Opinion: Israel Adesanya, Thrill Seeker Extraordinaire

By Jacob Debets Mar 6, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 248 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

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As the largest crowd in Ultimate Fighting Championship history slowly filed out of Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, four months ago, Israel Adesanya fronted the media as the company’s 11th undisputed middleweight titleholder.

With no shortage of swagger, “The Last Stylebender” waltzed out to take his assigned seat, the belt a conspicuous accessory across his shoulder. His face, unmarked by the eight and a half minutes he had spent trading leather with Robert Whittaker, was drawn into a bemused expression. He paused and then discarded a Monster Energy can that had been placed on the media table in anticipation of his arrival before lowering himself into his seat and directing his attention to the assembled reporters.

The entrance was understated, particularly given the one he had delivered barely two hours beforehand to kickstart the UFC 243 main event. Immediately before he marched into the Octagon to face his stiffest test yet in front of a record-setting crowd, Adesanya executed a choreographed dance routine with members of his former dance troupe, inspired by the Japanese manga series “Naruto.” He then proceeded to the cage, knocked out Whittaker inside two rounds and vaulted himself into combat sports immortality.

The questions came thick and fast at Adesanya, from navigating Whittaker’s striking arsenal before the knockout and presenting the championship to his parents inside the Octagon to the logistics that went behind his entrance and his budding feud with Brazilian juggernaut Paulo Henrique Costa. He answered them in turn, waxing lyrical about his performance, his upbringing and family and the various —philosophies to which he ascribes: “I don’t chase money, money chase me” and “Stay woke, stay broke.” He flowed from one question to the next, answering thoughtfully and fulsomely, just like he had done at various fan and media engagements during fight week. He smiled, laughed and pontificated, his words translating into hundreds of headlines that would make their way into newspapers, sports websites and MMA forums. At one point, he interrupted a reporter to answer a FaceTime call from his cousin, so effortless in his control of the spotlight.

That press conference and the event it followed felt like a paradigm-shifting event. Whatever doubts followed Adesanya into the cage—about his knockout power or his takedown defense or his ability to fight on the back foot—were jettisoned in real time, and as soon as the belt was wrapped around his waist, he was already setting his crosshairs on his next opponent. Instead of basking in his achievement, which he had predicted with unearthly clarity two years prior, he minimized it. He proclaimed that his next big ambition was to clean out the 185-pound division before moving up to challenge light heavyweight champion and pound-for-pound king Jon Jones. He even earmarked a date and venue for their bout: International Fight Week 2021 at Raiders Stadium.

That brings us to UFC 248, where Adesanya will attempt to secure his first title defense on the way to his “inevitable” encounter with Jones. He faces Cuban marauder Yoel Romero on Saturday in Las Vegas. It’s a challenge he specifically requested after Costa—who overcame the “Soldier of God” in the narrowest of split decisions in August—was sidelined with injury. This will be the fourth time Romero has fought for a version of the 185-pound title. In between two grueling decision losses to Whittaker, the former Olympic silver medalist wiped out Luke Rockhold at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, where a failed weight cut made him ineligible to win the interim championship.

Adesanya’s insistence on fighting Romero, a divisional boogeyman who has been the subject of evasive action from titleholder’s past, has been the dominant narrative going into their confrontation. Rather than sit out and wait for Costa, he sought out an objectively perilous stylistic matchup, ostensibly for the sake of quieting what must now be a fairly small group of doubters.

That kind of boldness is rare in MMA, but it is fast becoming a bedrock of Adesanya’s brand. Of course the guy who captured a UFC title inside two years—he defeated Whittaker, Derek Brunson, Anderson Silva and Kelvin Gastelum inside a mind-boggling 11-month stretch—is seeking out his toughest challenge rather than taking a holiday. Of course he’s putting his championship, his undefeated record and his blood feud against Costa on the line for the sake of keeping busy. Of course he’s sticking up his middle finger to his predecessors and fellow titleholders, whose modus operandi has been to use the belt as a vehicle to superfights and easy paydays.

Still, it remains a calamitous gamble. Despite Romero going 1-3 in his last four appearances, there’s an argument for him winning each of the three decisions that went the other way. He also has a propensity for derailing careers (ask Rockhold and Chris Weidman) and at the very least imparting some life-altering physical trauma (ask Whittaker).

All this to say that Adesanya deserves all the praise in the world for calling out that guy, and if he pulls it off, it will be just another reason to celebrate him. If he loses, something tells me he won’t be down for long.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement

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