The Nigerian-born Kiwi has been called rude, brash, and especially arrogant, but arrogance is an unfair word to use.
Arrogance implies delusions of grandeur, whereas what you see with Adesanya is a confidence that has been every bit earned, as he has run through everyone in the middleweight division.
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“Everyone wants me to fail – apart from those who are really invested in me, whether they be real good fans or my family and friends,” he told Wide World of Sports ahead of his re-match with Robert Whittaker at UFC 271.
“Those are the people I care about, those are people I do this for.”
Adesanya then flashed a giant ring on his middle finger depicting Tūmatauenga, the main Māori god of war, given to him by some fans whose father trains at his gym.
“It’s dope, it’s special – it’s just cool to have people appreciate me the way I am with my antics, and the way I carry myself.”
“That’s the people I give a f–k about.”
There is a changing of the guard happening across sports right now in regards to every athlete being expected to not only be successful on the field or in the ring, but to also be a paragon of virtue off it.
A curious phenomenon has emerged where athletes who don’t fit neatly into boxes in terms of their attitude and their language are the ones that are most criticised and vilified.
Adesanya, for all his trash talking, has never had any indiscretions in his personal life – much like Colin Kaepernick was public enemy number one in the NFL despite the presence of drug cheats, domestic abusers and perpetrators of other serious crimes.
You can see it right now in tennis. Nick Kyrgios was long chastised for his attitude and the way he conducted himself – but that wheel is turning.
The cries of ‘flog’ have given way to cheers.
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The bottom line is that Adesanya, like Kyrgios, is an entertainer, and sports are supposed to be entertaining. Something he’s never lost sight of.
“It’s a reflection of themselves,” he said of his critics.
“I’m not even trying to be philosophical, they need to look in a mirror. I’ve been there myself, and I’ve felt that way about seeing other people do things their own way and gone ‘why do I think that? Why does that make me cringe?’
“Russell Westbrook dunked on this dude the other day, and I saw he got a technical? You should be able to stand over a dude and flex after a dunk like that, and then help him up afterwards. And if you don’t, who cares? It’s just a game.”
Adesanya rattles cages. There’s no question, even Robert Whittaker, who has pretty much never said a bad word about an opponent, has expressed his dislike of the man who took his title.
You might recall Whittaker posting a meme of the Grim Reaper standing next to the character Bender from Futurama – a reference to the two men’s respective nicknames. It was a very innocuous gesture, but one that Adesanya believes gave him the upper hand mentally.
“It wasn’t even a funny meme, it had no substance – but it showed me his hand. It made me ask ‘why is this guy acting out of character?'” Adesanya said.
The 32-year-old has heard all the talk of Whittaker upping his game since dropping his title, but insists that’s a two-way street.
“I’ve grown a lot as a fighter – he said he’s not the same Rob that fought in 2019 but I’m not the same Izzy,” he said.
“I’m just tapping into my younger self. The kid that used to learn something and then use it the next day.”
Adesanya took the title in Melbourne in a stunning upset – the first loss at middleweight of Whittaker’s career.
“It’s going to be more clinical than the last fight – I feel like I just have to show dominance, and let him realise there’s levels to the way we both fight,” Adesanya said.
“Everyone’s just raving about him like like he’s using a new fighting system. He’s done certain things to be better but it’s not like ‘oh my god, woah’.”
Adesanya will be joined on the card by two of his stablemates from City Kickboxing – Carlos Ulberg and Blood Diamond, the latter making his first appearance in the UFC.
“We’ve been around the world together, he’s my brother – it’s almost full circle, but we’re not done yet,” he said of the debutant.
“And to see Carlos as well, show himself in his true light – and then I’ll come in and beat Rob, it’ll be a threepeat.”
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