From bullied in high school to UFC champion: The untold journey of Kiwi MMA superstar Israel Adesanya

Kiwi UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has opened up about his journey to the top and challenges such as high school bullying, a move to Auckland and tough training programmes he faced along the way.

Your playlist will load after this ad

After getting teased when he was young, Adesanya decided he needed to learn to defend himself - a choice that changed his life forever. Source: Sunday

Adesanya and his family spoke to TVNZ1's Sunday programme about the MMA fighter's life and how, even though he's a world famous champion now, he still remains a humble Kiwi who walks to his local supermarket in bare feet and track pants.

Where it all began

Adesanya moved with his family from Nigeria to New Zealand when he was 10 years old - a decision his parents said was to help him and his four siblings get a better education.

"We decided we were going to migrate for the better life," Adesanya's father Femi said.

"We feel at home here. We've lived here in Whanganui for 13 years and I can only say good things about the place."

But for Adesanya, life as a kid growing up in a new country wasn't all good.

The 29-year-old admits it was hard to fit in when he first moved.

"I didn't realise I was black 'til I moved here," Adesanya said.

"I mean, I knew I was black and I knew my skin colour was dark, but I never knew it was a problem until I moved to New Zealand and kids were always picking on me and I was always like, 'whats up with that. Why?'

"I remember a kid from school kept on riding past my house and going, 'go back to your country, blackinese'."

High school was even worse with Adesanya comparing himself to a rat, scurrying around the edges of a room to avoid conflicts as he went about his daily life.

That's when Adesanya decided to take action and he started learning to protect himself at an old Muay Thai gym. A decision he kept secret from his parents until close to his first fight in 2009.

The big move

While Adesanya's first fight was one to forget, the loss gave him something far more valuable than any victory - his now lifelong mentor and trainer, Eugene Bareman.

Your playlist will load after this ad

Bareman has four fighters in the illustrious UFC organisation. Source: 1 NEWS

"I begrudgingly agreed to help a guy that I'd never even met and I went to the fight and had a quick chat to him and stuff," Bareman said.

"It was a terrible fight. I said whatever positive thing you could say to him to get out of that and then I moved on and we went our own ways."

At least, that's what Bareman thought.

Adesanya saw things much differently, telling his parents soon after he was moving to Auckland to pursue a fighting career and despite his family's best efforts to talk him out of it, he soon departed for the Big Smoke. First stop - City Kickboxing.

"He pretty much just walked through the door and I was like, 'hey, how's it going?'" Bareman said.

"I was like, 'hey, good to see you again,' and he was like, 'I've put everything that belongs to me in the back of my car and I've driven up here to come and train at your gym'."

But Adesanya wanted much more than training, Bareman added.

"He alluded to me very early on when I met him, that he wanted to be in the UFC."

Whatever it takes

Your playlist will load after this ad

Nyika stepped into the ring with heavyweight Junior Fa and UFC star Israel Adesanya. Source: 1 NEWS

Early on, Bareman realised there was something different about Adesanya - a confidence he wasn't used to that at first he thought belonged to "just another idiot off the street".

That changed when they started to get in the ring though, Adesanya said.

"I remember the first time [Bareman] held pads for me. I think he was impressed with what he saw but he never tried to, like, he corrected me, but never tried to change me.

"What Eugene did was, 'look, okay, you're crazy, but we can work with that'."

Bareman said while Adesanya showed talent early on, it was the commitment and dedication coupled with it that made him think he could go a long way. That led the pair to start putting a plan in place to get him into the UFC and one day become its champion. 

They made sure it would push him beyond his limits, calling it the "worst case scenario environment".

Adesanya has to face multiple fighters, one after another, for 25 minutes.

"There's six or seven of them waiting," Bareman said.

"They're coming in absolutely amped and fresh, and Israel's in there for the whole time."

It leaves Adesanya shattered physically and emotionally, but serves a greater purpose.

"For me, I feel like if they can't break me mentally one man can't break me mentally."  

"I just be me"

In six short fights, Adesanya has gone from an unknown to one of the biggest UFC stars in the world. While some would struggle with the newfound fame, the Kiwi sees things differently.

"You look at any of my fights, I'm having fun, like literally. And it's weird to say because I'm hurting someone, but I'm not having fun hurting someone, I'm just having fun displaying my skills.  

"People can't separate that sometimes. They think, 'oh, you just like to beat people up for fun,' but I'm like, 'no, I don't'."

Your playlist will load after this ad

Silva has linked up with kickboxing middleweight champ Alex Pereira for his training camp. Source: 1 NEWS

While he tries to avoid fights outside of the octagon, he isn't afraid to trade blows on social media either. Just ask his one million followers on Instagram.

"I just like be me, because, think about it - you can't please everyone because If I'm always trying to please people then I stay away from my true self and me expressing myself."

And he takes that approach everywhere in life - even his local supermarket.

"I go to Pak N Save like this - like bare feet, muddy - and it kind of hides me in plain sight because I look homeless.

"Sometimes I can hear people in the other aisle like, 'is that him? Nah, it's not him, nah, nah, he's got no shoes on'."

Heart of a champion

Your playlist will load after this ad

The Nigerian born Kiwi fighter said he "was prepared to die" during his bout with US rival Kelvin Gastelum. Source: 1 NEWS

After his fight with Kelvin Gastelum last month for the interim middleweight title - a bout many pundits are calling one of the greatest in UFC history - Adesanya is working to take his legacy to another level.

"That was a moment in my life I'll never forget. When I looked at [Gastelum] and thought, 'you can't beat me, I'm prepared to die', and I meant that," he said.

"I believe I'm going to win, and I know I'm going to win. But the thing is when I say it, I know it ... I know it."

Adesanya also knows his next fight is against fellow champion and Australian Robert Whittaker, setting up a trans-Tasman clash the UFC has never seen.

But, like everything else, he's always prepared.

"I'm just getting started. This is just another chapter. We're about to write another one, and another one, and another one.

"I'll close the book when I'm ready."