Marc Raimondi, ESPN Staff WriterSep 8, 2023, 07:41 AM ET
Jese Tuivoavoa was a student at Rotorua Boys’ High School in New Zealand in 2004 when he first met Israel Adesanya. The two were in their early teens and were introduced by a mutual friend during physical education class.
Throughout his childhood, Adesanya had already been dancing. He learned the street dance “popping,” similar to break-dancing, when he lived in Ghana for a short time before moving to New Zealand. And during that gym class, Tuivoavoa recalled Adesanya showing off some of those popping skills, doing “roundoff backflips on the mat area.”
Tuivoavoa had never danced before, but he was immediately intrigued. Adesanya asked him if he wanted to learn.
“He’s like, ‘Come to my house on the weekend and we can get started,'” Tuivoavoa told ESPN. “And I was like, ‘Yes, say less.'”
Fifteen years after teaching him how to dance — and with Tuivoavoa now part of Raw and Rugged, one of the top dance troupes in Australia — Adesanya contacted Tuivoavoa with a favor. Adesanya, then the interim UFC middleweight champion, would attempt to unify the titles against undisputed champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 on Oct. 6, 2019. The event would be in front of 57,127 people at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, where Tuivoavoa lived.
Adesanya also called another old friend, Jay Kapene, who would dance in the streets of Little Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island with Adesanya and Tuivoavoa for tips when they were teens. The trio would then take the change and go to the local arcade to play games such as Street Fighter. Adesanya and Tuivoavoa, along with some others, were part of a group called Broken Native, which Adesanya has tattooed across his chest.
At UFC 243, those three and dancer Te Manawanui Paraha, who dances with Tuivoavoa in Raw and Rugged, were the featured attractions. They presented what has been called the greatest walkout in modern UFC history, a choreographed dance that shook the cavernous Marvel Stadium. And then Adesanya knocked out Whittaker in the second round to become undisputed champion for the first time.
Adesanya has become one of the greatest middleweight MMA fighters ever over the past four years. On Saturday, he’ll return to Australia for the first time since 2019 when he defends the UFC middleweight belt against Sean Strickland in the main event of UFC 293 in Sydney (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ pay-per-view).
“The Last Stylebender” will look to cement himself as one of the best in the world again this weekend. But it was that day at UFC 243 — the epic walkout followed by the epic knockout — that announced his arrival as a star.
(Editor’s note: The quotes below have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Adesanya originally wanted a special walkout for his fight with Anderson Silva at UFC 234 on Feb. 10, 2019. But the UFC shot down the idea. Adesanya vs. Silva was initially supposed to be the card’s co-main event, with Whittaker taking on Kelvin Gastelum in the headliner. Whittaker fell ill and withdrew from the fight hours before the card. Adesanya vs. Silva became the main event. Still, the UFC wasn’t biting on Adesanya’s dance entrance.
UFC president Dana White (to ESPN’s Cover Story): It’s not what we do. I want guys in the right frame of mind and ready for business, man. That’s what I’m looking for when these guys walk out. And when they walk, some guys are a little lighter and in the mood and [they’ll] dance to their music and all that kind of stuff, whatever. The choreographed intro walk-ins we do not do here. And we will not do them as long as I’m here.
Adesanya beat Silva, then two months later defeated Gastelum to win the interim middleweight title in the best fight of 2019. Adesanya was a potential star before that bout ,and gutting one out against Gastelum in a bloody war showed he could overcome adversity, that he wasn’t just a slick, finesse-based striker. With the interim title around his waist, the next step was to unify the titles with Whittaker at UFC 243. Adesanya broached the idea of a unique walkout again.
Tim Simpson, Adesanya’s manager: So, he had the plan. We wanted to put it together. Originally, it was all nos. I speak to [UFC coordinating producer] Zach Candito. Zach asked Dana. Zach is really cool. But Zach will speak to Dana and come back, and it’ll be like, ‘Hey, sorry. Dana said no.’
