"I'm just a regular dude who does extraordinary s---, the current UFC champion and 'Stylebender' star tells PEOPLE
MMA star Israel Adesanya is ready for his big-screen debut.
The 34-year-old current UFC champion is the subject of Stylebender, a documentary that takes fans inside Adesanya's world as a mixed martial arts star.
"I feel like this is what I need to do at this stage in my life right now," Adesanya tells PEOPLE of letting the world in on his personal life. "I've been very reserved with private stuff, and I still will be because if you give them too much, they'll take it away from you," he says of his experience in the spotlight.
Awkward encounters in public have become a gripe Adesanya has with his inescapable celebrity status. The Nigerian fighter trains at a public gym near his home in New Zealand every once in a while — "just to kind of take my power back in a way," he says. "Not strength power, but my power back from the public. I went to this gym to get over that public anxiety and whatnot."
A man of many tangents, Adesanya has an anecdote prepared. "Example — yesterday at the gym, I had to scold two young ladies for secretly filming me. I'm working with my trainer and I can see them filming me, putting their phone in the air, and I could feel it."
Adesanya continues, "I know myself, and I could feel it bubbling up inside me, and this is the beginning of my session," he explains. "So I went up to them calmly, and I was like, 'Excuse me, I know you were filming me, please don't lie to me about it. But how would you feel if any of these dudes in this gym were secretly filming you?' And then straight away, straight away they say, 'Oh I'm so sorry.' "
The two-time UFC champion says he appreciated the honesty from the girls, and "felt like it was a teaching moment" for the public. "Rather than humiliate, just educate," he shares.
Taking his power back in a public space "helps me learn how to set boundaries and protect my energy," Adesanya says.
Weary of letting the world in too much, Adesanya says Stylebender, directed by New Zealand filmmaker Zoe McIntosh, allows the MMA star to "show that I'm human a little bit more." He adds, "I'm just a regular dude who does extraordinary s---. But at the end of the day, I'm human, just like you. I bleed, cry, sweat, just like you."
McIntosh, whose previous projects include The Deadly Ponies Gang and The World in Your Window, tells PEOPLE she was immediately taken with Adesanya's natural grace as a fighter. It's "an intimate exploration of a bullied outsider's battle to the top of UFC. He's forced to fight all these opponents in the ring, but I think the biggest challenge is actually himself and perhaps the demons that are inside of him, and I think it was these inherent contradictions and conflict within Israel that were really interesting to me."
Among the more personal scenes in Stylebender, Adesanya is seen working with his "possibility manager," who helped the fighter to "bulletproof my mind," he explains. "She doesn't like to be called a therapist," he says, though much of her work appears similar to practices one may deploy with a traditional psychologist.
"One of the biggest lessons she's taught me, or tools she's given me, was the tool of don't react, respond — and that saved me," Adesanya says. "It saved me for the last three years now in different scenarios. Just don't react; respond. I've tried to teach that to people and I want everyone to take that in."
As his fame grows, Adesanya says the biggest misconception he hears about himself is his sexual orientation. "The first misconception that pops into my head is that I'm gay," he tells PEOPLE. "I was going to say something else, but that was the first thing that popped into my head, and I just had to be real."
Of the speculation, he says, "Honestly, I lean into it sometimes because I don't even have to try, and I don't mind it. If me living my life and doing my own thing really affects you that bad to the point where you have to leave a comment or say something to someone that gets back to me...it's like for me, it's just funny that they speculate."
As he prepares for Stylebender's release on Sept. 28, Adesanya says he's looking forward to sharing his personality with fans, especially after the impact of his viral victory speech in April when he defeated Alex Pereira.
Adesanya wished for everyone watching to "feel this level of happiness" just once in their lives after winning the UFC 287 main event. "You’ll never feel this level of happiness if you don’t go for something in your own life. When they knock you down, when they try to s--- on you, when they talk s--- about you, and they try to put their foot on your neck. If you stay down, you will never ever get that result. Fortify your mind."
That ideology of a "fortified" mind and experiencing success born out of hard work is one Adesanya hopes will become synonymous with his legacy.
"This is just a game of life. You're playing a video game, customizing your own avatar. I do it through the way I make things happen, manifest things in my life. There's no science to it, but I understand how to do it with repetition and words and action."
"But I just want people to realize that they can do that, too. They don't have to just be bots in this life. You can go with the flow, but also you can take action and take control of your life, grab the controller, and actually make things happen. That's what I did in my life."
Beyond mixed martial arts, Adesanya hopes to explore his other professional interests in the future, like 3D animation and anime. "I definitely want to have my own production company and bring some ideas I have to life and also other people's ideas who I think are super creative," he tells PEOPLE.
One of his dream partners in a future creative project is Pixar, but Adesanya ponders if the studio is "too big" to work with him. "Actually, f--- it, I can definitely work with Disney," he concludes as his UFC championship belt sits behind him in plain view. He's also interested in voiceover work and "exploring having a dance studio," he shares.
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The possibilities are endless, but for now, Adesanya's focus is "on defending this," he says, grabbing his UFC title belt and coyly adding, "It's kind of a humble flex."
As he continues to navigate his stardom, Adesanya says he's prepared for the challenge. "I've already kind of fortified myself in a sense that I've bulletproofed my mind. I know the critics are going to be there no matter what, even though it was a great film, they're going to be there. So whatever they're going to say, I'm bulletproofed to it when it comes out."
And if all else fails, Adesanya has a plan B to fall back on. "One thing that helps me, is just knowing I can kick people's ass and that I don't have to prove it."
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