Israel Adesanya is currently one of the most dominant fighters in the UFC, defending his middleweight title successfully four times. The latest defense came against Rob Whittaker, who he’d knocked out in their last crossing. This time, the win came in the form of a unanimous decision after five rounds at UFC 271. Even though the champion sits comfortably at the top of the rankings, and was a kickboxing champ before that, his star is still rising in the world of mixed martial arts. Not just because of his technically impressive performances, but also the unique energy he brings to the Octagon.
“I’m an entertainer by nature,” Adesanya tells Men’s Journal. That passion for performance beyond the norm and his pursuit of mastering all fighting styles is where his nickname “The Last Stylebender” fits, a reference to Nickelodeon’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The action cartoon also makes an appearance on his forearm, where he’s the character Toph Beifong tattooed. “I watch anime for the fight scenes, and I try to bring their spectacle to my finishes.”
We spoke with Adesanya about his favorite shows, training camps, brushes with Hollywood, and who he plans to fight next.
Men’s Journal: Going into a title defense where you’ve already beaten the fighter, how do you make sure you aren’t going in the Octagon overly confident?
Israel Adesanya: There’s an element of that you need to address, but there’s also additional urgency there because I really can’t lose to this guy. I’ve already beaten him. I’ve got that motivation to work with, and I push that forward. Even though I’ve been victorious before, I make my pursuit to find a way to do it in a more impressive fashion, if possible.
The knockout you scored on him the first time was pretty flawless. How did you find that moment?
I didn’t even go by our game plan during the first fight we had. For this one I brought back a few old weapons I wanted to use while also upgrading. To be honest, I wish I’d been more fluid in my decision-making this last fight, because there were times when I saw opportunities to take him out. I was feeling very comfortable southpaw, and I should have leaned into that. But in the end, I decided to stick with our original game plan.
When did the fight camp for UFC 271 begin?
This one we started in November of last year and there was a lockdown in Auckland. I used that time to get in the best shape of my life, going into a camp by doing these prison-style workouts with my best friend, Chance. He also used to work as a personal trainer, so he knows what he’s doing. That also meant he had a bit of equipment in the house as well. We set up some TRX bands to use on the doors and sandbags to add to the bodyweight training. I got pretty swole. I rolled that physique right into my camp. I was thicker, more muscular, and had gas for days. During fight camp, I’m working out two to three times a day. I put in a full days work, just like anyone else, but it’s probably a lot more fun than other gigs.
How strict is your diet during a fight camp?
Everybody knows I’m one of the healthiest people in the world, vegan and gluten-free. Just kidding! I like to enjoy life. Food is one of the great equalizers in this world, and one of the things I most look forward to when I travel around the world. I love going to eat when I’m in America—the more disgusting and sweet the better. I’m glad I’ve got the metabolism I do, because if I didn’t we’d have a problem. I try to eat relatively healthy when I’m in a training camp, but the last few weeks I really dial it in. I cut back on the Uber Eats. On fight week I work with Jori from The Fight Dietitian. He knows what to put in my food to optimize me completely. On the actual day of the fight I tend not to eat. I want to earn my kill.
Is there a tried-and-true training exercise you use during camp?
Hill sprints. There’s a street in Auckland where we’ve been going for over a decade called Air Street. That hill has created so many champions. It’s a hill that can’t be beat, nobody has. It takes a minute and a half to run up it. And you have three minutes total to get back down. Whatever time you have left is your rest time. I‘ve gotten close to hitting the record there, but never actually made it to the top in time. I did it with ten seconds left and nobody has beaten that yet. It’s a fucked up hill, man. It’s a soul destroyer. We ended up having to do these sprints in camp one summer, and it was pain. I just take my shirt off at the beginning now, because I know that one round in I’m going to be absolutely drenched.
The practice is about pushing yourself. It’s not about beating anyone else’s time. It’s about beating yourself and your own doubts. It’s good to train those mental states—how you can push through those boundaries. I know exactly when I hit my first wall. The first hurdle is getting past that. The second wall comes by this driveway, and I look forward to ways to dig deep. That’s the energy I need going into the final round in the UFC.
Any new techniques or disciplines you’ve adopted to improve your game?
