24 April 2019

Nigeria: From the Land of Warriors, Joshua, Adesanya Rule Boxing World

From the family roots of world heavyweight boxing champion, Anthony Joshua in Sagamu, to the lineage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) interim middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya in Odogbolu, the people of Ijebu Kingdom in Ogun State seem to have discovered another platform for producing legends.

The kingdom has been on the world's map from the era of the late Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It has also produced other legends, including Nigeria's current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, Tai Solarin, former Vice President Oladipo Diya as well as Nigeria's second richest man, Mike Adenuga.

Awolowo, a special breed politician, great motivator and excellent manager of men and materials, elder statesman, activist, writer and nationalist, bestrode the nation's political firmament from the colonial era up to the late 1980s. He went through thick and thin at different phases of life, preparing his people for future challenges.

Awo, one of the three national pillars of the Nigerian nation (along with Sir Ahmadu Bello and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe), hailed from Ikenne, one of the towns that make up Ijebu Kingdom. Ikenne is bounded to the south by Odogbolu (home of Israel Adesanya), and to the west by Sagamu, where Anthony Joshua has his ancestral roots.

At the moment, one of the sons of Ijebu Kingdom, Israel Mobolaji Adesanya is the commander-in-chief in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Adesanya, who is the current UFC interim middleweight champion, hails from Odogbolu, a neighboring town to Ikenne.

After beating America's Kelvin Gastelum in one of the greatest fights in history of UFC 236 in Atlanta, U.S. two weeks ago, Adesanya is looking forward to visiting his fatherland, Nigeria, 16 years after he took his martial arts trade to New Zealand.

Although not much is known about Israel Adesanya in Odogbolu, the people are in joyful mood awaiting his arrival.

The traditional ruler, Oba Adedeji Olusegun Onagoruwa, Elesi 1, Alaye of Odogbolu, revealed to The Guardian during a visit to the town on Easter Sunday, that his people would celebrate Adesanya for the fame he has brought to the kingdom.

The Oba said Odogbolu had been a land for history makers, noting: "Odogbolu has a way of producing eminent personalities for the country in the area of politics, education, music and sports. One of the first goalkeepers of the then Red Devils (later Green Eagles and now Super Eagles), Patrick Olu Onagoruwa is my brother. He was in the Port Harcourt team that won the Challenge Cup in 1945. He died last year.

"I may have watched Israel Adesanya fight, but I never knew he is a son of Odogbolu. I am so excited to know that we now have someone doing great in the world of boxing. We will appreciate him in a big way any time he visits home, and we will give him the support he needs to excel more in his chosen career."

Apart from the former Red Devils' goalkeeper, Onagoruwa, the town of Odogbolu is also the home of former President of the Nigeria Olympics Committee (NOC), Major General Henry Adefope. He was a member of the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

"Adefope's dream was to build a stadium in Odogbolu, but he could not achieve it before he died," Oba Onagoruwa said. "The land, which the community donated for a sports complex is by the side of my palace. I pray we have a stadium here one day, so that Odogbolu will continue to produce more Adesanyas for Nigeria and the world."

Other great personalities from the town include former Vice President, General Oladipo Diya (who is the Asiwaju of Odogbolu), and former Attorney General of the Federation, Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, a former editorial board member of The Guardian Newspapers.

According to his father, the junior Adesanya started his sports career when he was a pupil at Chrisland Primary School in Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos.

"Israel had to enroll in Taekwondo Club in the school because it was compulsory that a pupil join at least one of those clubs at that time," his father, Femi Adesanya revealed to The Guardian at the weekend.

In 1999, Israel started his secondary school education at Bells School, Otta, Ogun State, but the young lad left the school when his family migrated overseas.

Speaking from his base in New Zealand, the senior Adesanya recalled the genesis of his son's journey into combat sports: "Israel never represented his schools in any sports, but on getting to New Zealand, he experienced bullying at school and therefore decided to embrace combat sports in his teenage years as a form of self-defence. I am not suggesting that he was badly treated at school or that. New Zealand is a nice country, but it is common to have a few bad eggs in any society and New Zealand is no exception."

The senior Adesanya admits that the family had no history of producing sportsmen, adding, however, that Israel's maternal grandfather, late Prince Alaba Ajiboye was a strong wrestler in his youthful days in Ijesha (present day Osun State).

"Israel must have taken after his maternal grandfather in combat sports," he added.

Israel, who moved to New Zealand when he was 13, loves dancing. He is the eldest in the family of five children, and his siblings include Modupeoluwa, Oluwaseyi and Mogbonjubola.

The family house of Israel Adesanya in Odogbolu is a guided secret at the moment because according to the father, the head of the family does not want to make a public statement before the arrival of the boxer in May. "My brother is waiting for Israel to arrive Nigeria first before making any public statement about his achievements," Femi Adesanya said.

