Raukura Old Boy wins Halberg Award

Israel Adesanya.

UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has been named Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards on Thursday night.

The Nigerian-New Zealand MMA fighter, who arrived in New Zealand to settle in Rotorua when he was 10, is the first combat sport athlete to win the award since 1953.

The 30-year-old took out the prized award ahead of shot put star Tom Walsh, Australian Supercars champion driver Scott McLaughlin and Black Caps captain Kane Williamson.

If the gathered guests and those watching at home live on SKY TV anticipated another cliché-ridden acceptance speech, they were in for a radical shock.

The former Rotorua Boys’ High School student made a passionate plea for New Zealanders to stop bagging our successful sportspeople and to put an end to the tall poppy syndrome once and for all.

"New Zealand, we have this culture of tall poppy syndrome which is messed up. Coming up in this country I've seen it so many times. When you see one of us rising, you want to tear him down because you feel inadequate and you want to call it humble.

"I am extraordinarily humble, believe me, but you'll never know that because you'll never get to know me.

"Understand this. If you see one of us shining, whether it be the netball team, the Black Caps, the sailors, pump them up, embrace them, because if they win, we win. If I win, you win.

"Understand that."

For minority sports like MMA to be honoured at the Halberg Awards could well be a defining moment in how the sports are regarded in this country, and should start a surge in numbers taking part.

Adesayna offered his award to inspire everyone associated with combat sports.

"So for me, this really isn't for me. This is for the young generation coming up who get to see someone they can relate to, someone who is of my essence, if you will.

“A combat athlete that they can feel like, 'Man, my sport, like Muay Thai or Jiu-Jitsu or Wrestling is up there with the All Blacks, the Black Caps and the Tall Blacks and New Zealand's top sporting teams'.

“We're on a level playing field. Like I said, we've been doing this for a long time so this is for them.”

It was also a memorable night for another former Rotorua resident, Dame Noeline Taurua.

She was named Coach Of The Year and won the Sport New Zealand leadership award for guiding the Silver Ferns to the world title last year after beating Australia 52-51 to win the World Cup for the first time since 2003.

The Silver Ferns were named Team of the Year and the Supreme Award to make it an historic evening for women’s sport at the 57th Halberg Awards.

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