15 Jan 2020

MMA star Israel Adesanya wants Halbergs win to inspire young NZ fighters

9:57 am on 15 January 2020

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world champion Israel Adesanya had never heard of the Halberg Awards, but says he hopes to win to show young fighters the sport is on par with rugby and cricket in New Zealand.

New Zealand UFC fighter Israel Adesanya.


Adesanya, who shot to fame last year when he became the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight champion, has been nominated for sportsman of the year at the Halbergs.

It is the first time MMA has made a showing at the prestigious New Zealand awards named for Olympic champion Sir Murray Halberg and his dedication to helping disabled children.

The nomination also puts him in the running for the awards' top gong, and his coach Eugene Bareman has also been nominated for coach of the year.

Adesanya showed no sign of nerves after the announcement however, telling RNZ he had to look up what the awards even were.

"Halberg awards sounds like some illuminati shit now because I'm like 'what?' - I didn't even know what it was. I'm now in the know, I'm about to get initiated."

Adesanya said combat sports and the successful athletes like boxer David Tua have often been snubbed at New Zealand awards in favour of those more traditional codes.

"A lot of people fear what they don't understand so just snub it but, you know, we're definitely the ones to put New Zealand on the map right now in regards to sport.

He said MMA was becoming one of the sports New Zealand was known for.

"I've noticed at the gym a lot of people from overseas are coming over to our neck of the woods just to train. I'm talking from America, from the Netherlands, Germany, Russia."

"Growing up out here [in New Zealand] ... I know we're fighters, and we were on top of the fight game at one point back in the K1 days and we're about to do it again."

He said he wanted to win the award, to show up-and-coming young fighters their sport was on par with other major codes.

"I want to win. It's not really for me - because like I said I didn't even know what it was - but for me I'd like to win because it shows the other kids who are coming up now who do what we do - whether it be jiu-jitsu, whether it be kickboxing or just boxing or just MMA - in general it shows them that your sport is being recognised on the world stage in comparison to rugby and cricket which are like New Zealand's staple sports ... the cultural sports of New Zealand."

"It's pretty cool to be going head to head with those other sports as a major sport of MMA - I'm talking about in New Zealand - yeah, that's pretty cool."

Bareman was also keen to see an MMA win at the Halbergs.

"There are a lot of sports that New Zealand does very well but MMA is a truly global sport and it's practiced in the farthest reaches of this Earth.

"To reach the heights of a truly global sport, in a sport as difficult as this, is a monumental achievement."

Adesanya said he thought it was becoming more widely seen as something young people could get into, but he wanted the next generation to follow their own paths.

"Kid will tell me 'oh I want to be like you when I grow up', you know. I just thought 'nah, don't be like me, be like you', because first of all they don't really know me but second of all I understand what they're trying to say but I just let them know - be like you. I wanted to be like some other people growing up as well but eventually I realised the best person I could be is the best me."

Adesanya is up against Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson, supercars champion Scott McLaughlin and shot putter Tom Walsh for sportsman of the year.

Bareman also has some tough competition in Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua, along with Gary Hay (rowing), Gordon Walker (canoe racing) and Roly Crichton (Para swimming).

The Halberg Awards will be announced on 13 February.