by Abhi Parasher

In 2018, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welcomed exciting prospect Israel ‘The Last Stylebender’ Adesanya onto its roster. Within a year of his debut, Adesanya had already fought 5 times (winning all 5) against the greatest fighters in the world and cemented himself as one of UFC’s biggest names.

That is where New Zealand filmmaker, Zoë McIntosh, comes into the picture.

“The first fight I covered was the Whittaker one,” McIntosh shares with us hours before a special screening of her new documentary, Stylebender, in Sydney. “I had literally just read one article on him before I started making the film. Once I signed on, I researched the hell out of him. I’m a maniac when it comes to research, so I started by watching every fight and reading everything I could on him.”

Adesanya went on to beat Robert Whittaker, winning him the UFC Middleweight Championship only 18 months after he debuted. Unbeknownst to McIntosh at the time, she was on the ground floor covering one of the greatest fighters in UFC history.

“I am fascinated by characters who can do extraordinary things, regardless of setback or adversity,” McIntosh says. “What stood out to me about Adesanya was his remarkable resilience and the way he could change his internal state through his physicality and the way he talked to himself. He’s also learnt to embrace his weirdness and his inner freaky self which is what he was bullied for as a child.”

Stylebender has received a lot of praise for its unique insight into Adesanya’s mind, which required a delicate yet unflinching touch on McIntosh’s part.

“I feel so stoked that the things I love in the film are still in there. Creative control was important to me because I wanted to show a side to Adesanya we hadn’t seen before,” McIntosh says. “It was great because I wasn’t going in as a fan, which allowed me to push him to places that may have been potentially uncomfortable, but that’s what made the film so wonderful. I’m not sure you would get the same film if it was made by a man or a UFC fan.”

Despite McIntosh’s probing, she made sure to maintain the delicate trust that is built between a documentarian and their subject.

“You don’t want to be pushing your subject into these extremely uncomfortable zones, because at the end of the day, you’re dealing with real people. So, it was important to me to have debriefs with Issy where I would talk to him and make sure he was okay with the intense territory we were covering. Those conversations were had, but there was never a moment where he felt like he needed us to stop filming”.

Much of that intense territory comes in the form of Adesanya’s therapy sessions, which McIntosh had unprecedented access to.

“Once we started going in on the therapy sessions, that’s when I was like ‘we finally have a film’. I was so glad we didn’t have to do the regular sit-down interviews,” shares McIntosh. “When I found out he had a therapist, I knew I had to meet her. In hindsight, he would have just given me her number if I had asked, but I ended up hunting her down and doing my own therapy sessions in the middle of nowhere for 4 days. I then asked Janette, his therapist, if she would be happy to go on camera. I hit Issy up and he agreed, but getting to the point where I could even ask him that question required a lot of building up of trust.”

A big component of Adesanya’s success and another major character in the documentary is Eugene Bareman, Adesanya’s coach.

“Eugene is one of those characters who just says it how it is. He does not care so much about the camera. I mean, he hardly ever wears shoes and walks around barefoot at the gym the entire time. When I first met him, he insisted on meeting at the gym rather than some café. He wanted me and the producers to sit on the sweaty mats and talk business. That’s why Eugene was so integral to the film and to Issy’s success. He provides that raw honesty when Issy needs it and also that deep beautiful grounding that reminds Issy of where he is from.”

Adesanya is an active fighter on the UFC roster, which means his story as a mixed martial artist is still being written. For McIntosh, the rest of that story is for another filmmaker.

“Part two might be for a different filmmaker” she laughs. “I think I have cracked him open in a way that allows me to reveal a lot about him. I don’t necessarily want to keep following the fights for the sake of it. If there was something extraordinary that was going on in his life that we haven’t already covered in the documentary, then there might be more in there for me, but for now, I want to step into a different world.”

For McIntosh, that world may come in the form of something as equally unique and uncharted as the mind of Israel Adesanya.

“I’ve been researching a lot about female bull fighters in Mexico,” she tells us. “No one wants to watch bulls be tortured, so that one will be a drama rather than a documentary. What I am interested in, is what compels a female to jump into the ring with a raging bull?”

Stylebender releases in Australian cinemas on the September 28, 2023