Candito: Obviously, the UFC gets approached from time to time with these types of asks. Some make a lot more sense than others. And it just takes the right person at the right time to allow us to feel comfortable to pull that trigger. It has to feel natural. Because I think there’s something successful about the understated entrance that we talk about, the Mike Tyson comparison that Dana alludes to as what we like about that visceral, raw, unadulterated staredown.
White (to ESPN’s Cover Story): A lot of people are hardcore fight fans like I am. And you’re ready to see a fight. You don’t want to see a guy dancing, OK? There are not many scenarios where fight fans ever want to see men dancing.
Adesanya: I was just like, ‘Oh f— that. This is my show. I’ll do it. This is my f—ing show.’ So, I put my foot down on that one.
White (to ESPN’s Cover Story): Zach brought it to me, and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, walk me through, let’s do a rehearsal. Show us what they want to do and we’ll decide whether we want to do it or not.’
With the UFC tentatively agreeing, Adesanya reached out to Tuivoavoa and Kapene four days before the event. Adesanya shared his vision for what the dance walkout would look like with Tuivoavoa, who got together with Kapene and Paraha to choreograph it the Friday before the card Sunday.
Tuivoavoa: [Adesanya] just says to me, out of the blue, he just goes, ‘Hey, I’m going to need you to do something for this entrance. And I was like, ‘Bro, you’re just bringing this on me now?’
Kapene: I didn’t even know what a walkout was. I was thinking, ‘Oh cool. I can hold the water and hold the bucket and walk out with the boys.’ He goes, ‘No, no, no, I want you to dance.’ I started to freak out a little bit. I’ve performed in front of 10,000 people max before. I was like, ‘Wow, OK. Yeah, cool. That’s another chance for us boys to put another dance reel together.’
At 6:15 p.m. local time Saturday, hours after the weigh-ins and less than 21 hours before he would fight, Adesanya met with Tuivoavoa, Kapene and Paraha to rehearse the piece inside a mostly empty Marvel Stadium.
Candito: We got an idea of what it was at the fighter meeting [earlier in the week]. So, we just talked through it with [Adesanya]. ‘What are you looking for?’ Listened to the song with him. He explains that he’s not going to be out at the beginning of [the entrance], that he’ll walk out, I believe it was about 30 seconds into the song. So, how do we do that integration? Where does he walk from? So I said, ‘OK, that gives me a base point to work with.’ And then he said, unsolicited, ‘I want to come over and do it.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, well that makes it a lot easier for us.’
Tuivoavoa: [Adesanya] gave us the original mix for it. I was able to work around that and then gave it to [Kapene] so that he could add other stuff to highlight certain moments in the piece.
Kapene: I was at the rehearsal suggesting he did more dangerous stuff during the dance piece. ‘You’d look real cool if you do this.’ I remember [UFC reporter] Megan Olivi, she was there freaking out. Like, ‘Hey, hey, stop getting him to do risky stuff before this big fight. We don’t want him getting injured.’ [Adesanya] was having fun. It was really cool to see him like that, watching Izzy dial into what he’s going to do the following day.
Megan Olivi: The floor was super weird. It was like these puzzle pieces. It wasn’t super stable. He was in the process of rehydrating, and I’m like, ‘Wait, OK. He’s going to do a walkout?’ And then I saw everybody doing tricks and flips. And I immediately went over to [Simpson] and I was like, ‘Can you please just make sure that he is careful?’ Because I was just so nervous for him.
Candito: So, we ask him to show us what he’s going to do — the dance, the cartwheel, the trigger with the hand, the whole deal. And then from there, he said she wanted to do the walk. So, we then just proceeded to do it with him [with cameras]. I will never forget it. It shocked us the amount of times that he did it and the attention to detail.
Simpson: The funny thing is, in the rehearsal, he did that cartwheel flip like 10 times. That’s a lot of energy. Israel is an alien, man. Any typical rules of recovery, diet, rest — they just don’t apply to him.
