The many sides of Israel Adesanya, UFC champion, businessman and activist

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·6 mins read

Israel Adesanya is far more than a great fighter, though he is without question an elite MMA fighter.

He’s far more than a socially conscious athlete who is willing to speak out against what he perceives to be societal injustices, though Adesanya is increasingly taking a leading role in such issues.

And he’s just as much of a businessman, always looking for new grounds to conquer, as he is an athlete.

The UFC’s middleweight champion is a multi-faceted and complex individual who is equally at home talking about kickboxing techniques, the Black Lives Matter movement, or wanting to work with adult film stars to promote his fights.

Adesanya faces unbeaten challenger Paulo Costa on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) in the main event of UFC 253 for the middleweight title in a bout that UFC president Dana White said projects to do high sales numbers.

Part of it is simply that the UFC is on a roll. While other sports have lagged during the pandemic in terms of television ratings and fan attention, interest in the UFC is higher than it has ever been.

According to a report by The Athletic’s Mike Coppinger, UFC’s show in Las Vegas last week that was headlined by the welterweight grudge match between Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley did more than 1 million unique users on ESPN+.

The battle between the 19-0 Adesanya and the 13-0 Costa is clearly a driving force in the interest. And much of that interest is because of the success and the promotional skills of the Nigerian-born Adesanya, now a resident of New Zealand.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Israel Adesanya of Nigeria interacts with media during the UFC 253 Press Conference on September 24, 2020 at Yas Beach on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Israel Adesanya of Nigeria interacts with media during the UFC 253 Press Conference on Sept. 24, 2020 at Yas Beach on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

His fights are almost always action-packed, but he’s making himself a mainstream personality. Some evidence of that is that he recently landed a deal with Puma and will work with the apparel company to develop an “Izzy” shoe.

Puma didn’t ask him to change his behavior or act as someone he’s not. They sought him out and put no restrictions on him.

“For me, it’s a perfect fit,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Puma accepted me as I am. They approached me. They love the way I do things and so I was like, ‘[Expletive] yeah! Sign me up.’ They have a roster of athletes who I vibe with. It’s a perfect fit and it’s going to be a good symbiotic working relationship.”

He wants to expand his reach across all boundaries, and we mean all boundaries. In an interview with Deepit Sharma of EssentiallySports.com, he said he wanted to cross-promote with his favorite adult film stars and that it made sense to promote himself to their audiences.

But he’s also shown he can tackle serious topics and be an advocate for societal change.

He spoke out in New Zealand after the George Floyd killings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which could lose him some fans because feelings are so entrenched on that issue.

And it wasn’t just a one-time occurrence that he spoke out, either. When Covington made an outrageous comment at the post-fight news conference last week after defeating Woodley and called BLM a sham, among other things, Adesanya didn’t waste time firing back.

He responded at Wednesday’s news conference and didn’t hold his fire. He also took aim at the media.

“I mean, it just shows you the landscape of the media and what it is right now,” Adesanya said. “I made a joke about dropping [Yoel] Romero like the twin towers, and everyone lost their mind, even if I said it was a joke and it was pretty funny. People took it as if I was being offensive and digging, but I was making a joke.

“This guy has directly insulted my culture, my brother and many other cultures and stuff and no one says anything, but it just shows you a mirror to you guys. So yeah, I don’t really care. Kamaru Usman broke his jaw.”

Those words will make him a hero to many and a villain to others, but he’s marching to his own beat.

No telling how big Israel Adesanya will get

At the end of the day, though, it’s not his words that matter as much as what he does in the Octagon. He has an amazingly varied attack and while he’s an outstanding counter striker, which should suit him well against an attacking opponent like Costa, that’s not all he’s about.

“The fact is, I can walk people down and I have walked people down,” Adesanya said. “You can even go to the Kelvin Gastelum fight. When he was fired and he was dusty, I started to walk him down from the third round, I believe, or maybe even the second round.

“People forget. In the first round, I was fighting on the back foot but I turned it on him. I was winning off the back foot until I got dropped as well. But this is one of those fights that’s tailor-made for me. He thinks he’s going to walk me down and that’s it. Well, I implore him to try to do that. Keep that same mentality and keep that same energy, because he’s going to be in for a rude awakening.”

If Adesanya wins, he’ll be 20-0 and right at the top of the pound-for-pound rankings. The endorsements, which essentially have been a trickle up to this point, will come flooding in at that point.

He’s already a star, and a big one, but an impressive win over Costa and there’s no telling how big he’ll get. Ronda Rousey hit mainstream status and became a cultural icon after her quick knockout of Bethe Correia at UFC 190. Celebrities and star athletes lit up social media with praise for her that night.

Don’t be surprised if the same thing happens on Saturday, especially if Adesanya finishes Costa. His stardom will head to the next level quickly if that occurs.

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