UFC 276 Israel Adesanya Alexander Volkanovski and their intertwining journeys to stardom

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Teammates, friends — champions.

Israel Adesanya and Alexander Volkanovski are the headline events at UFC 276 Saturday in Las Vegas on Saturday (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV, Sunday afternoon AEST), the duo defending their middleweight and featherweight crowns against Jared Cannonier and Max Holloway respectively.

It is also a huge night for City Kickboxing and coach Eugene Bareman, the rise of his charges to UFC stardom a reflection of a program that is now among the best mixed martial arts gyms in the world.

While Volkanovski is based at Freestyle Fighting Gym in Windang, New South Wales, Australia, under coach Joe Lopez, both he and Lopez acknowledge the benefits that a fight-camp stint in Auckland provides — so too do Bareman and Adesanya of what the Aussie duo brings with them across the ditch.

Just under two weeks out from their UFC 276 headline act, Adesanya and Volkanovski sat down with ESPN’s Sam Bruce in Sydney to discuss each other’s careers, training methods, standout fights, the inspiration they draw from watching the other go about their business and, of course, what lies ahead in Las Vegas.

Alex, what about the first time you met Izzy, what do you recall?

I actually remember the first time I met Izzy, it was in Thailand. I’d heard a lot about Izzy and was a fan of his work already… I knew he could fight, and that he was one of the best kickboxers in the world and I had him on Instagram. But meeting him in person, he’s such a cool dude. We were in the water at the beach and we might have done some sprints or something, maybe it was the stairs, and he was going in the water and just soaking up the energy. I’m starting to understand all that now, but he always visualized things like that and soaks up energy from that, and you feel it. It’s stuff that you see, it’s real, this is Izzy; there were no cameras around, but this was him really soaking up that energy and that’s how he’s always been. He’s always been in the moment and capturing the moment, all that type of stuff and I was like, this is incredible. It was stuff you might think it was on camera or for the cameras, but he was really soaking it up. And I could tell then, I’m not sure if you were doing MMA at the time, but I could just tell that he was going to be a superstar. You hang around someone and you just know. I was a fan of his for a long time but then we started to train [in Thailand] and I got to know him a little bit more [and] we’ve been cool since then.

Israel, what are your early memories of first meeting Alex?

I can’t remember the first time I met [Alex], but it’s his energy and it’s the same thing that everyone says, [he’s] such a nice guy. People say that about me sometimes, but I’m not always a nice guy, but he is genuinely such a nice guy. Even my flatmate, Chance, he always says to me ‘I can’t wait to Alex comes back [to Auckland] because this one time after training he stayed back with me for 20 minutes and just helped with this and helped me with that’, that’s the kind of stuff that changes your world.

Alex, what was it like stepping into the City Kickboxing for the first time?

I always knew that they knew what they were doing and what they were talking about. When they came over to Thailand and did a bit of coaching there, some of the techniques they were getting into, it was a whole new understanding of the game that I had no idea about. I’ve always been like that with wrestling and grappling and I’ve always been fine with the detail, but to see it with the striking aspect, how deep they went, it was just things that I had no idea about. And the understanding they had was incredible. So to go over [to New Zealand] and really get that, having only had a little bit of that [in Thailand] … to really get that understanding, that fine detail of techniques, that’s what I’m all about, I love all of that stuff. Just watching Izzy do his thing, I can learn so much from watching him because I understand it. And the little details that he’s doing, the way that they work together and work with me, has been incredible. It was definitely a game-changer for me. I went from a pressure wrestler/grappler and then started working with the [CKB] boys and now most people think that I’m just a striker. So they gave us a real understanding of that aspect… they really opened my eyes to whole new world of striking.

Israel, what was it like having Alex come in to CKB, what changed?

I feel like it was not just him but with Joe Lopez [too], it was like some cousins from across the ditch that had been a part of the gym the whole time. Straight away the banter was already flowing, they fitted in, the back-and-forth, they just gelled well with the team. Even now, and I’ve said this to him already, and I’ll say it again, he inspires me. When I heard he was coming, now that the borders are open again, thank f—, I was just like “yes” because I knew straight away that once he gets to the gym, the bar is going to raise again. I remember when we were doing VO2 max on the bike, he’s a featherweight and he moves faster than me, but here I am, I’m in my own race, I’m beating myself [because of Alex]. And also having Joe there, he’s right there saying ‘pick it up, we’ve got 30 seconds, I want to see some more’, he will just motivate you. And having him there while I can hear the bike next to me, I’m like “I’m going to keep up with him, keep up the same rhythm,” I just want to better myself.

One of my favourite bits of Alex’s fights was getting out of Ortega’s guillotine and triangle back-to-back, those are [Ortega’s] two best moves … T-City back-to-back, what does [Alex] do? Straight away, he rains punches from heaven down on him, almost stops the fight. And I’ll never forget, on my [YouTube channel] FREESTYLEBENDER, where I do my reactions, I remember when it happened and I was like “f— off,” and I didn’t even realise I was like that, but I was fighting with him, bro, and when he got out I was like “yeaaaah.” I’m getting chills, I’m sweating thinking about it right now, but that moment for me, honestly bro it inspired me, it inspired me so much. And I remember I told him that afterwards and I keep telling him that. So yeah, I just like having our brothers from across the ditch over [to CKB], it’s always fun.

