Close your eyes and ignore the accent and listen: The words that Israel Adesanya speaks in 2019 sound very much like they could have been uttered by Muhammad Ali in 1965.
Adesanya knows he’s been given a gift, and he believes that his ability to fight successfully is a way of giving him a platform.
Ali emerged as a star in the 1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement. After winning the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ali made a quick rise through the professional ranks and upset Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship in 1964.
Ali emerged on the world scene at the height of the battle over civil rights for African Americans in the U.S. He came along at a time when a black man couldn’t use the same bathroom, stay at the same hotel or drink from the same water fountain as a white man.
He spoke out against those injustices, using his platform of what was then regarded as the greatest prize in sports, to push for social reforms.
Adesanya will compete for his first world championship just 14 months after he debuted in the UFC and knows that a victory Saturday over Kelvin Gastelum in the co-main event of UFC 236 to win the interim middleweight title will put him on a stage and under a spotlight he’s desperately sought for years.
He speaks of being able to relate to people of different races, religions and cultures as one of the things that make him different. He was born in Nigeria, but spent most of his adult life living in New Zealand.
But he shuddered when the comparison to the way he spoke and the way Ali once did was pointed out.
“Ali is on a different scale than everyone else,” Adesanya said. “It’s not that I’ve modeled myself after him, because he is a great, but I aspire to be like him. He’s done so much for culture. I plan on doing a lot for culture. The times he was living in were very rough for black men. It still is, but not like it was then. And he made huge impacts on so many aspects of culture. I don’t compare myself to anyone because I am going down my own path and blazing my own trail. I have things I want to do and I see the bigger picture and this championship will help me to achieve those things.”
He’ll need to beat Gastelum to get that title, and though Adesanya is about a 9-5 favorite, it’s no slam dunk he’ll win. He’s been beyond impressive in his five fights in the UFC, all of which came within a one-year span.
The last one was a decision over the legendary Anderson Silva, the former middleweight champion and the guy Adesanya idolized.
Though he didn’t blow Silva away like he had so many others, there was a reason for it. He respected Silva so much he found it hard to let his hands go when there were openings.
“Fighting Silva, there was a mental barrier I had to overcome,” Adesanya said. “It was the hardest fight I’ve had to date because of the pedestal I put Silva on. Fighting him was like fighting a younger me. I put him on a pedestal that was almost unattainable. Any fight after that, mentally, it’s not going to be as close to as challenging as that.”
He’s shown the quick-strike ability that often makes for big stars, particularly in a dominant knockout of Derek Brunson.
If he wins, particularly in spectacular fashion against a talent like Gastelum, he’ll essentially become one of the faces of mixed martial arts.
“For me, I don’t care too much about fame, even though as a kid, it’s what you think you want,” Adesanya said. “I’ve been quoted many times as saying, ‘[Expletive] fame, but I like the perks.’ One of the perks is a platform, and I will have a platform. What I want is for people to actually listen to me and understand what I’m saying. Because I look a certain way and I dress a certain way, don’t assume what you think I’m about or what I’m going to say.
“One of my main messages that [UFC strawweight champion] Rose Namajunas got across after she won her belt is being nice, being kind. I don’t know if people understand what being nice feels like. They think they do, but be nice to people not just that you know, but that you don’t know. And here’s the thing: Being nice makes you feel good. You’re being nice to them, but it comes back and does something for you.”
It might take two wins — over Gastelum on Saturday and then over champion Robert Whittaker in a bout for the undisputed title when Whittaker is healthy enough to return to action — before Adesanya can fully deliver the message he wants.
It is, he believes, his destiny to become UFC champion, and he’s just in the process of fulfilling that.
“Before I got to the UFC, I knew I was one of the best in the world, but I didn’t have the ability to express that and to show that to the wider audience,” Adesanya said. “I’ve known for a long time I was one of the best. I felt I was one of the best. I never hid it. I’ve never shied away from it. Now the time has come and the world is soon going to see what I have known for a very long time.”
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