take me long to figure out that style. With his chin and my strikes, I know he can’t handle it.”
Time will tell if the Style Bender is a prophet, or just delusionally confident. In the fight game, he may benefit with both, if not either.
I know, I know. I've aged poorly. I also know that neither you or I actually believe that. I cover NYC sports + more in a variety of ways. 4x NYPA nominee.