How the UFC Uses Fitness and Breathwork

Israel Adesanya is a rare athlete. At 22-1-0, he not only holds one of the most exciting win rates in the current UFC line-up, he’s also four years older than the championship in which he competes – a trait that even sporting polymaths, such as Ronaldo and Tiger, cannot claim. ‘I got into fighting for self-defence,’ he says about his ascension to the Octagon. ‘I really wanted to learn how to protect myself in every different facet.’ It’s a modest ambition that he has far exceeded.

Born in Nigeria, Adesanya spent his early teenage years in Rotorua, New Zealand, watching Japanese anime. After turning 18, he started training in kick-boxing, inspired by the Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak.

He quickly progressed to competing, forging the skills that would later write his pay cheques alongside future UFC stars such as Dan Hooker, Kai Kara-France and Alexander Volkanovski. It took seven years of TKOs and KOs across countless tournaments for UFC to come knocking in 2017 and, for UFC 221, a then 27-year-old Adesanya dispatched Rob Wilkinson to win a Performance of the Night bonus and etch his name into UFC lore.

Five years on, he credits his success to hard graft as much as raw talent. ‘A lot of people just join the gym and don’t do the due diligence,’ he says of the work ethic that separates him from the many fighters yearning to get to his level. ‘I just kept to the same formula of doing the work we do as a team.’ And ‘the work’, if you’re wondering, isn’t just about lifting, sparring, grappling and sweating through padwork sessions. Rather, he’s been cultivating a not-so-secret weapon: his breath. Working with breathwork and mindset coach Dave Wood has been ‘paramount’, he says. ‘I feel I’m paving the way, setting the trends.’

‘Recovery is part of training,’ he continues. ‘You need time to rest so you can adapt to the work you’ve just done.’ And for Adesanya, this involves meditative breathwork sessions, long stints in the pool – often shifting kettlebells from A to B under water, ‘[not] for better athletic performance, but for better mental stability’, he says.

It’s this breadth of influences and willingness to experiment that have earned him the anime-inspired moniker The Last Stylebender. ‘MMA training has evolved [since I started],’ he says. ‘There’s less guesswork and it’s more scientific. The game keeps changing.’ For Adesanya, however, there’s little that needs to be altered for him to stay leagues above his peers, not that he’s looking at anyone else. ‘I don’t follow sports,’ he finishes. ‘I just follow greatness.’

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