Izzy, what do you admire about the way Alex fights?

He has fun, you watch him in the locker room and I have been privileged enough to be able to witness that kind of stuff. But Eugene broke it down for me a few weeks ago, he said this is when Alex starts to say “it’s for my family” and he has the things that he says to himself like “let’s go f—ing do this.” But then when he walks out there he does something that I don’t do, he engages with the crowd. And I respect that, because it’s an art, but it’s not me. But I watch him when he walks out and he’s smiling, even if he’s in Brazil, he’s [engaging with the crowd] and you see him smiling and then when he gets in [the Octagon] he can just switch it. That’s what I really admire about him, I can do it too, but the way he does it is an art. The way he expresses himself is an art, it’s so beautiful to watch. I love the way he gets in there and smiley and cheeky, wink-wink, but then when it’s time to work, that switch is on, man.

Alex, what do you admire about the way Israel fights?

We probably have a little bit different approach, but I’ve learned from watching Izzy how to capture the crowd and the moment… I learned a lot from watching him do the dance [before the Whittaker fight], to be able to do that and go in and perform like he did, that was inspiring. To be able to perform, almost twice. I remember seeing him at Marvel Stadium, the day before the [Whittaker fight], and you said I’ve got to go and do rehearsals, and I was like “man, that’s just crazy.” So I really appreciated that. And since I’ve shaved this head and I’ve been talking about “Bald Volk” coming to get everyone, it’s a new me, we talk about that and now I really understand this entertainment side of things, I get it and that’s where I want to be at. I can go there [and entertain], I’ve always been a competitor, but now it’s a little bit more, I’m really trying to steal the moment, I want to capture the moment, I really really want to capitalise on that platform that we have. And he was always a good example of that and that’s something I really appreciate.

Alex, what does Israel need to do/be wary of against Cannonier?

Obviously Jared’s a dangerous fighter, we know he’s got power in there. But I think Izzy just needs to be Izzy. The way that we fight, and I say this a lot of the time, our style covers a lot of ground; we just don’t have a certain style where someone can do something [and it works]. You give us once answer, then we’ve got options; no matter where you take this, we’re can take it somewhere else, somewhere else, somewhere else. And I think Izzy just playing what’s in front of him, no matter what [Cannonier] gives him, he’ll have an answer or a couple of answers, and he’ll pick the right answer at the same time. So I think he just needs to be Izzy, that’s what we’ve created, a style where we can work with the game plan but also play what’s in front of us and have that freedom to make the right decision at the right time.

Israel, what is Holloway going to bring for this third night that Alex needs to counter?

I’m not too worried about Max and what he brings; great fighter, great skill set, multidimensional with grappling, submissions, striking. But again Alex just has to be Alex, Alex has already beaten him twice, and Alex has downloaded enough information of things that he [Holloway] does, that he can’t change, it’s just part of him, and Alex is going to capitalise on that. And it’s a simple formula for me, Alex does not get hit, or rarely does [whereas] Max welcomes getting hit, that chin doesn’t hold up too long, especially in this game. I mean what was the stat; the most absorbed strikes [in UFC history]? I wouldn’t be proud of that. I have a tough chin, he’s got a strong chin, and this is not a flex and this is just me, but I wouldn’t be proud of that. What did Eugene say the other day? The best fighters are the best defensive fighters… because when you have great defense the options for the offense opens up. So yeah, you don’t get hit that much; Alex hits hard, Max likes to get it. [Alex] can throw volumes and he can throw power shots, so he just has to touch him enough times and he’ll fall.

Israel, as someone who has gone up and had a fight up a division already, Alex has talked about that, too; how would you see him faring at lightweight?

It’s perfect, he’s already cleaned out the [featherweight] division, now he’s just lapping it with this third time with Max. I say “f— it, move up, become a double champ, why not, that’s legacy type s—.” I know he can do it because I’ve sparred this guy; he says it’s hard to get through the many barriers of my range and my skills, but he has a way of getting inside, he downloads information pretty fast. There is a clip of us [on YouTube] sparring, you didn’t really see much in that fight, but there were bits in that fight when he touches me. There was one quick hook that he got me with that wasn’t really in that clip, I went in for something and that hook was so fast I wasn’t ready for it. And I appreciate that, and I was like when I throw a hook I want to throw with that kind of energy, that kind of speed. So we bounce off each other as well. I can’t remember what the f—ing question was, but he’s the man, that’s all you’ve got to remember – he’s the f—ing man.

Alex, Izzy has already put himself on the Mount Rushmore of middleweights, how do you see him going back up again and having another crack at light heavyweight?

I would love to see that again. I think it was a great fight. It had been a while since we’ve been in the gym him, but that takedown defense and all that stuff, it’s a whole other level right now. So if that fight was to happen again now [against Jan Blachowicz], I would be very very confident in my guy. I think that should definitely happen again, especially for the fact that he’s lapped his division as well. He should do it.

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