I recently started to do breath work training with my guy Dave Wood back home in Auckland. He’s from Piha and has a very unique way of thinking. He gave me the red pill [so to speak]. My eyes were opened to how the way we breathe changes how we perform. There are a lot of people out there who breathe constantly through their mouths and don’t even realize it, even athletes. So once he showed me there was a new level to be unlocked, I went to gear three. You can see it during the fight but also between the rounds, when my eyes are closed, just focused. That’s probably the most recent game-changer. I’ve been working with him closely for about nine or ten months.
How did that translate to how you fought this last battle?
I was more present in this fight than I’ve been in any fight previously. I had a few flashes later in the fight, a few milliseconds though, but that was about it. You can’t lose focus in a fight at this level. You can’t. A momentary lapse of judgement can cost you greatly. That’s a quick way to wake up looking at the lights. But because I was more present in this fight, there was no chance I was going to lose.
Given that you’re the champ, there’s a lot riding on your next fight. How do you make sure your body is taken care of?
I’m all about doing prehab instead of rehab. I have a massage therapist, physiotherapist, and chiropractor I see once a week during fight camp. I still feel very young, but I’m not as young as I once was. I don’t recover the same. It takes a lot more time. I can’t party all night then show up fresh to the gym in the morning anymore. I have to take care of my bones and my flexibility consistently. I use the Theragun on my legs, especially before hill sprints.
What do you look forward to most after a victory?
My shower. There’s so much stimulus after a battle in the Octagon, getting dragged here and there. First you’re off to get a medical check, then to sit down with the media. Once that’s over I’m getting into the shower with my bare essentials. That’s when everything else in the world is stripped away. For me that space is like the white room in The Matrix when Neo is first tapped into his training. The next thing I absolutely need is get a great meal. I want to try the local cuisine, or whatever is being talked about in the area.
What do you say to people who are calling for a third fight between you and Rob Whittaker?
What for? The only people who are calling for another fight between me and him are people who want to see me lose. I’ve already beaten him twice. I knocked him out the first time, and bested him the last. I’m ready for the next chapter.
Do you have your sights set on someone in the division?
I’m ready to fight Jared Cannonier next. I think he did great in his last fight and I already told him at the weigh-ins he better do so because I need some new challengers. I’m excited for some new blood in the Octagon with me. I know he wants the work, too. I have a rough game plan as far as what I’m going to do to beat him. I know my coaches are watching videos and ready to come with their own ideas.
You’re undefeated in your division, but who gave you the biggest competition?
Kelvin Gastelum was the greatest challenge I’ve had, because at the time he posed the greatest threat. He made me dig deep to that other level. I knew I had that fighting spirit in there and this fight unlocked that. Going into the fifth round, I felt the most adversity, because I knew we were tied up in that moment. That moment it’s all about who wants it more. I’m not sure you can see in the video, but I mouthed to him, “You can’t beat me.” I was prepared to die. What a glorious death that would be. I wasn’t just ready to die, I was also ready to kill.
There have been a few impressive technical knockouts already, but do you have a move or finisher you’re hoping to land in the future?
I’m trying to snatch someone’s neck to be honest. I’ve done it a few times in the past, like when I snatched Brad Tavares and Kelvin Gastelum’s neck. I could’ve done it in my last fight with Rob Whittaker, but I just didn’t trust my instincts unfortunately. I’ve been drilling submissions during my sparring sessions and they’ve been coming to me easy. Someone’s going to be caught with one soon, I’m telling you.
You’ve racked up some cool supporters, like The Rock. What was it like to have him send you a little carb load before your fight?
It was awesome. He sent me Brique French Toast, aka The Rock Toast. It’s so thick…with those coconut flakes. I want to have more right now. I feel like I’m going to have to meet him a couple more times for it to really sink in. I grew up watching him fight in the WWE, back in that Attitude Era. Back when he was fucking guys up on the mic, then fucking them up in the ring with the Rock Bottom. I met him in New York once, and he’s just a cool guy who’s very level headed. The young Izzy still freaks out that I’m just talking to The Rock like it’s nothing.
Feels like you’re getting more and more connected with Hollywood. Do you have any plans of doing action movie roles?
Back in June, we had a really big offer come in that would’ve been right up my alley. But unfortunately I didn’t have an O-1 visa, which is what I needed to work. That being said, I’m ready now if the right project comes around. It’d be exciting to square up against Tony Jaa from Ong-Bak. Keanu Reeves would be great, too. The Rock, too. I would like to see an onscreen match between us, maybe CGI’d.