Candito: I think it was about the fifth time he did it, the stage manager comes to me and goes, ‘Zach, he wants to come to the truck.’ He wanted to watch it back to review it, and then we sent a link of it so he and the dancers could look at it. Then he tinkered with it and did it one more time. He watched the whole entire thing and we’re talking about it. He’s sweating. We’ve done however many of these events and we’re starting to question, ‘This guy’s about to fight Robert bleepin’ Whitaker tomorrow for the UFC middleweight title. Robert Whitaker doesn’t lose fights at this time. Robert Whitaker’s a machine. And [Adesanya is] putting all this mental and physical energy towards a walkout. We were questioning it.
Adesanya (to ESPN’s Cover Story): I felt like a producer. I produced the f— out of it. I fell asleep the night before watching that video, like the rehearsals, on repeat. I’d just watch it again, and I fell asleep watching it, because I was just so excited by just the look of it.
Candito brought the rehearsal video to White, and he gave the thumbs up.
White: Dancing is such a big part of [Adesanya’s] life and he’s so good at it. He’s so talented. If he wasn’t fighting, he could probably be making a lot of money doing dancing. I mean, he’s that good. Because he’s that good, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’
UFC 243 was held in the morning in Melbourne to align with primetime in the United States like most UFC pay-per-view events. Tuivoavoa, Kapene and Paraha gathered inside a small green room inside the bowels of Marvel Stadium to go over the dance a few more times before the real thing. Adesanya wasn’t with them for those run-throughs, because he had to warm up and shake things out before competing. Adesanya’s coach, Eugene Bareman, of City Kickboxing, wasn’t a huge fan of what was happening.
Bareman: I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t know what the routine was. I didn’t know anything about it at all. I just think that in the grand scheme of what was going on, it was the last thing that I needed to put any concentration into. He was pretty locked into doing it. I do remember that. Like he really wanted to do it. For me, it was a distraction personally. But for him and the way that he is and the way that he deals with those things, it was a necessary part of his buildup. It was part of the work. It was part of what made that special and helped him motivate and pump himself up.
Simpson: [Adesanya is] special. Maybe part of it is cathartic and a distraction, if I’m honest. He was far more nervous about the dance than he was the fight. The dude has had like 120 fights.
Kapene: I just remember feeling terrified for Izzy. Not that I don’t think he has the skills to take [Whittaker] down. I believe he can take out any man on the planet. I was scared for Izzy, just as a friend. I don’t want him to come out of this and get hurt.
Tuivoavoa: So, we go from our little green room to the entrance area of the walkout. And when we just waited for the green light, and then they gave us the green light to head up through the little walkway set up for the entrance.
The lights went out at Marvel Stadium. When they came back on, Tuivoavoa was slowly walking through the lit tunnelway that led into the main area. On screen, Paraha was on the left and Kapene on the right. The three started with hand gestures, and when the lights came back on, Tuivoavoa flipped his baseball cap and Kapene and Manawanui did synchronized backflips. The music playing to start was the song “Vengeance” by Brian M vs. McBunn, which began with actor Liam Neeson’s quotes from the movie “Taken.”
The camera zoomed in on the three dancers who came together, arms linked, and shouted with scowls. They circled around and put on masks as Adesanya sauntered through the tunnel to the song “Hype 2 Hype” by Big Rulez. Adesanya and his friends huddled together, arms around one another.
Tuivoavoa: We’re all bobbing up and down and he says, with such a calm voice — it always gives me goosebumps every time I say it — he’s like, ‘You boys ready?’ He said that so calmly, like he wasn’t fighting for a championship. I’m just in my head like, ‘Bro, you’re about to fight Rob Whitaker, are you asking us?’ And then we just break out, that was it.
Kapene: He’s checking on us and we’re not fighting the world champion. We’re about to go get some drinks after this. All my fears about the bro, they all just disappeared at that moment. I was like, oh he’s going to go rip this dude.
Adesanya got in front of the three dancers, held his arms out and moved his torso like he was driving a vehicle. He then hit a one-handed cartwheel moving to his right and came out of it in a knees-bent martial arts stance, summoning an opponent to come forward with his right hand, which was inspired by the character Rock Lee from the anime “Naruto.”
