Israel Adesanya grew up idolizing Anderson Silva, now 'The Spider' stands in his way

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
The legend Anderson “The Spider” Silva takes on Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya at UFC 234 on Saturday. (Getty Images)
The legend Anderson “The Spider” Silva takes on Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya at UFC 234 on Saturday. (Getty Images)

When Anderson Silva was in the midst of authoring a 17-fight winning streak that had many calling him the greatest fighter of all-time, it had an effect on him.

With the passage of time and the perspective that comes from a 22-year professional fighting career, Silva looks at the person he was during that streak and sometimes shakes his head.

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“It is very interesting when you win, win, win, win all the time, a lot of people talk about you and say how great you are and it’s easy to lose passion and lose your real focus on what is important,” Silva said. “When I lost for the first time inside the UFC [to Chris Weidman on July 6, 2013], I went home and to be honest, I changed everything inside my mind.

“I changed my whole process and how I thought about things. When people are telling you you’re the greatest and you’re winning so much, you can get delusional. My mind is more mature, stronger now. I believe it is my responsibility to use my position in this sport to pass along a good message for the people. When I was young, I was not very strong about that.”

On Saturday U.S. time in Melbourne, Australia, Silva will challenge unbeaten wunderkind Israel Adesanya at Rod Laver Stadium in the co-main event with a title shot seemingly hanging in the balance.

Much has been made in the build-up to the fight of the similarities between them, and not just in the cage. Adesanya was just 7 years old when Silva made his MMA debut and just 16 when Silva knocked out Chris Leben in spectacular fashion to begin his famous UFC run.

“He’s the guy who inspired me to pursue MMA,” Adesanya said. “I related to his style when I was coming up.”

Adesanya is brash and brazen and brimming with confidence, much like Silva once was. He has reason for it, because he’s been spectacular ever since he turned to MMA and is fighting his fifth UFC bout in a year’s time.

Adesanya has been around long enough to know that the idolatry has to end when the bell sounds. It can, and probably will, resume when the fight concludes, but Silva represents a significant obstacle for Adesanya en route to what he believes is his destiny.

Israel Adesanya of Nigeria during his UFC 234 workout session at Federation Square on February 07, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Vince Caligiuri/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Israel Adesanya of Nigeria during his UFC 234 workout session at Federation Square on February 07, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Vince Caligiuri/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)

Adesanya not only wants to become the UFC champion, but he dreams much bigger. He wants to become the star of stars — which Silva once was — and is open to much bigger things.

“I’m just making my mark in this business, but when I’m gone, I want people to talk about me and remember me and say I was the best in my era,” Adesanya said. “I want them to say, ‘He fought everyone who was anyone and he welcomed all comers and beat them all.’ That’s the real challenge for me rather than just hoping to fight for the belt.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: [Expletive] the belt. The belt looks nice on me. I like it, but I’m looking forward to bigger and better things.”

He said that includes fights not just at light heavyweight, but eventually also at heavyweight.

Silva always dreamed big, as well, though he concentrated primarily on dominating at middleweight. Though he fought a few fights at light heavyweight, he set a standard in his class for the next generation of fighters to try to reach.

He understands the rhythm of the sport and how it constantly evolves. Before he was regarded as the greatest, that was the almost universal realm of heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. But Emelianenko was knocked out in just 35 seconds by Ryan Bader last month at Bellator 214, an outcome that was inconceivable during Emelianenko’s heyday.

Silva said he didn’t think the loss would impact Emelianenko’s legacy — “Fedor is great, and the people understand this,” he said — and said a key to longevity in MMA is adapting to change.

He said he knows he’s closer to the end than the beginning, but is ready, even eager, for the challenge a preternatural striker like Adesanya brings.

“I believe this is going to be a special fight in my career,” said Silva, who believes he has another title in him.

Adesanya, who learned so much from Silva, knows that he’s going to have to defeat his idol to make a statement about where he is.

At this time a year ago, he was all but unknown to MMA fans, but if he wins on Saturday, he’ll almost certainly get a crack at the winner of Saturday’s main event between champion Robert Whittaker and challenger Kelvin Gastelum.

If getting there means plowing through Silva ruthlessly, mercilessly and brutally, then that’s what he is prepared to do, even though he expects Silva to raise his game dramatically on Saturday.

“It’s not going to be hard to fight him because he’s just another man who is trying to keep me from reaching my dream,” Adesanya said. “He’s standing in my my way and so I’m going to have to get him out of my way and out of the game. I think I’m the guy who can bring the guy he was [during his long unbeaten] streak out of him. I think he was bored and kind of uninspired the last few years.

“I think I’m the guy to bring out the Anderson of old. He’s excited by this challenge, I believe, but so am I. I am constantly evolving in this game and leveling up and I want to show my evolution in this fight that I have leveled up even since the [win over Derek Brunson in November].”

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