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LAS VEGAS — There were the 20 consecutive wins, the interim title after 14 months in the UFC, the triumphant knockout victory over his arch-rival before more than 50,000 fans in a stadium he once watched fights from in the upper deck, and so much more.
In some ways, though, this was Israel Adesanya’s finest hour.
The UFC middleweight champion came up short in his bid to become just the fifth double champ in the promotion’s history when he dropped a unanimous decision to Jan Blachowicz on Saturday in their match for the light heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 259 at Apex.
But Adesanya showed his peers how it is done, even in a losing effort. Perhaps it should be said, he showed how it should be done particularly following a losing effort.
He tried to make history and left the comfort of a weight class he reigns with an iron fist. There is no middleweight fight to make now in which he wouldn’t be a significant favorite. But he took a risk, moved up a class, and tried to capture a second title.
It wasn’t to be, as Blachowicz had a tight defense and didn’t allow Adesanya’s counter strikes to dictate the bout as they had so often in the past.
“It never hurt someone trying to be great,” UFC president Dana White said of Adesanya.
White said “size is always a factor,” and that he felt it played a role in Blachowicz’s victory. Adesanya respectfully disagreed. He said Blachowicz’s defense was better than he thought, but that his size had little impact on the outcome.
He offered no excuses and noted that although he entered the bout 20-0 as an MMA fighter, he has experienced defeat before.
“I’ve lost before,” Adesanya said. “I’ve lost in kickboxing. I’ve lost in boxing. I lost in life and I’ve lost in love. You don’t win all the time. I’m still here. My team’s still here. They still love me. My family loves me.”
He didn’t have the explosion that he normally has, though Blachowicz definitely played a role in that. He tried to lure Blachowicz into his traps that he’s caught and finished so many of his opponents before, but either Blachowicz was wise to them and didn’t bite or Adesanya wasn’t on point with his shots.
Still, he captivated the media in the post-fight with his insistence that not only was he not devastated by the defeat but that he’ll be back at light heavyweight and heavyweight.
No fighter has ever taken a defeat in a major fight as well as Adesanya did on Saturday.
“The boxing model has made it a bad thing to lose,” Adesanya said. “It sucks to lose, but it’s not like it’s the end of the world. I’ve lost before. I’m excited to get back and work on the details. ... He had an answer tonight for the things I was throwing at him.”
Adesanya’s rival, former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, sarcastically mocked him on Twitter. The two have had a running feud and Adesanya has said he wants to go to light heavyweight to fight Jones.
He said Saturday that fight is still in the plans. Jones, though, got a kick out of Adesanya’s loss and his rational for it.
“Dare to be great, good job kid,” Jones wrote.
But with all due respect to arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived, Adesanya probably created more fans in the aftermath of his defeat.
He wasn’t scintillating like he was in wins over Robert Whittaker, Paulo Costa and Kelvin Gastelum, but he was raw, open and honest and handled the loss as if he’d read an instruction manual on the topic.
“I could have won this fight,” Adesanya said. “... I’m not heartbroken and I’m not over here saying, ‘Oh my God, f***, he embarrassed me. ... This is a dip in my story, the valley, if you will, before I rise up again like the phoenix that I am.”
The win was huge for Blachowicz, who was a better than a 2-to-1 underdog. He’d won a title Jones had vacated and wasn’t getting the respect that most UFC champions receive.
After White wrapped the belt on him, Blachowicz turned to the UFC president and said, “You don’t believe in me.”
Later, he talked about his hope that he’d convinced people of his worthiness as champion.
“What can I say?” Blachowicz said.”Now I’ve proved that I’m the champion. I’ll have the respect from everybody and next fight, I won’t be the underdog.”
He’ll face veteran Glover Teixeira later this year. For Adesanya, after a two-week quarantine, it will be a return to New Zealand and some time in Coach Eugene Bareman’s lab.
He will defend the middleweight title again, though the challenger remains to be determined.
And though he came up short, it’s not as if the difference between he and Blachowicz was so large that there’s no way he could overcome the gap between them.
As he said about a potential heavyweight fight with Jones, “Never say never.”
He’ll fight anyone at anytime, promote the fight tirelessly and handle himself with class whether he wins or loses.
That is the definition of a champion in my book.
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