This September, audiences will meet the real Israel Adesanya, with the documentary ‘Stylebender’. Directed by New Zealand’s Zoe McIntsoh, the film captures an intimate look into the enigmatic UFC superstar’s life.
Fight fans worldwide or anyone caught doom scrolling through sports highlight reels are well aware of Adesnya’s reputation in the octagon. His flagrant antics have defined a trailblazing fifteen UFC appearances, including capturing the world middleweight title on two occasions. In a sport where violence can reach biblical proportions, Adesanya has perfected his elegant interpretation of the sweet science. With his heels planted firmly on a blood-soaked canvas, ‘The Last Stylebender’ can throw punches and kicks like he’s manipulating the air around him. Since 2018, Adesanya has garnered a social media following in the millions, paychecks with similar figures, and an undeniable level of global superstardom.
What happens when you strip off the four-ounce gloves, open the chain-link door, and usher a fighter out of the cage? ‘Stylebender’ explores these questions by showing the results of saddling the camera right by the side of Adesanya for the better part of six years. In her past works, McIntosh has become well acquainted with stories of people living on society’s fringes. However, ‘Stylebender’ is her first foray into the contentious fight game. Once the arena lights had dimmed, Mcintosh found a young man in a constant battle with the duality inside him.
When the film opens, we are greeted by a scene in which Izzy slowly approaches a caravan in the middle of a field. We soon discover this is a therapy session and will act as the connective tissue for the rest of ‘Stylebender’. In these moments, we see Adesanya challenge and embrace the rage inside him while validating his vulnerabilities. While his victories over Robert Whittaker, Paulo Costa, and Marvin Vettori are featured, the real action occurs when Adesenya opens up and bares his soul for the camera.
We met with McIntosh at a Surry Hills cafe on a surprisingly warm winter’s afternoon. Over ice coffees we chatted about everything ‘Stylebender’. Have a listen to the interview below.
For those of you who prefer to read, check out the transcript below (Note: the interview has been slightly amended for publication)
Well, It wasn’t the first time I had been in Tribeca, in New York, where it premiered. But actually, having the screening in Sydney last night was just really special. It felt like there were a lot of fans there, and yeah, it was really warmly received, which is cool.
Yeah, I definitely felt a bit of extra pressure. Given that so many of his fans were there. There would be high expectations or just expectations in general that they’d want to see, hopefully it delivered.
I’ve been asked this a lot, and it’s definitely in my work 100%. I don’t know whether I consciously do it, but I am certainly attracted to people who are unafraid of getting out of their comfort zone or stepping to the beat of their own drum. They have adversity or a setback in their life, but somehow triumph, and they do it in a weird way. I just love characters like that, and I don’t actually know where that comes from.
Yeah, he absolutely ticked the boxes for me in terms of a character that I would have at this time. He’s charismatic, he’s controversial, he’s complex. He’s got so many internal complexities and contrasts. I was immediately interested and intrigued.
I think it’s a bit of both. You know, as a filmmaker, you have to write a treatment to get funding, so you’ve got to give them a sense of the story. I had a sense of the general structure and outline, but wow, that changed so much. I think the biggest turning point for me was when I found out he had a therapist. I suddenly thought, right, that’s the way that we’re going to see the vulnerable and truthful Israel and not just the glossy, hyped-up one. That was when I knew that we really had an interesting film.
To his credit, Israel never questioned that. There was a level of trust and an exchange between us where he was on board with my vision, and he could tell I was there for the right reasons. You certainly don’t make money in this industry (laughs), in this job, so I wasn’t there for that, and I think he just trusted that.
But yeah, creative control was crucial to me because he’s a superstar at the end of the day. If people thought for a second that this was like a puff piece or that you’re only seeing him in this one-dimensional way, A)I don’t want my name attached to that, and B)I just don’t think anyone would want to watch it.
I think initially, it had to have fighting in it because that’s obviously such a central part of him and his journey. But it wasn’t everything. Right in the beginning, I spoke to Israel about the need for this film to go beyond the UFC fans. It had to resonate with my mum, my best mate who came last night, and people who are fascinated by psychology and what drives people to try and accomplish these incredible things which he’s done. I mean, he’s a champion after champion after champion.
Yeah, that world duality is bang on because he’s full of that and he’s full of contrasts.
Was it hard to see? It wasn’t necessarily hard to see, but it certainly made him an extremely interesting subject. To have that duality within you is really interesting. I think everyone actually has those. Everyone has parts of them that potentially want to fight someone. And also that sensitivity, the emotional side. Whether we act on it? Probably not, but we’re constantly battling between those two dark and light sides in us.
Yeah, it’s tricky. Around the therapy sessions, I made sure that I was completely out of the room and listening with audio so it could evolve and happen right then and there. With the funeral and death and all that stuff, that was just observation, you know? And Jeff, one of his friends, really helped me out there in terms of that intimate access that he was able to get.
I would not say I have a background (laughs). I just really love to dance. I’ve done tango, but I wouldn’t say I’m a champion tango dancer.
I love dancing, and I love that it’s a form of your own unique expression. I don’t care if you can dance to a rhythm or what; I just love it.
Yeah, I think when I found out the type of dance that he does, which is krump and how it’s all about expressing your emotions and showing all your vulnerabilities, I was like, Absolutely, I can use dance to illustrate what’s going through him psychologically.
When we understand his bullying and learn about that, we see him in this urinal dancing, it’s moving, and it’s intense. I probably gave away too much of it anyway (laughs)
Yes, spoiler alert (laughs).
Yeah, and that’s genuine. I found that it was harder to get access to film his krump dancing than to film his full-on therapy sessions. It’s like a very vulnerable space for him, it’s like someone reading his diary, really.
I really love hearing your interpretation of it. It’s cool to hear that.
I hope that people just embrace their weirdness. I think after following Israel since 2019, one of the strongest things I observed as he’s finally got to a place where he’s understood that his weirdness or what was bullied out of him at school is actually his superpower. If you can stop trying to be like everyone else and actually just be your strange, quirky self, that can be a weapon. It’s a beautiful thing, and I love that.
Thank you so much. It was a great chat, cheers.
Special thanks to Zoe McIntosh for taking the time to chat. Make sure to check out ‘Stylebender’ when it hits cinemas this week! Have watch of the trailer below.