“They’ll know who I am after this fight,” Israel Adesanya said.
“They know who I am,” he stops, leans in and says with emphasis, “but they’ll know who I am after this fight.”
Which is a revealing statement, considering Adesanya takes pride in the masses now knowing who he truly is.
UFC middleweight champion, well known.
On the verge of equalling the great Anderson Silva for the longest winning streak in the division (13), known to mixed martial arts enthusiasts. About to defend his title against the only man, Alex Pereira, who has knocked him out – in a 2017 kickboxing match – known to anyone who has read a word about UFC 281 this past month.
“I’ve dropped a lot of dead weight from my life, I keep my circle small,” said Adesanya, the 33-year-old Nigerian-born New Zealander with seven million Instagram followers.
“I just happen to be surrounded by a lot of people, but I know who is who. Even the hangers on, who are outside of the circle, I know who some of them are but they serve a purpose sometimes, so at least I know where to put them.”
Where he plans to put Pereira this Sunday, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, is exactly where he was five years ago in the ring – flat on his back.
The Brazilian has spent the build-up to this showdown suggesting Adesanya has been avoiding him, and is psychologically wounded by the double losses to him in kickboxing – Pereira also defeated him by points in 2016.
But he also has given an insight into his turbulent beginnings, as a 16-year-old tyre factory worker drinking one litre of rum each day, which often led to fist fights on the streets.
After knocking out a few, Pereira decided to seriously take up kickboxing, aged 21.
He developed the nickname “Po Atan”, or stone hand, and built a 33-7 (21KO) career before transitioning to mixed martial arts in 2015. He lost his first bout via submission, but won his next six – including all three in the UFC – to force a showdown against his old nemesis.
For Adesanya, the confidence of exacting revenge has been on display throughout the build-up to this bout, however he’s allowed Pereira, 35, to have “bragging rights” and toned down his verbal baiting.
“In the last two, two and a half years, (I’ve learned) don’t react, respond,” Adesanya said.
“There’s a time to react, but most people almost always react at the wrong time.
“I never react, I just respond.
“Through the work I’ve done on myself, emotional work, mental work, I realised most times in life, people feel a certain way about something and they react, even on social media, people react all the time.
“With the way the world is, the government makes the people react all the time too, so they can get away with shit.
“But if you don’t react, and take time to process what’s happening, your emotions, then you can respond with the right response.”
That response has been honed for the past two months inside Auckland’s City Kickboxing Gym where Adesanya and his small team of hungry fighters plan, train, and share their rollercoaster journeys.
“I have people around me who went through some shit, and they still managed to show up, day in, day out,” Adesanya said.
“It’s not my place to say, but I’ve seen some people around me really demonstrate spiritual strength and fortitude, so I really take inspiration from that.
“Having the people that I do around me always grounds me, but they never halt me from flying.”
Adesanya has a remarkable 24-1 (15KO) record in MMA. His only defeat came when he jumped up to light heavyweight to fight champion Jan Blachowicz last year and was physically dominated over five rounds.
He returned to middleweight to score three more victories.
“I am one of the greatest, I’m going to be immortalised in the history books, but there’s more to life than fighting,” Adesanya said.
“I’ve been clucky for the longest time, all my friends around me are having kids, so I see that side of life.
“But right now, I’m great at doing this, I’m learning so much more, and there’s so much I want to express in this game that I haven’t. I’m sticking around for a while.”
And beyond the octagon, what awaits Adesanya when he retires from the fight game?
“The world is my oyster,” he said.
“I’ve got the buffet in front of me, so I’ll do whatever I want.”
Adesanya vs Pereira head-to-head
Strikes landed per minute
Strikes absorbed per minute
Adesanya: front leg kick
Pereira: left hook
Originally published as UFC 281: Inside the mind of Israel Adesanya ahead of Alex Pereira fight