Jon Anik, UFC play-by-play announcer: There was already tremendous hype and anticipation because our live event production team wasn’t telling me exactly what was happening. I just knew something spectacular was coming. So, when they stopped at the base of the tunnel and then they started to, in a synchronized way, move, I was just — my jaw dropped. It was a total spectacle.
Daniel Cormier, former UFC two-division champion and color commentator: I didn’t know the dude could dance. I knew that he was a character, but I didn’t know to what degree. And I remember him coming out and the crowd went crazy. You’ve never heard a pop like this. You haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard 60,000 people just erupt at once. It was like a f—ing rock concert, bro.
After more anime-inspired hand gestures, including a point to the sky, the dancers head back through the tunnel and Adesanya commences his walk with Bareman and his coaches walking behind him.
Bareman: Our fighter Dan Hooker fought in the co-main event. We planned to stay at the cage and jump into [Adesanya’s Reebok fight] shirt. And then our wrestling coach Andrei Paulet, at the last minute before Israel walks out, he says to us, ‘Israel wanted everybody at the start of the tunnel.’ Oh s—. I was like, ‘What?!’ Remember, this wasn’t a regular UFC entrance, it was like a good [175-foot or so] walk. And then we all went on a massive sprint because this was literally him getting ready to walk out. One of our trainers is incapacitated, he uses a walking stick. But he still went as fast as he could. We charged back out of the stadium into the tunnel and we made it just in time.
Adesanya: I never let anyone write my story. I just express myself the way I want to express myself. Whether it was quote-unquote cringe as people like to say, I’m like, ‘All that lets me know is that you don’t have the balls to do this kind of s—. Because you will never put yourself in this kind of situation.’ So when they say, ‘Oh, it’s cringe,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you can never, ever even hold a f—ing candle to me.’
White (to ESPN’s Cover Story): You want to see hardcore tough guys coming out. They mean business and are serious and you want to see a great fight. If a guy comes out dancing, it’s the exact opposite of the mood and the mentality that you’re looking for from a fighter who’s just about to fight in the biggest fight of his life. Israel pulled it off and it came off cool.
But he still had to fight the man considered the best in the world at 185 pounds for the title. Adesanya nearly finished Whittaker with strikes at the end of the first round, and in the second round, he pulled it off. Minutes after performing an intricate, choreographed dance walkout, Adesanya leaned back and landed a perfect counter left hook that dropped Whittaker. Adesanya came in with strikes on the ground and referee Marc Goddard moved in to stop the fight. Adesanya became the new, undisputed UFC middleweight champion.
Cormier: I could never have done that. It takes a special type of athlete to do that. Not only to memorize and put it all into action, but to do it [near his home in New Zealand].
Anik: To devote that much time, energy, focus and mental attention to that initiative before the fight and then to go out and become the undisputed king of the middleweights — I didn’t put anything past him beforehand and I certainly would never after he did that.
Tuivoavoa: I don’t know anybody in the UFC that has done anything like that, to start with a dance piece and then go and knock the champion out. You have to have a lot of balls to do that s—.
Bareman: It’s not something I would have said out loud, but I was like, ‘F—, if you’re going to make this big a deal out of it, we better do something here.’ Just a bit of a kind of laugh to myself. Months and months later we did talk about it. I had nothing to say except I was very happy for him and his friends. He explained to me the relevance and importance of having his friends there, who he had been with for a long time, long before I knew him. To have them at an event of that magnitude and dance in front of that many people, they’ll never experience that again. He told me about the joy he got from being a part of being able to give them that experience.
Kapene: It was right up there with one of the highlights of my life — and I didn’t knock Robert out.
Simpson: I thought a lot of people thought this was going to be his humbling moment, and that was when he just exploded. That was when everything changed for Israel. Everything.
Adesanya: That’s a hard one to top, man. Because it wasn’t just like some goofy-ass dance, as well. That was some real street s—. And also to do it with my homies, who I used to dance with back in the day, and go in there and just, like I say: a walkout to knockout. That was amazing.