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From the archives: The UFC’s next big thing

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THERE IS NO special treatment at City Kickboxing, not even for the six UFC fighters mixed into this gym of some 350 members training at various levels of competence and interest. Not when two UFC championship belts, belonging to Adesanya and teammate Alexander Volkanovski, lie parallel on a table in the makeshift lobby area of the warehouse that became the gym’s home in November. And not even when there is, like this morning, a photo shoot being orchestrated in one-third of the training area, making plain a contrast the gym’s culture strives to obviate.

Adesanya is beloved by the gym’s members and, maybe most important to him, is treated as an equal. No one ogles or defers to him — he is chided and teased like everyone else. Whenever he finishes working with a gym member, he pulls the person into a tight embrace, reserving, for a few close teammates, an occasional “luhhh you.” City Kickboxing’s membership has more than doubled in the past six months, mostly thanks to the celebrity of Adesanya, now pausing his workout to saunter over to the plain black curtain of a photo set.

The camera loves Adesanya’s beauty, a long, sloping forehead that descends to the cliff edge of pronounced brows, which drop vertiginously over his eyes — narrow and somewhat feline, with a little fleshiness in the periorbital hollows, scarred tissue — to find the sharp bevel of his cheekbones, which frame a mouth of notable symmetry. When he poses for the camera, he demonstrates — no, performs — a spinning elbow that sends a ribbon of water off his forearm in a perfect arc. The photographer nearly purrs in satisfaction.

“My life is like ‘The Truman Show,'” Adesanya says. “It’s knowing you’re the s— and also knowing that you’re not, that you ain’t s—. I can’t lean into it too much. I have to know I’m just another speck in the sand on the beach of life, you know?” Roger Kisby for ESPN

Head trainer Eugene Bareman did not see any of this coming the first time he met his star pupil. Late in 2009, Adesanya landed an amateur MMA fight via Facebook, and Bareman got roped into cornering him as a favor to a mutual friend. He remembers that the young Adesanya was cocksure. “It was amazing because he had no knowledge of the sport,” Bareman says. “He was fresh off watching a week of YouTube.”

Despite showing signs of talent on his feet, Adesanya was taken down and “mauled,” Bareman recalls. “Thoroughly beaten in every round.”

Bareman thought that was the end of it, but a few months later, Adesanya showed up at his gym asking to train. He tried to brush him off, but the young fighter persisted, and kept showing up, sometimes sleeping in the gym between workouts instead of going home. Even then, Adesanya talked about becoming the UFC middleweight champion.

The two are an odd couple. Bearded and perpetually baseball-capped, the trainer is contemplative, reserved, quietly intense. His student, on the other hand, is a natural showman. “If I didn’t know Israel, [he] would be the last person I would go up and start a conversation with,” Bareman says, laughing. But over time, they developed a tight bond. Today Adesanya calls Bareman a “father figure,” “Yoda,” the “yin to my yang.”

Together they plotted a course toward Adesanya’s lofty goals. He fought for the next several years primarily as a kickboxer, amassing a record of 75-5. In September 2013, Adesanya quit his job as a meter man for a gas company and moved to China so he would have easy access to higher-level opponents and more frequent fights. He sees it now as an ideal training ground for all that was soon to come.

“China was a way for me to fast-track what I knew was going to happen — like being stared at, being mobbed,” he says. “I was a big, Black guy in the mainland of China, where they don’t really see foreigners often.” He lived in an austere facility near Zhengzhou with about 70 other fighters. “It was like a prison camp for fighters,” he says. “Steel plates, steel chopsticks. Like a boarding school compound with a gym in the middle.”

He earned the nickname “Black Dragon” from Chinese fight fans, fighting some two dozen times in a span of eight months, sometimes in front of huge crowds. It was one of the loneliest yet most fruitful periods of his life. He didn’t know the language and had little contact with his family, but he kept winning.

“I wasn’t meant to fit in. Trying to fit in just never worked at all. ”

– Israel Adesanya

He returned to Auckland from his self-imposed exile late in the fall of 2014 and launched a hostile takeover of New Zealand’s combat sports scene. That winter, he entered the King in the Ring tournament, an eight-man, single-elimination kickboxing competition in which the victor must win three consecutive matches in one night. Adesanya took the 190-pound title that winter and won the tournament two more times in 2015, defending his crown at 190, then winning the title at 220 pounds six months later. His three wins and 9-0 record in the tournament remain King in the Ring records.

