Every so often, in every sport, a truly unique character arrives with seemingly the sole purpose of reinvigorating intrigue and interest. Within the world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship - an organisation not short on the eccentric - the latest star has emerged in the form of Israel Mobolaji Adesanya, the man who wants to be known as ‘The Last Stylebender” (more on this later) and will be entering the Octagon this weekend once again.
Born in Nigeria, made in New Zealand, a more appropriate moniker could well have been ‘Anime Adesanya’.
For 30-year-old MMA warrior Israel is uniquely unabashed in his love for Japanese animation, his adoption of ‘Anime’ into his Octagon persona, and the distinctive citation of it as fuelling his ambition, ability, and style. Combined with a perfect professional proficiency, the wholly individual Adesanya is the consummate showman.
"You see me try some [sic] I've seen in cartoons or video games and I'll pull it out in the Octagon because, I don't know, I can do it," Adesanya told ESPN.
"I blurred the lines between reality and fantasy; I am that line: The Last Stylebender."
‘The Last Stylebender’ is, of course, a take on the Asian-infused Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which certain characters can manipulate the classical elements. But the nickname is just one part of the act. Adesanya regularly cites series, episodes, characters in his pre-fight press conference (no doubt to the bemusement of many of the sports journalists in attendance) and takes it one step further by replicating particular stylistic moves, ticks, and gimmicks in his fight routine.
At UFC 243, Adesanya pretended to write down the name of his opponent Robert ‘The Reaper” Whittaker moments before they faced each other, a direct reference to the Japanese anime Death Note, in which a student discovers a notebook that allows the holder to kill anyone by writing the person’s name on the page.
Adesanya duly produced a second-round knock-out of said-Reaper, consequently crowning himself as the 185-pound undisputed champion.
‘Stylebender’ certainly started racking up those fans upon his debut back in February 2018 at UFC 221, in which he produced a second TKO of Rob Wilkinson. It was within the aftermath that he really endeared himself, as the rookie conceded to emotion with the support of his coach Eugene Bareman.
“Okay, you gotta see me cry now,” Adesanya said, as the waterworks flowed. “F**k, there’s a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. F**k ‘em, I’m a man and I feel myself.”
Middleweight Champion Adesanya is now on an 18-fight winning streak, with 14 of those coming via knock-out. He may be a geek, but he’s a bloody hard one.
In 2019, Adesanya disclosed to ESPN that it is the Japanese series Naruto - a manga (comics or graphic novels) turned into a TV show - that holds a special place in his heart, the titular fictional ninja likely to be on his imaginary dinner-party guestlist.
"Naruto's cool. Where do I start?,” said Adesanya, “Naruto is just a kid but he's a kid who inspires me based on the way he was brought up and his will-power; his will-power really inspired me, and his morals that he has for his friends and his family, and his code.
"His ninja code could never be broken and I really respect that; not just him but a few other characters like Rock Lee and Shino, Akamaru or Shikamaru; a lot of them. I draw strength from characters that aren't even 'real', quote-unquote, because they're animated.
"But they're real for me and it's all about what's in here, what you feel in here [the heart] and I can relate to those guys more than I can to some of the great leaders of our time."
Adesanya has already made plans for his post-fighting career, in a relatively altogether unsurprising direction:
"I wanted to be an animator when I was growing up, I still will, I will have my own production company after fighting, and I will hire people who will actually bring my vision to life."
Before he goes ‘back to the drawing board’ however Adesanya first has to defend his title against Yoel Romero this Saturday at UFC 248 in Las Vegas.
Expect a typically anime-ted performance from 'The Last Stylebender'.