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‘The Nigeria of my dream’

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ATLANTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 13: Israel Adesanya of Nigeria kicks Kelvin Gastelum during the UFC 236 event at State Farm Arena on April 13, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Logan Riely/Getty Images/AFP

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) interim middleweight champion, Israel Mobolaji Adesanya, migrated with his parents from Nigeria to New Zealand when he was 11 years old. That was in the early 2000s, when issues of insecurity in Nigeria were at minimal.

The combat fighter, who is shaping the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), could not hide his joy on arrival in Lagos on Tuesday after spending 16 years outside the country.

The Last Stylebender, as Adesanya is fondly called, was glad to see a country booming with sports-loving people, but he is scared of the high level of insecurity across the land. He wants a stop to it.

“I want to see a new Nigeria, where everybody lives happily without fear of insecurity,” he told The Guardian in Lagos. “I am so happy to see that Nigerians are sports-loving people. Everywhere I turned, the fans are always around me. That is great. But I want a situation whereby the entire country is free from the issue of kidnapping, Boko Haram and killing for ritual purposes. I want to see a more united Nigeria, a country that will shut down whenever I am fighting inside the ring.

“I am actually looking forward to seeing the sports spirit exhibited by the Philippines in my country Nigeria. Whenever that Filipino boxer, Manny Pacquiao, is fighting, the entire country is shut down. His people put aside every other thing to support him. That is the spirit I want Nigerians to follow.

“The Boko Haram, kidnappers and those involved in ritual killings should cease-fire and embrace the spirit of sports. That is the way to go, and I believe we will build a more united Nigeria. My duty is to put smiles on the faces of my people anytime I fight inside the ring,” Adesanya stated.

Before he relocated to New Zealand at the age of 11, Israel had enrolled in Taekwondo Club in his primary school, Chrisland, in Opebi, Lagos.

Recalling his youthful days in the martial art, Adesanya disclosed to The Guardian why he was forced to abandon taekwondo at the early age. “I was kicking everything in the house and my mother became very uncomfortable with it. I will do backflip on the bed, in the sitting room and kick any object at sight as if I was fighting an opponent.

“One day, I was all alone doing my usual summersaulting and kicking of objects when I broke my arm. My mum was mad at me. It was the end to taekwondo. But I must say that the little experience I gathered in taekwondo at Chrisland school helped me a lot when I finally decided to go into combat sports in New Zealand,” Adesanya stated.

In 1999, Israel started his secondary school education at Bells School, Otta, Ogun State, but the young lad left the school when his family migrated overseas.

Adesanya recalled his early days in New Zealand. “I actually took to combat sports shortly after I arrived in New Zealand as a way of self-defence. As a black man in a foreign land, there was some form of bullying from the children at school. Not that I was badly treated though because New Zealand is a nice country,” he stated.

Adesanya’s victory against America’s Kelvin Gastelum at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, a few weeks ago earned him the UFC interim middleweight championship belt in one of the best title fights ever seen in combat sports history. The Nigerian won via unanimous decision.

With the victory, Adesanya moves his undefeated record to 17-0, including a staggering six consecutive UFC wins in just 14 months.

The victory makes the Nigerian-born Adesanya New Zealand’s first-ever UFC champion, although he still needs to beat the recovering Robert Whittaker later this year to become the division’s outright king. That fight will produce an undisputed king of the UFC’s 185-pound division.

Interim titles are awarded when the original champion is unable to compete for a long period of time. It prevents the top end of a division from stalling, and once the original champion is able to return, they are generally required to fight the interim titleholder in a unification bout.

Adesanya told The Guardian that he was ready for the unification fight against Robert Whittaker any time the fight comes up.

Robert Whittaker, born in December 1990, is an Australian professional mixed martial art fighter. He was the middleweight champion before Adesanya took over as interim belt holder last month.

Though, The Smashes, as Whittaker is fondly called, had been a professional MMA fighter since 2009, the Nigerian is optimistic of adding him to the list of his casualties when their fight comes up later this year.

“There is this long sports rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. I have the belief that I will floor him. Whether the fight comes up in Auckland or Australia, it is going to be one of the biggest sporting events in Australasian and Oceania history. Right now, I am in Nigeria but my mind is in that fight. I won’t let my people down when it comes up. I know for a fact I am the best in the world,” Adesanya said.

UFC President Dana White had declared Adesanya’s UFC title victory against America’s Kelvin Gastelum as one of the greatest fights he had ever seen. He announced the unification bout with Whittaker, saying it would take place in Australia.

Before his victory in Atlanta, U.S. last month, Adesanya had defeated Brazil’s Anderson Silva in February at UFC 234 contest in Melbourne, Australia. In all his fights, the Nigerian counter right hand, coupled with his vast experience in mixed martial art, kickboxing and boxing, has been his biggest weapon.

Whenever Israel goes out for a fight, his father, Mr. Femi Adesanya, mother, Mrs. Taiwo Adesanya and his siblings including Modupeoluwa, Oluwaseyi and Mogbonjubola are always at the ringside to cheer him on.

“It is good to have my parents and family members around me at the ringside whenever I am fighting,” he told The Guardian. “They are used to the tension, but I always try as much as possible to make them happy. Once I am inside the ring, what I think is victory for myself, my team, family members and fans all around the world. I have a strong fan base over the globe and that also makes it easier for me to win the heart of the fans at any venue.”

Adesanya’s arrival in Lagos on Tuesday was greeted by excitement by his numerous fans, right from the Murtala Mohammed International airport, as immigration officers and other security personnel at the airport ‘abandoned’ their duty posts to take photographs with the combat fighter.

He became the cynosure of all eyes at a four star hotel, where he lodged in Victoria Island, with friends, relatives and boxing fans pushing to take photographs with him.

“Nigeria is a sports loving country and I love the people,” he said. “I never knew that majority of Nigerians follow my fight on television. This is wonderful. Since I came into Lagos on Tuesday afternoon, the people have demonstrated their love towards my team and me.

“Everywhere I turn, it is the shout of Adesanya the great fighter, Adesanya the hero. It’s great,” he said.

Adesanya disclosed that he decided to ‘sneak’ into the country to feel the environment, which he left about 16 years ago.

“I left Nigeria at the age of 11 years, and it is wonderful to be back again. I decided to sneak in because I wanted it so for now. But I will come back soon, probably with Kamaru Usman (the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ and first African fighter to win a UFC title). I have enjoyed myself since I came into Lagos on Tuesday. I have eaten a lot of our local food. I started with suya, and this morning, I eat ewa agoyin (beans prepared locally). I will head for a special amala joint this evening,” he stated.

Adesanya, who hails from Odogbolu, Ogun State, presented the Golden belt to Governor Ibikunle Amosun on Thursday in Abeokuta.

He is expected to visit his former school, Chrisland in Ikeja, just as he revealed that he might also find time to visit his people in Odogbolu, if time permits him.


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