But what made others take notice was how he won. Dan Hennessey, a U.S. Marine-turned-DJ who moved to New Zealand and announces all the King in the Ring matches, speaks of Adesanya in a rapture of hype man’s cant: “He is beautiful violence, a cartoon character come to life. He is like a hawk over the water looking for trout to pluck out of the water. Israel Adesanya is one of a kind.”

Adesanya would christen himself the Last Stylebender, a nod to his love of anime and an apt description of a fighting style that married aggression with a dancer’s instincts for adornment: feinting and potshotting, mugging, raising his arms above his head. He’d kip up after a stumble; he’d awe with occasional capoeira kicks, one part cartwheel, one part head strike; after a knockout, he’d recline on the ropes and turnbuckles, a picture of insouciance; or pirouette like a ballerina in the middle of the ring, just because.

“I’ve always been this entertainer when I fight,” he says. “I make people gasp, laugh, frown. I evoke a lot of emotion out of people.”

He had learned to make a firework display of his self-possession. And he also quietly accumulated a 5-0 record in MMA, never losing sight of where he wanted to go. Early in 2015, he DM’d Dana White on Twitter and told the UFC president that if White put him in the cage, he would do the rest.

Adesanya finally made the move in 2018, debuting at UFC 221 against Rob Wilkinson. Before he stopped Wilkinson in the second round, he mimed raising his leg to pee as he entered the Octagon. After the fight, face unmarked, staring into the television camera, all but winking, Adesanya called out his entire division: “Middleweights! I’m the new dog in the yard, and I just pissed all over this cage.”


Adesanya christened himself the Last Stylebender, a nod to his love of anime and an apt description of a fighting style that married aggression with a dancer’s instincts for adornment. Jean-Yves Lemoigne for ESPN

IN THE SUBURBAN development in Auckland where Adesanya lives, one can hear, in the early morning, a buzz saw screech in the distance and see sprinklers rope trails of water into the air over neighboring lawns, the grass freshly planted and half grown. It is a community still under construction. Inside his home, Adesanya is preparing to head to the gym for his 9 a.m. training. The next day will be the second anniversary of his UFC debut. He hears someone at the door, and he goes to answer it.

A neighbor stands in his doorway and tells Adesanya that a cat has been run over in the street outside his house. He asks whether the cat is his. Adesanya walks outside to discover that it is.

“I was just like, ‘f—,'” he says. “It just made me realize that life is short, man. Life is so short.”

That night, still shaken, Adesanya gets home from dropping off some dinner for a close friend who’s in the hospital and sits in his driveway, alone, for hours, listening to a playlist he hasn’t queued up in a long time. “I created this space in my car, like a time machine,” he says. “I was just in sync. I was just in flow.” Adesanya puts a song (he won’t say which one) on repeat. Over the next several minutes, he uses it to create a new entrance for the Romero fight.

The suddenness of his cat’s death stirs something in him, accelerates a few decisions. He’s not superstitious, but he’s prone to the language of internal struggle, to “epiphanies” and “metamorphoses” and “evolutions.”

“I decided, after my cat got run over, that I don’t want neighbors,” he says. “I’ve always known I wanted a farm, a big piece of land where my nearest neighbor would be 2 kilometers away. That is going to happen even sooner now because of what happened with my cat.”

We are in the back of an Uber, riding under the low-hanging silver matte sky of the early morning, to the southern outskirts of the city, where he has striking practice. He is in a reflective mood, a little tired, less reflexively funny and disarming than he typically is.

I ask what he’s seeking in this distance from others.

“Privacy,” he says. “I like my own space … I just need my own time.”

As much as he yearns for distinction, he’s wary of its cost. “My life is like ‘The Truman Show,'” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a vessel … I’m special. It’s knowing you’re the s— and also knowing that you’re not, that you ain’t s—. Because I can’t lean into it too much and think I’m different from everyone. I still have to know I’m just another speck in the sand on the beach of life, you know? It’s a fine line you walk, and it can send you to some weird places.”

Adesanya is lavishly talented and unusually strong-willed. He has all the ingredients to achieve what he wants, to be one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time. Which is to say, his stardom could become far more disorienting. He has no use for ordinariness but has a deep need for the ordinary pleasure of privacy. His profession nourishes (unto bursting) the performer in him, the creature who demands Look at me! while threatening to starve the isolato, the bullied art kid who loves anime, the only Black boy in class, who must’ve spent a great deal of time living in his own head.

