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It all makes so much sense.
Israel Adesanya and Jon Jones have been squabbling for years, with the two ostensibly unbeaten stars escalating their beef of late on Twitter. At one point, their fight didn’t seem ripe, with Jones’ weight advantage and longtime dominance making it hard to imagine the emerging middleweight posing too much of a challenge. That has changed, as Adesanya has captured and defended the 185 pound crown with spectacular performances reminiscent of a prime Anderson Silva, while Jones struggled in decision wins over Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos in a way that made him seem vulnerable to the challenge of someone possessing the skills of Adesanya.
Adesanya vs. Jones, a matchup of elite superstars with dazzling skills and outspoken personalities, would be a massive attraction on pay-per-view. Jones’ biggest fights have been those with a grudge component, such as his bouts with Rashad Evans and Daniel Cormier. Even more tantalizing for the sport, Jones-Adesanya has the potential to be a passing-of-the-torch fight, where an Adesanya win would use Jones’ star power to elevate his.
Adesanya is already one of the sport’s biggest stars to MMA fans, but he doesn’t mean nearly so much to casual fans. Sometimes fighters like that never get to the next level, but the right opponent at the right time can make all the difference. That’s what happened with Tito Ortiz, who became a superstar through his feud with Ken Shamrock, and then played the same role in elevating Chuck Liddell. Floyd Mayweather Jr. talked a big game but didn’t become a genuine attraction until he beat Oscar De La Hoya. There’s no one Adesanya realistically could fight who could play that role for him other than Jones.
The one concern for Adesanya previously was that he had his own business to handle at middleweight. However, that sorted itself out in recent fights. Jared Cannonier was emerging as a contender but has now lost to Robert Whittaker, whom Adesanya defeated last year. Whittaker is looking to take a few months off before returning to action in spring of next year and an Adesanya-Whittaker rematch would benefit from a little more distance from their first fight anyway. Adesanya handled Paulo Costa without much difficulty, leaving no obvious top middleweight challenger. Thus, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced that Adesanya will move up to fight Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title.
Moving up from middleweight to light heavyweight has not traditionally been an easy move. There’s a 20-pound difference between the two weight classes, a big gap to make up. Of the 13 men to hold the UFC light heavyweight championship, nine have fought at some point at heavyweight. Jones would make it 10. Meanwhile, only four of those 13 fighters have ever competed at middleweight.
Many elite middleweights have looked more average when moving to light heavyweight. Two recent examples were Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, highly accomplished former champions who were promptly knocked out and haven’t fought at 205 pounds since. Rockhold in particular was always a big middleweight and thought to be well suited to move for that reason. He was a greater than 2-to-1 favorite against a Polish opponent coming off a loss, but things did not go Rockhold’s way.
UFC is betting things will be different for Adesanya. He’s taller and has a longer reach than Blachowicz. He’s younger and much quicker. He’s unbeaten while Blachowicz has accumulated eight losses over the course of a career in which he was once regarded as a journeyman. He was the underdog in his title fight against Dominick Reyes and he’ll be a substantial underdog again when he defends against Adesanya. He surely looks like an ideal opponent for Adesanya to move up in weight class to take on.
There is substantial downside if Adesanya loses. It’s going to be tough to sell Adesanya against Jones if Adesanya can’t defeat Blachowicz. Moreover, it will undermine the aura that has emerged around Adesanya, without the obvious remedy that would exist in the middleweight division of a rematch to regain his championship. Blachowicz is highly unlikely to become a superstar in the process.
Of course, none of this downside means anything if a loss by Adesanya fails to materialize. After all, he’s got a favorable matchup, and just think what’s next. He’ll be the UFC light heavyweight champion and Jon Jones can move back down in weight class with a real challenge: to regain his title from a hated but talented rival. Everything will be lined up perfectly and all that’s needed is for this one fight to go as expected. If it does, everything will work out beautifully. If it doesn’t, everything will fall apart.
This is of course MMA we’re talking about, which leaves one with the lingering feeling something’s about to go horribly awry.
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