Israel Adesanya will break into the UFC’s top ten if he beats Brad Tavares in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday NZT). Newsroom combat sports analyst Mike Angove – a member of Adesanya’s fight camp and former flatmate – senses greatness approaching.
In Japan, they call it a state of zero. In athletic terms, it’s known as being in the zone. Israel Adesanya calls it god mode, a term from video gaming where a player has an array of unbeatable moves, cannot die and is essentially invincible.
As he prepares for his first assault on the UFC top 10 in just his third fight for the promotion, the 28-year-old Kiwi by way of Nigeria has gathered a reputation for making elite fighters look ordinary as he dispatches them with ethereal ease.
“It’s a state I’ve been in many times. I hit this mode where I feel this guy can’t touch me, like I have unlocked cheat mode in a video game, I just toy with them.
“It sounds weird, but it’s almost a meditative state. I’ve researched the science and it’s the synergy of five particular chemicals in the brain, firing in unison.”
The elite kick boxer, who was ranked as high as third in the world (and should have won the Glory middleweight crown were it not for atrocious judging when he fought for the title in 2017), is perhaps the best striker on the UFC roster. He’s amassed kickboxing record of 52 wins from 57 fights. Of his five defeats, only those against Filip Verlindin in his Glory debut, and his second bout with current the champion, Alex Pereira, should be deemed true losses. The remaining three, all against current or former Glory champions, were dubious decisions at best.
Although only recently elevated to the UFC roster, Adesanya has racked up a 13-0 record with 12 KOs since his MMA debut in 2012 – a remarkable strike rate in a sport where losses are common and a five-fight win streak in considered a tear.
It’s even more impressive when you consider that, over the same period, Adesanya fought 38 kickboxing and boxing bouts. That’s 51 fights in a little over five years, averaging a professional fight about every five weeks. Numbers like that are almost unheard of in professional combat sports outside of Thailand.
Numbers aside, Adesanya’s performances in the ring and cage are characterised by a technical artistry and ease of execution very few are capable of. It’s a rare gift to make the difficult look easy at an elite level. Ali had it. Michael Jordon had it. Tiger Woods had it and, it certainly seems, Israel Adesanya has this elusive X factor.
Defining the formula that makes up X factor isn’t easy. But it undoubtedly starts with superior physical gifts. In Adesanya’s case, speed, agility, footwork, athleticism and preternatural reflexes distinguish him from most other competitors. He doesn’t possess the explosive power of Tyson or Tua, but his ability to make people miss and counter with rapier quick accuracy is a soul-sucking torment for most opponents who are left floundering, buffeted and brutalised for as long as their resistance endures.
“When people face me they hit air, they miss, so that takes their confidence down. They start thinking they can’t catch me and they keep getting hit. It’s all downhill from there for them,” he says.
Athletic gifts are the foundation but, as Adesanya’s phlegmatic coach, Eugene Bareman notes, it’s only a starting point.
“I have two or three Israel’s walk through the gym door’s each year, but very few have the ethic and commitment to become the very best in the world,” Bareman says.
It’s a punishing grind, pushing through three and sometimes four work outs a day, six days a week, but something Adesanya understands he must do.
“You’re imprinting muscle memory so you can perform without thinking. It’s also about enduring the pain and embracing it so you can execute on days when you can’t find a groove or when your opponent forces you out of it.”
Another key distinguishing characteristic is Adesanya’s rate of learning. As Charles Darwin put it, it is not the strongest or smartest that survives it is one that adapts, learns, and evolves.
“Tavares is a book I’ve read many times.His rhythm and his skill set are familiar to me. I felt the edge when I met him in Glendale, he knew it and I knew it.”
– Israel Adesanya
The Stylebender’s quest to master all the elements of MMA is bolstered by his remarkable learning capability
I have coached him through several fights. He is the kid in the gym that you show something one day and he will be catching you with your own technique over and over again the very next day.
Bareman, like all great trainers, know what works with his students. He has found Adesanya’s learning style is different from most.
“Israel learns by doing, by feeling the movement, which is part of the reason he picks it up so quickly. Most fighters you need to explain why you are doing something, Israel learns the movement first and I can explain when to execute it later.”
The ability to adapt isn’t confined to between fights. The greatest fighters read the rhythm in the heat of battle and adjust mid fight. Adesanya typically starts slowly in a bout, analyses the data and makes split second adjustments in punishing fashion. At the highest level, micro adjustments and timing in milliseconds makes the difference between the good and the truly great.
The final ingredient inherent in the very greatest of athletes is mental strength. This trait extends beyond mere confidence to inherent self-belief, hard-wired into an athlete’s DNA.
This utter certainty under duress enables Adesanya to pull off moves other fighters are too risk averse to try. Whether it’s a spinning round-house or a wrestler’s lateral drop (a technique he plucked out of the bag his second UFC fight), Adesanya’s confidence in his ability allows him to go where others can’t or won’t.
On the other side of the coin from flashy execution, is mental belief under the most trying of conditions; a stubborn willingness to go to superhuman extremes to win. This mental toughness is perhaps the most critical component in the make-up of greatness. The will to win, and the application of that will to find a way to win, is a level of toughness and intelligence that very few people in the world are capable of.
It’s this belief that enabled Ali to get through torturous contests like the “Thrilla in Manila”, where he and Joe Frazier inflicted shocking damage on each other. Similarly, it enabled Anderson Silva to claim a submission victory in the final minute of the final round over Chael Sonnen after the American had rag dolled him for the entirety of their epic battle in UFC 117 in 2010.
The way Adesanya fights, he’s not yet been drawn into a trench war, so that’s a box he’s still to tick. But he has fought six times in four days winning all six bouts against international opposition, which clearly makes him a different kind of beast.
With the impending bout against UFC number 10 Brad Tavares, it seems certain that trench warfare may not be that far away. But Adesanya, who’s brought in world class wrestlers into his camp in the build-up, is typically confident.
“Tavares is a book I’ve read many times,” he says. “His rhythm and his skill set are familiar to me. I felt the edge when I met him in Glendale, he knew it and I knew it.
“I haven’t studied him much since then, my coach will take care of that. A little closer to the fight I’ll watch to get a feel for his rhythm but I feel like I have his number, and that’s UFC middleweight number 10.”
The jury is still out of Adesanya at the highest echelons. But, if he realises his very clear potential, there’s a strong likelihood he won’t just win a UFC title, but that he could leave an enduring legacy as one of the sport’s greats.