4 Sep 2020

MMA champ Israel Adesanya not afraid to tackle the All Blacks

6:24 pm on 4 September 2020

Ever since the late, great Muhammad Ali, unabashed self-promotion has been part of the fabric of combat sports.

And while Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world champion Israel Adesanya hasn't made any comparisons between himself and Ali, the reigning New Zealand sportsman of the year absolutely isn't afraid to express his confidence.

Asked recently if he thought the UFC could ever be bigger than the the country's national team, Adesanya pulled no punches in his response.

"I don't really care, to be honest. But I know if you put it on the world stage, me myself as Israel Adesanya 'The Last Stylebender' I'm bigger than the All Blacks, like world-wide.

"Not definitely in New Zealand ... but yes world-wide, all around the world, all across the land, I definitely have more footprint than the All Blacks."

Whether you agree or not depended on what measures you use.

But there was no denying it got people's attention.

Combat sports commentator Mike Angove is a member of Adesanya's coaching team at Auckland gym City Kickboxing, and he believed die-hard All Blacks fans jumping to dismiss the comment missed the context in which it was made.

"Many people who got a bit salty about it started going on about 100 years of heritage and brand and all those other things.

"What he was talking about was his global footprint and name recognition, at this point in time.

"We're talking about him needing massive security details to avoid being crushed by the groundswell of people that are walking around, it's almost a mania in certain countries."

Angove said Adesanya wasn't alone.

"Other athletes like Steven Adam and Scott Dixon, who are taking part in big sports that have a far greater footprint than rugby, are also probably bigger names as well.

"We shouldn't [hide] ourselves from that fact or feel so protective of the All Blacks."

The worldwide popularity of the UFC has continued to climb in recent years, with their events now broadcast to 156 countries in 29 different languages.

Despite that growth, AUT senior lecturer and sports marketing expert Marilyn Giroux still believed the All Blacks were a bigger global name.

"It's a mix of being one of the best, unbeaten teams in terms of performance but also the whole ritual around the haka and this aspect of being a bit different.

"Definitely, [Israel] has a very strong social media presence. So if we look from that perspective he's maybe attracting the more younger generation of people.

"UFC and MMA are definitely reaching more people young people."

Israel Adesanya makes his acceptance speech after winning the Halberg Award for 2019 NZ sportsman of the year.

Israel Adesanya makes his acceptance speech after winning the Halberg Award for 2019 NZ sportsman of the year. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

That social media presence included almost 2.8 million Instagram followers to the All Blacks 1.7 million.

Giroux said that certainly wasn't hurting Adesanya's cause, and added the rabid nature of MMA fans was also a big factor.

"This audience is quite intense in terms of how much they love the sports and how much they follow the athletes and they interact, and that's what maybe rugby has less.

"In that sense, yeah, in the future he could become, if the UFC is still rising and he's still the champion, a world-wide celebrity."

Driving Adesanya's star higher was his place in one of the world's biggest, and most important, markets.

ESPN anchor and UFC reporter Phil Murphy has followed the Nigerian-born Kiwi's progress since first coming across him in a Florida gym in early 2015.

Murphy said Adesanya was definitely making his mark in the US.

"He's riding this wave of momentum and spectacle and it's must see TV, you don't want to miss what he's going to do next.

"His ability to handle the spotlight and you see it in any sport, some people have it, some people don't.

"He has it and, in fact, he embraces it and leans into it. That's what gets people outside the MMA bubble talking."

Murphy said it's not just an unbeaten record, unique skillset and aesthetically pleasing style which made Adesanya popular.

"The 'it' factor is so hard to define but when you look at the A List stars of the last decade in mixed martial arts, there's this measure of unpredictability with them, and obviously high level athleticism.

"But then there's also this authenticity, it's not forced, it's not fabricated, you feel like when the cameras go off Israel is the same person."

And it was there, where the All Blacks may be losing ground.

That was according to former New Zealand Maori rep and Super Rugby champion, Sky Sport pundit Joe Wheeler.

"When you ask guys questions, especially All Blacks, they're met with quite a political answer, which might not even be their own thoughts. They just don't want click-bait.

"Whereas it's refreshing hearing Israel speak about anything because he's so brash and so honest and speaks what he believes in.

"What you can see with him is he's loved across the world, probably because of how he acts, speaks and portrays himself in the media. It does his brand a world of good.

"Love him or hate him, he's still got three million followers on Instagram alone, so that's saying something."

Israel Adesanya celebrates winning the UFC middleweight world title belt.

Israel Adesanya celebrates winning the UFC middleweight world title belt. Photo: Photosport

Wheeler said it was frustrating that, at times, rugby couldn't understand hype was good for the game.

He used the example of a talented young player to highlight where the code was missing a trick.

"He'll get protected from getting rolled out to media every week and getting his head to big.

"He also sees a lot of those senior players and how they deliver, what they say and there's probably an expectation and an understanding that's how you do it.

"When you go through your media training they don't say be open and honest, they say don't give them too much information, just give them what they need."

It was a mindset which showed that while the All Blacks were undoubtedly a huge name, there was significant room for growth.

The same went for Adesanya.

ESPN's Phil Murphy said it was hard to overstate where the self-titled "Last Stylebender" could get to with an impressive defence of his UFC middleweight belt against Brazilian powerhouse Paulo Costa later this month.

"If he does that then we're probably talking about the next A List superstar, and I'm not even talking about in the sport sense.

"That is what the UFC is starving to add to their roster without Conor McGregor actively fighting."

It's lofty company to be keeping, and Israel Adesanya insists he's far from done yet.