However, the youths of Odogbolu see Israel's achievement in the mixed martial arts as something to be celebrated even before his arrival in May.

"I watched his fight against Gastelum about two weeks ago, and I felt very proud of him. Then, I never knew he was my brother," one of the youths, Yusuf Ademola told The Guardian at a restaurant located in the centre of the town. "My son (pointing to a young boy of about eight years), wants to be a wrestler, but I thought he was making a wrong choice until I watched Israel fought against Gastelum. I will encourage my son to continue with his wrestling," Ademola said.

Another villager, who gave his name only as Henry said: "The entire town will stand still for Israel whenever he visits because he has done Odogbolu proud. This is the kind of news we want to hear. I am sure his achievements in combat sports will be an inspiration to many young ones in this town."

Adesanya had defeated Brazil's Anderson Silva in February at UFC 234 contest in Melbourne, Australia, but his victory against Gastelum, a Mexican fighter in Atlanta two weeks ago was fascinating.

Gastelum was aggressive throughout the fight, but Adesanya's counter right hand, coupled with his vast experience in mixed martial art, kickboxing and boxing, was his biggest weapon at the battle, which took place at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, USA.

With the victory, the 29-year-old Adesanya's undefeated record rose to 17-0, including a staggering six consecutive UFC wins in just 14 months.

He made his professional debut in 2012, and has fought in Hong Kong, Australia and China, amassing a record of 11-0 with all wins coming via Knock Out/Technical Knock Out. He was signed by the UFC in December 2017, and made his debut against Rob Wilkinson on February 11, 2018 at UFC 221, which he won via a TKO in the second round.

In April 2018, he defeated Marvin Vettori via split decision. He was pitched against Brad Tavares in July 2018, at The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale, and Adesanya won the one-sided fight via unanimous decision.

Among other fights, Adesanya defeated Derek Brunson in November 2018, at UFC 230, winning via a technical knockout in round one.

Israel's father told The Guardian that the UFC champion would visit Nigeria in May, adding, "Israel loves Nigeria and he told me he wants to set his feet on the soil again."

Before the emergence of Adesanya, Ijebu Kingdom had been on the spotlight in the world of boxing following the exploits of Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua since 2014. Joshua's family hails from Sagamu.

From his first-round demolition of Matt Legg at Wembley Stadium in 2014 to his victory against Joseph Parker at Cardiff's Principality Stadium, where he emerged as the unified world heavyweight champion, to his TKO against Carlos Takam, the devastating knockout of Alexander Povetkin and the TKO against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium, Joshua has been the toast of boxing fans around the world. He holds the WBA Super Heavyweight title in addition to the IBF belt.

His father, Jonathan, was born to a Nigerian father from Sagamu by an Irish mother.

Born in 1989 in Watford, Hertfordshire, the boxer spent some of his early years in Nigeria as a boarding school student at Mayflower School, Ikenne, hometown of the late Awolowo.

Prior to his fight against Wladimir Klitschko, The Guardian visited his family house in Sagamu, where a member of the family, Adedamola Joshua, who is Anthony Joshua's great-grand uncle, explained how his boxing career began.

According to him, "This family belongs to the royal family, and my father is the great-grandfather of Anthony Joshua. Olasheni Joshua is the direct son of Amoba Adebambo Joshua, who gave birth to Jonathan, the father of Anthony."

According to Adedamola Joshua, fighting has been in the Joshua family lineage long before Anthony was born.

"The grandfather was a great boxer. Even the sister to the father, Adewunmi Joshua, a lady, used to beat men in this town. She was very tough," Adedamola Joshua added.

Though his plan to visit Nigeria last year could not materialise, the people of Sagamu and his family members in particular are optimistic Joshua will visit home one day.

At every fight, Joshua always embraces his Nigerian roots, and always makes it known the influence Nigerian culture has on him. He speaks a little Yoruba.

"My heart is with Nigeria, my heart is with Britain. I'm a Nigerian man by blood," he said in interview after one of his victories.

Anthony Joshua once said the experience he had at the boarding school in Mayflower, Ikenne taught him discipline that has taken him far in his boxing career.

"The experience was good for me," AJ said. "It was a change and I thought I was going to go for the full course: 5.30am in the morning, up fetch your water, put something like an iron in your water to warm it up. Your clothes had to be washed and ironed. It wasn't an issue but was a good discipline."

Though, Mayflower school had said it had no knowledge of Anthony Joshua's time at the school.

"I only heard about him on radio, but I have not seen him before. I don't know anything about him and I can't say I met him in this school," the Vice Principal Academics of the school, B.O Lawal said in a recent interview.

"He must have come a long time ago. For us to actually trace, he must be able to tell us the year, the student number and the name he was bearing then."

Joshua might be a British citizen, but for the people of Sagamu, he is their own.

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