In a story that reads like it was plucked from one of his beloved comic books, undefeated UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya looks destined to transcend the sport.
Earlier this month, he joined global football star Neymar in signing a deal with sportswear company Puma. He graces the cover of the UFC’s latest video game, and his image peers down from international billboards in regions the UFC’s substantial media arm struggles to touch.
This weekend – at UFC 253 in Abu Dhabi – the man known as ‘The Last Stylebender’ steps into the octagon with Paulo Costa, who many believe is the 31-year-old’s toughest challenge to date.
Should he beat the Brazilian, as he has his previous 19 opponents, he will continue his transition from the mixed martial arts bubble to the broader cultural consciousness.
‘He’s an expert on fashion, anime and dancing’
Adesanya was born in Nigeria and showed no immediate flair for sport at the age of 10 when his family relocated to New Zealand. Instead, he immersed himself in comic books, anime and breakdancing.
And City Kickboxing head coach Eugene Bareman – considered one of the greatest minds in MMA – believes his student’s introspection in his younger years is what allows him to stand out.
“New Zealand has a massive sporting culture, especially when it comes to team sports,” Bareman tells BBC Sport. “Rugby in particular is ingrained in our culture – almost every kid plays it at some stage.
“Israel gravitated towards different things – fashion, anime, dancing – and is an expert on those subjects. The people who know about these things appreciate that he has a lot of knowledge in those areas.”
Adesanya showed his love of dancing – and ease with the big occasion – before his title unification bout with Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 in Melbourne. He exploded into an elaborate walk-out dance routine in front of 60,000 people.
Members of the media, whose view was obscured by the octagon, could be seen feverishly scrolling through their smartphones to find footage of the performance, which would go on to generate millions of views worldwide.
‘My way or no way’
Adesanya’s rise has not always been championed by the powers that be – and UFC president Dana White was far from glowing when that unique octagon entrance was mentioned earlier this week.
“I don’t love it,” White told TMZ Sports. “I battle with him every time we do it. I keep it as minimal as possible. I like guys that just walk right into the octagon. They’re serious, they’re all business.”
But Adesanya is not afraid to back himself.
“[UFC] did shut me down for UFC 234, when I became the main event,” he tells BBC Sport. “I told them: ‘I’m doing this my way or no way.'”
Owing to the coronavirus pandemic there will be no fans in attendance at Abu Dhabi’s Fight Island this weekend, but Adesanya may still have some tricks up his sleeve – inspired by Jet Li from the action film Unleashed.
Adesanya explains: “The way he walked to the arena and then his trainer took the collar off him and unleashed him on his opponent…but I’m just focused on the fight right now.”
Sky is the limit
Despite Adesanya’s rapid upward trajectory, Bareman remains his compass.
Footage emerged this week showing the New Zealander delivering tongue-lashings to the champion and his team-mates.
It is not a familiar sight for those of Adesanya’s status, but Bareman’s view is that if something isn’t broken, why fix it?
“We understand what’s got us here,” said Bareman. “We understand that we can’t change the dynamic of that relationship.
“The fact that he makes more money than all of the other guys, it’s never come up. Not even once. He’s never been five minutes late and even been close to saying: ‘I pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars, so I’m allowed to be five minutes late.’ He never would.
“We know what got us here and we’re not willing to sacrifice that. Once that happens, we both know that everything will change.”
As he prepares to meet fellow undefeated knockout artist Costa, Adesanya is laser-focused.
After a jovial jive against Whittaker to claim the undisputed title, his first defence against Cuban Yoel Romero was likened to a waltz.
That fight, he says, was an opportunity to transcend MMA.
“It had the big build-up on ESPN and all that kind of stuff,” Adesanya says.
“I feel like I needed a valley in my story and that was my valley. Now it’s time to rise again.
“With the new Puma deal and everything that’s going on, this fight will shoot me into the next stratosphere.”