Directed by: Zoe McIntosh
Written by: Zoe McIntosh
Released: September 28, 2023
Grade: B+


My knowledge is poor when it comes to mixed martial arts, but I have plenty of younger friends who closely follow the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).  The first UFC fights took place in 1993 and while it took time to find an audience, it’s now reached a point where annual revenues (sponsorships, media rights, ticket sales) exceed $1 billion per annum, and title fights and held almost every weekend.

Made with the financial support of the New Zealand government, Stylebender is a documentary that delves into the life of Israel Adesanya, a high-profile mixed martial artist who was born in Nigeria and migrated with his family to New Zealand at age 10.  He made his professional fighting debut in 2012 and seven years later, he’d become UFC Middleweight Champion.  His most recent fight was two weeks ago here in Sydney.

This is an above-average doco and much of the credit belongs with writer-director Zoe McIntosh.  Firstly, she’s found an interesting person in Adesanya with a backstory worthy of public awareness.  Secondly, and more importantly, she’s maintained a significant level of creative control which allows her to look at the subject matter from multiple perspectives.  This is not a brand-enhancing, glorified “puff piece”.

Adesanya’s rags-to-riches upbringing is covered in detail, but Stylebender is at its best when probing the champion we know today.  McIntosh speaks extensively with Adesanya but there are also interviews with those in his immediate orbit.  The most comprehensive insight is offered by his long-time trainer, Eugene Bareman, who is the ultimate “open book”.  He passionately talks about Adesanya’s strengths and achievements… while also acknowledging his weaknesses and limitations.

Adesanya has been embroiled in several controversies in recent years, largely of his own making, and McIntosh doesn’t shy away from this fact either.  The film could be used as a lesson for any high-profile professional athlete about how they become roll models, whether they like it or not, and how social media is a double-edged sword.  There’s an eye-opening scene (can’t believe McIntosh was granted access) where Adesanya and his team discuss how best to deal with a moment of negative press.

This feeds into another great angle – the mental health considerations that arise when being at the top of a sport and living constantly in the public’s spotlight.  We see a more vulnerable side to Adesanya which reminds us that wealthy celebrities aren’t necessarily happier than everyone else.  The confident sportspeople we idolise on the field… are often very different when the cameras aren’t rolling.

I’m sure this will appeal most to UFC fans, but I’d argue the less you know going in, the better.  Stylebender offers something for all.