By Jordy McElroy | 5 October 2020
As UFC middleweight contender Paulo Costa faded in and out of consciousness, he looked into the eyes of a killer. Stoic, cold and completely void of emotion—UFC middleweight king Israel Adesanya rained down a lifetime’s worth of punishment in the form of punches and elbows.
It was a Category 5 storm of a tormented childhood that turned Hurricane Israel from a nail into a hammer.
Adesanya knows what it feels like to be the one lying helplessly on his backside at the mercy of another human being. But his form of torture went far beyond the mere boundaries of hand-to-hand combat. He was tormented physically, mentally and spiritually in ways that would have broken an ordinary human being.
And there was no referee to step in and save Israel from that fight.
A Conversation Between Israel and Israel
Adesanya always stood out as a kid.
It wasn’t for the cocksure bravado or world class fighting abilities that turned him into an overnight sensation in the UFC.
No, he stood out because he was black.
His family moved from Lagos, Nigeria to start a new life in New Zealand, where Africans made up less than one percent of the population. That made him an easy victim of bullying the moment he stepped through the doors of his new school. The cruelty he underwent at the hands of his peers was merciless and unrelenting.
He was often called racial slurs and told to go back to his country. It didn’t help matters that he was into anime and dance growing up, which piled onto the already long list of reasons for bullies to harass him.
Things escalated to the point where he’d purposely go out of his way to take longer routes to school and the library in an effort to avoid being seen. Imagine being a kid all alone in a foreign country, scurrying along the outer parts of town just to read a book in peace.
A war was raging within a young Adesanya, and he never said a word about it to anyone, not even his parents.
But just because he wasn’t speaking to other people didn’t mean he wasn’t talking about his problems. His personal coping mechanism for dealing with the hard times was speaking positivity within himself.
When the bullies called him a runt, he’d call himself a giant. When the bullies called him a racial slur, he’d call himself an intellectual.
When the bullies pushed him around, he’d call himself a work in progress. He mastered his mind at a young age and learned to love himself in the darkest of times.
More importantly, he realized people are who they believe themselves to be.
It wasn’t until he stumbled into a kickboxing gym for self-defense classes that he started to believe in himself to be the next great MMA fighter. It was the moment he started to believe he’d reach a point where no one would ever hurt him again.
Calm Before the Storm
It would have been easy for Adesanya to succumb to anger by lashing out at the rest of the world or even spiraling into a deep state of depression. Bullying has long been a global issue with potentially devastating consequences.
No country knows that better than New Zealand.
Just last year alone, the country reportedly had the highest rate of suicide worldwide for ages 15-19 years old, while ranking second in teen bullying and third in cyber-bullying. A different path would have put Adesanya in the crosshairs of becoming another statistic, but he was able to redirect his pain into something more positive.
If you know someone that is considering suicide or need advice on dealing with someone that is considering suicide there are free resources available to help them.
In the United States, you can start by call the free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Not only did martial arts offer a legitimate escape from reality, but it also instilled within him the confidence to stop taking the long route to the library. There are times in life when you have to stick out your chest and walk directly into the fire.
Those flames build character. The heat solidifies strength.
Adesanya redirected the moments of agony he endured as a kid towards his martial arts training. Those feelings helped propel him to well over 100 professional fights. Yet, perhaps the best part of his journey in self-discovery is the fact that he never allowed the bullying to suppress the things he loved in life.
His nickname “The Last Stylebender” was inspired by one of his favorite anime series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” He also continues to express himself every chance he gets through the art of dancing. Along with competing in competitions all over New Zealand, he has made it a point to drop in back home in Nigeria from time to time to bust out a few moves with friends.
Eat your heart out, Chris Brown.
But don’t mistake the dancing as clownish tactics in a veiled attempt for Adesanya to punk his opponents, either.
No, the dance is the calm before the storm. It’s the moment for him to channel his anxieties and fears into the one art of expression that has soothed his spirit ever since he was a child. It’s the moment when he talks to himself.
“My confidence comes from the work I put in; it comes from the way I talk to myself,” Adesanya said in a UFC interview back in February 2019. “My confidence comes from me. A lot of people think they understand what confidence is, but they really don’t.”
They may not understand it, but they can certainly see it in those cold, piercing eyes before everything goes black. You can see his pain through his art, and it’s a beauty that’s currently unrivaled in the middleweight division.
Revenge Is a Dish Best Served With Love
The storm ends the moment Adesanya leaves the cage.
That’s the moment when he reverts back into the laid-back 31-year-old that isn’t afraid to turn a sidewalk into a dance stage or chat up a stranger on some anime. That’s when he goes back to being the proud humanitarian that has donated thousands of personal protective equipment to both Lagos and the city of Auckland in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. The storm is a means to an end and not a weight to be carried.
Adesanya has even gone as far as befriending some of his bullies on social media so they would have a front row seat to his come-up. Sometimes the best form of vengeance is shining your light on the ones that tried to drag you into darkness.
There are larger issues at play for Adesanya than simply running his own throwback version of “Bully Beatdown.” Getting even with his former abusers has never been as important to him as speaking out against racism and bullying.
Over the summer, he gave a heartfelt speech at a peaceful protest in New Zealand in the aftermath of the incident surrounding George Floyd—a black man that was murdered in Minnesota, while being restrained by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. His willingness to open up about his own experiences with racism adds hope in the ongoing fight to help facilitate change.
He has also spoken extensively with the youth about bullying. His message of empowerment carries weight for a global issue. After his win over Costa, he dedicated the fight to victims of bullying, citing Costa’s pre-fight trash talk as a desperate attempt to take him back to the days when he took the long route to the library.
“I dedicate this fight to anyone—whether it be at school or at home or even at work, if your boss is grinding you—I dedicate this fight to you guys,” said Adesanya.
An unequivocal display of dominance showed Adesanya as a giant. It proved that he’s smarter than his previous tormentors. It showed that he’s strong enough to fight back against those same individuals that once pushed him around. It’s proof that anyone regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation is capable of doing the same.