Members of Adesanya’s inner circle marvel at his ability to fulfill his own predictions. He says he visualizes so intensely that he’ll occasionally realize he’s talking to himself as if he were in the scene playing out in his head. Femi calls his son a prophet. Since Adesanya was a teenager, he’s been making lists of things he wants, Tuivoavoa says. After losing every single round of his first amateur MMA fight, he told Bareman that one day he would be the UFC middleweight champion. He said he would beat Robert Whittaker for the middleweight title more than a year before they fought — and, in front of roughly 55,000 people in Melbourne last October, he did.

The Whittaker fight was the culmination of a dominant year. In February, Adesanya dispatched former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a unanimous decision that was a symbolic passing of the torch, and months later he endured a five-round epic battle against Kelvin Gastelum in what was widely acclaimed as the fight of the year.

Ahead of the Silva fight at UFC 234, Adesanya had asked White for a special walkout. White declined.

“It’s the exact opposite of the mood and the mentality that you’re looking for from a fighter who is just about to fight in the biggest fight of his life,” White says.

But in October, White relented, on the condition that he could see a preview of the walkout before the fight. Adesanya called Tuivoavoa, his childhood friend and former dance crew partner. Together, they cooked up a short, anime-inspired routine during fight week. White saw the rehearsal — and how important the moment was to Adesanya — and agreed to let them go ahead.

Adesanya’s dancing isn’t incidental or a mere promotional quirk — it’s the key to understanding the greatest night of his professional career. In his most important fight, against an opponent who hadn’t lost in more than five years, in front of the UFC’s largest-ever crowd, Adesanya chose to call his shot in the most ostentatious way possible. This was Babe Ruth pointing into the grandstands, Ali predicting the knockout round.

It could have been a disaster. If things had gone wrong in the Octagon, Adesanya’s dance would have become a humiliating meme.

“If you get knocked out, bro, we’re going to look like straight asses,” Tuivoavoa told him. “We’re going to look like so much trash.” But he had learned to stop doubting his friend.

Adesanya had no such doubts himself. “I like that thrill of, ‘Oh, you might win it all, or you might lose it all,'” he says. “I fell asleep the night before [the fight] watching the rehearsal video. I just kept watching it because I was just so excited by the look of it.”

The next morning, Adesanya called his father and told him to go bet on the fight: He was going to knock out Whittaker.

“I’ve always been this entertainer when I fight. I make people gasp, laugh, frown. I evoke a lot of emotion out of people.”

– Israel Adesanya

Adesanya walked into the Octagon liberated of the pressures of the moment, even as he raised the stakes by choosing the Naruto-inspired dance entrance. “There was no paralysis, overanalysis,” he says. “I wasn’t overanalyzing the fight like Robert was.”

Dancing has made him a natural improviser and a gifted mimic, and his capacity for mimicry allows him to easily home in on his opponent’s rhythm. “I’m really good at copying movement,” he says. “I can see someone do something and replicate it.”

Moreover, he rarely fights in any rhythm himself. He trains off both hands, and he is constantly adjusting and rehearsing — every movement seems to trigger a memory or vision. “That’s what I got this person with,” he’ll say, or “That’s what so-and-so tried to get me with.”

Heading into the fight, Bareman and Adesanya planned to avoid Whittaker’s right hand. But early in the first round, Adesanya noticed that he could time Whittaker’s right, so he started to drift toward it, inviting Whittaker to throw the punch, knowing he could counter. It was a dangerous strategy. Adesanya started exchanging with Whittaker, timing him within a millisecond so he could punch inside of his punches. At the end of the first round, Adesanya leaned away from a looping right hand and countered with his own, dropping Whittaker just as time expired.

A similar exchange ended the fight with about 90 seconds left in the second round. Adesanya ate a Whittaker jab, which sent his head rocking backward. But anticipating Whittaker’s one-two, he had already started his own sequence, a left-hook, right-cross, left-hook combo. The fighters’ first two punches were largely ineffective, but the third — the left hand that Adesanya was throwing all along and that Whittaker could not catch up with — caught him clean and sent him down like a marionette severed from its strings. A few seconds later, the fight was over.

Adesanya was the new undisputed middleweight champion.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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