What do you get if you plonk 10 UFC fighters together in the same room? Now, imagine what happens if they begin living together 24/7 and are in the midst of a fight camp.
This is not a riddle.
Since the New Zealand city of Auckland returned to Stage 3 lockdown restrictions earlier this month, in light of an unexpected uptick in COVID-19 cases, the fighters at south Auckland’s famous City Kickboxing have become even more close knit. The gym has now transitioned into a permanent, around-the-clock home for its MMA talent and, as expected, shenanigans has ensued.
“It’s like being on school camp,” fly-weight’s Kai Kara-France explains. “You’re learning about everyone’s annoying habits. People who snore and people you want to punch. But we have a pretty strong bond here and everyone is elevating each other to another level. Everyone is excited and motivated and we’re always in each other’s space.”
For Israel Adesanya, the reigning UFC middleweight champion and star pupil of City Kickboxing, group lockdown at the gym has meant some serious experimentation with his sleeping arrangements.
“I got this single mattress from my house out west. I got my brother to bring it. I put it on the hardwood floor [in the Jiu-Jitsu room] and I was sleeping on it, being all nostalgic,” Adesanya says. “I was just vibing this whole nostalgic thing, but then I realised ‘f— that.’ I already know what it’s like, so I got a new mattress, much bigger and much more comfortable. Now I’m sleeping on the floor like a king.
“Eugene has been bunking with us and waking everyone up with his early morning songs. Horrible!”
Head trainer Eugene Bareman is the man behind City Kickboxing. Situated a short walk from the city’s famous rugby stadium, Eden Park, this unassuming gym has been functioning as a production line for MMA talent since 2017.
Along with Adesanya and Kara-France, featherweight champion, Australian Alexander Volkanovski, also spends his final weeks at City Kickboxing, while lightweight contenders Dan Hooker and Brad Riddell, are some of Bareman’s leading charges. It’s an all-star line-up and perhaps the greatest assortment of MMA talent at any gym around the globe.
Over the last two years, City Kickboxing’s fighters have scored two world titles and combined for a 23-3 record in the UFC, en route to dozens of Gym of the Year awards. These Kiwis are quite literally punching above their weight.
“I’m very proud of us,” Adesanya says. “The gym is getting packed every day. Being here with the team is just strengthening the bond between me and my brothers. I love the vibe we’re on right now.”
The pandemic has caused fight plans to be halted and rescheduled but now City Kickboxing finally has a date marked on its calendar: Sept. 26.
But this date isn’t just any fight card, it may be the biggest night in New Zealand’s MMA history. UFC 253, which is yet to finalise a venue, will feature Adesanya, France, Riddell and Shane Young in what will be a Kiwi invasion of the sport.
“It has been growing rapidly [in New Zealand],” Adesanya says of the UFC’s growth. “MMA is the biggest sport in the world, people just don’t know it yet. All these people watch the UFC because we all know what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to be the baddest mother—er around. When you fight, people watch. That’s in our DNA.”
With so many New Zealanders having been starved of live sport in recent months, and the country’s Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament coming to a close, it’s an opportune time to fight and attract a new legion of fans.
“We’re definitely going to have a few more eyes on us [at UFC 253], and we welcome that,” says Kara-France. “We want all of New Zealand supporting us. Just like when the All Blacks play, it’s something to be proud of and to represent New Zealand on the world stage means everything to us.
“We’re all about breaking barriers and getting through to the mainstream, especially a lot of rugby heads. A lot of people see combat sports as that niche market where it’s not really well known, but with Israel leading the way, and so many guys doing so well, there’s definitely a blueprint here. The younger generation are looking up to us.”
Images of the All Blacks hoisting trophies is likely to be the first thing your mind conjures up when you think about sport in New Zealand. Why not? After all, it’s the nation’s greatest team, having won three Rugby World Cups and reaching worldwide notoriety for their unparalleled locker room culture.
But the boys from City Kickboxing are on a crusade and are hunting the All Blacks to be top dog in New Zealand. In fact, if you ask Adesanya, the All Blacks have already been surpassed.
“All across the land, I definitely have more of a footprint than the All Blacks,” he boasts. “Israel Adesanya, The Last StyleBender, is bigger than all of the All Blacks.”