In New Zealand, a South Pacific nation of just over 5 million, rugby rules. For generations, its national team, the All Blacks, has dominated the sport and inspired fear into those of much larger nations.
If you’ve ever seen the Haka, the traditional Maori war dance that the All Blacks perform before every game, it’s not hard to see why. It’s likely the sporting world’s most intimidating sight, which proud Kiwi and UFC featherweight Shane Young once even performed before a bewildered Dana White.
With such a sporting legacy and the blood of warriors flowing through their veins, it makes sense that New Zealand is now similarly punching above its weight in MMA, led of course by the exploits of Auckland-based gym, City Kickboxing.
Rugby fans claim theirs is “the game they play in heaven,” and in New Zealand, its players are treated like gods. The same, however, can’t be said for the country’s MMA fighters, according to the likes of Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker, and their City Kickboxing coach Eugene Bareman.
In late September, Bareman announced that City Kickboxing is seriously considering relocating to the United States to escape New Zealand’s strict COVID-19 international travel quarantine measures, which have hampered its fighters’ ability to travel to UFC events abroad. Adesanya has already declared he’ll make the move to the US himself and has even uttered “You will never see me fight in New Zealand ever again.”
So how did it come to this; City Kickboxing, one of the region’s greatest sporting success stories, possibly skipping the country for greener pastures, perhaps never to return?
City Kickboxing vs. The New Zealand Government
Never had New Zealand fight fans envisioned that City Kickboxing, a gym in the Auckland suburbs, could make such a profound impact on MMA, producing two UFC champions in Alexander Volkanovski and Adesanya. However, these accomplishments, achieved while proudly flying the New Zealand flag, largely seem lost on the nation’s government and some factions of the media.
While Adesanya enjoys flattering op-eds in the New York Times, editorials in his home country are recently of a very different flavor, painting him and his City Kickboxing peers as “too big for little old New Zealand,” thanks to their criticisms of the nation’s international travel quarantine measures.
Adesanya, Hooker, and Bareman contend that the New Zealand government has treated them unfairly—and it’s hard to deny their argument. The nation’s quarantine measures, which aim to maintain its near-zero levels of COVID-19, mandate that those few citizens allowed to leave the country must on return spend 14 days confined to a hotel room and at their own expense. Daily intake quotas for international arrivals mean opportunities to return to New Zealand are few and far between.
A number of sports teams, however, have been granted priority status—and this is the crux of City Kickboxing’s gripe with the government. The All Blacks and a host of their international rivals have, with little trouble, booked much-coveted hotel quarantine spots. So too cricket teams. Even the English netball team, who compete in a sport that’s like basketball without the dribbling or entertainment value, have been prioritized. But when it comes to New Zealand’s more globally recognized UFC athletes, they’ve been told to suck it up and wait in line like everyone else.
Eugene Bareman Lobbies For Equality With Mainstream Sports
Bareman argues that New Zealand’s quarantine system is flawed, favoring team sports over individual athletes like those from his gym. Israel Adesanya alone, he feels, is more famous globally than the All Blacks, and thereby satisfies the “national interest” criterion required for quarantine prioritization.
“The New Zealand public, for the most part, get behind us and love us, but the government not so much,” said Bareman in an interview with Submission Radio. “It’s gonna be a very sad day if I and the team have to end up leaving and basing ourselves overseas. It will be done with a very heavy heart.”
“We just want to be treated like some of these mainstream sports. The All Blacks can come and go when they want. The All Blacks are the exact same as us. They can make many arguments across the board that we are bigger than the All Blacks at the moment.”
PHOTO: NZ HERALD
The impact of New Zealand’s quarantine system on City Kickboxing has been profound, says Bareman, and he now sees no other option than to haul his entire operation onto more favorable shores.
“We’ve been operating under these circumstances for two years since coronavirus hit now and we’ve kept the ball going,” Bareman continued. “But as a rough estimate, we’ve probably had half the amount of fights we should’ve in the last two years.”
“Across the board, we’re operating at a rough estimate of 50%. We just can’t continue to do that. It seems to me that a move is pretty imminent.”
City Kickboxing’s protests have elicited little sympathy from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who maintains that MMA athletes haven’t been treated unfairly by the quarantine system. In a lengthy Instagram post, City Kickboxing refuted the comments and outlined compelling reasons for the gym to receive the same dispensations afforded other national sporting teams.
“Not only are CKB athletes representatives of a national team who wear the silver fern with pride, we are also a business, which provides jobs, supports numerous families and generates significant economic benefit to the country. Whether this be two huge stadium shows or providing some of the highest per capita viewership of UFC events in the world, or through event and hospitality venues, gyms and lounges across New Zealand being filled with people watching one of the countries most rapidly growing sports,” wrote City Kickboxing.
Adesanya Announces Move Abroad, Vents Frustration With NZ Government
The Nigerian-born Adesanya, who migrated to New Zealand with his family as a ten-year-old, has proudly represented his adopted country (and Nigeria) on MMA’s biggest global stage. But fed up with his government’s unfair treatment, “Stylebender” late last month announced that he’ll be relocating to the US, despite City Kickboxing yet to officially commit to the move.
Days earlier, Adesanya had aired his frustrations with New Zealand’s powers that be and vowed to never again compete on home soil.
“You will never see me fight in New Zealand ever again,” declared Adesanya in a video on his YouTube channel. “All that money, they can get it from somewhere else. Their rugbys, their crickets and all the others they’re giving exemptions to, but you will never ever see me fight on these shores [again].”
The comments drew sympathy from teammate Dan Hooker, whose recent struggles to train and travel abroad for UFC 266 made plenty of headlines.
“I can definitely see where he (Adesanya) is coming from. He is speaking from the heart, he is upset about the situation,” Hooker said at the UFC 266 post-fight press conference.
Hooker even expressed his belief that there’s a vendetta against MMA in New Zealand, driven by both the media and government.
“I think the powers that be showed their true colours,” continued Hooker. “Sport New Zealand and the big wigs in the media back home in New Zealand have just kind of been playing nice with us because we have been getting so much attention for the country … and then they saw an opportunity to put a lid on us or put on us, and they showed their true colours of what they really wanted to do which was to stop MMA and the UFC getting massive in NZ.”
“But it’s a part of New Zealand culture, combat sports is a part of our DNA in New Zealand, and we are going to push through no matter what.”
Finding A New Home In The US
With Adesanya already committing to a move abroad and Hooker and Volkanovski expressing their willingness to do the same, it seems only a matter of time before we see the trio—and perhaps many of their City Kickboxing cohorts—fighting out of an American city.
Bareman says that when they do make the move, it will be with reluctance.
“City Kickboxing absolutely does not want to move over to America at all,” Bareman told New Zealand radio station Newstalk ZB. “That should be made pretty clear. Our hand is kind of getting forced if you like. Just getting let down by the system really.”
City Kickboxing’s highly likely move abroad will be a huge loss for New Zealand, but it’s absolutely the right one. Not only will its fighters be free of travel restrictions and lockdowns, but they’ll also avoid the almost day-long flight to get to a UFC event in, for example, Las Vegas. Not to mention having to adjust themselves to local time zones.
But hopefully, for the sake of MMA in New Zealand and Australia, City Kickboxing’s move overseas will be a temporary one, which Bareman hinted at when asked how long the gym will remain abroad.
“Until we can get in and out of our country, and not have to have these guys’ careers and earnings cut down, because of not being able to get in and out of the country,” Bareman told Submission Radio. “So I roughly estimate about a year … could be longer, but I roughly estimate about a year.”
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