One of the simple pleasures of being Nigerian is watching your compatriots excel in their chosen fields. Naija to the world is a cute expression that takes on greater significance whenever a Nigerian or someone of Nigerian origin is making huge exploits on a global stage. It is all well to root for a compatriot, but what happens when that person returns the energy beat for beat? There is nothing quite like it.
Isreal Adesanya may have called New Zealand home since his family moved there when he was ten but the Nigerian is strong in him. A professional mixed martial artist, Adesanya competes on behalf of Nigeria in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In kickboxing, he is a former Glory middleweight contender winner and King in the Ring two-time cruiserweight and heavyweight champion.
In a year so filled with despair, there have been few marketers for brand Nigeria as consistent or as convincing as Adesanya. He takes advantage of his big moments to plug his origins. He speaks Yoruba and pidgin English surprisingly well. He isn’t shy of waving the Nigerian flag. And he proudly showcases Nigerian music. He loves his father too and does not hesitate to give the elder man credit for the strategic roles he plays in his victories. It helps that he can’t stop winning too.
Beyond his physical prowess, it is this impeccable mix of pure charisma, good looks and showmanship that has made Adesanya such a hit within the UFC. Goodluck keeping your eyes off him whenever he appears on your screen.
For many, the 31-year-old represents the new kind of Nigerian dream. The spawn of immigrants who applies the famed Nigerian talent and determination to an environment that encourages people to thrive and realise their dreams. Chances are Adesanya would probably not have realised all of his success back home but he chooses to celebrate the wins as a vindication of Nigerian excellence.
Adesanya kicked off his stellar year with a rather uneventful fight against Yoel Romero in March. He won the fight via a unanimous decision and was able to defend the UFC middleweight championship successfully for the first time. Many fans and pundits felt disappointed due by the low activity, but a win is a win indeed.
For his next title defence, Adesanya faced fellow undefeated fighter Paulo Costa in September, a battle that cast him in the role of ambassador for the UFC as he defended the decision to go ahead with the fight in the middle of a global pandemic. This was the first time that two male unbeaten mixed martial artists were going to battle in over a decade. The gods smiled on Adesanya and he won the fight via a sexy technical knockout in only the second round, effectively putting his naysayers to rest. How’s that for excitement? With this win, Adesanya earned him his fifth Performance of the Night award.
Away from the ring, Adesanya was winning as well. Inspired by his consistency and potential marketability, Adesanya signed a historic multi-year global sponsorship deal with sportswear brand, Puma. With this move, undefeated UFC Middleweight Champion Adesanya becomes the new face of Puma’s Oceania division. He is also the first mixed martial arts fighter to sign with Puma.
Adesanya may be a pioneering force today but he considers himself a forerunner to the total domination of Nigerians within the UFC and he is happy to play his part in making this a reality. He might be on to something too, considering the UFC has the likes of Kamaru Usman, Sodiq Yusuff and Kenedy Nzechukwu.
Adesanya represents many things to many people. A confident black man making his way in a world that would rather have his head bowed. An immigrant success story. A template for Nigerians seeking greener pastures abroad to look up to. An entertainer, bringing joy and thrills and laughter to his fans around the world. A shining example of the junction where talent, opportunity and hard work collide. He may not know it but his success and his embrace of his Nigerian identity gives many young people permission to dream again.
To vote Israel Adesanya as YNaija Person of the Year 2020; visit ynaija.com/personoftheyear2020