Somewhere along the way, every rising UFC superstar faces the moment where their hype and haters intersect, and the onus is on them to prove they have what it takes to get to the next level.
Anderson Silva was put into a title fight with Rich Franklin in just his second UFC fight, which many felt was too soon. Silva went out and wrecked Franklin at UFC 64 to win the middleweight title and usher in what remains the longest title reign in UFC history.
Conor McGregor was repeatedly told the UFC was protecting him from wrestlers, and he was going to melt when he finally faced one. Then he accepted Chad Mendes as a short notice replacement and knocked him out at UFC 189, which vaulted him toward simultaneous UFC titles.
There were those who thought Jon Jones was going to meet his match in Ryan Bader at UFC 126. Instead, Jones won the evening’s co-feature bout and just six weeks later defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to win the light heavyweight belt.
Which brings us to the UFC’s latest can’t-miss kid, Israel Adesanya, who finished up an incredible 4-0 UFC campaign in 2018 on Saturday night with his devastating first-round finish of veteran Derek Brunson on the main card of UFC 230 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
— UFC (@ufc) November 4, 2018
You could almost picture UFC president Dana White in the middle of the famous “distracted boyfriend” meme, with McGregor looking shocked as White turned his head toward Adesanya, the way the UFC boss laid it on thick at the post-fight news conference.
“Israel has been a guy who has been on the rise here for a minute, but I really felt like tonight was his first big test,” White said. “His opponent hits like a truck and wrestles really well, and Madison Square Garden, opening the show, man, did he deliver. Many people — including me — think this kid is the future, and he went out and put a stamp on it tonight.”
You can understand why White is almost giddy while pondering just how big a star Adesanya can become. The brash kickboxer from New Zealand by way of Nigeria, nicknamed “The Last Style Bender,” had the sort of rise usually only found in the movies. That’s apropos, since Adesnya appears well on his way to becoming first homegrown star made by Hollywood conglomerate WME/Endeavor in the two years since it purchased the company.
Adesanya burst onto the scene at UFC 221 in Australia, where he used his ruthless standup skill to pick apart an overmatched Brad Wilkinson, then called out the entire middleweight division in a memorable postfight interview.
“The minute I saw this kid, I was like, holy [expletive] this is really good, I like this,” White said. “Then you hear him talk, I like that too. He’s the whole package. He is very ambitious, I would like him to pump the brakes a little bit. This guy wants to [expletive] fight everybody right now and he wants to fight every month, which I love.”
The style in the cage mixed with the brashness on the mic immediately brought the haters out of the woodwork, voices which didn’t exactly go silenced when his follow-up fight, 10 weeks later, was an unimpressive split decision against Marvin Vettori.
But Adesanya was trusted with his first UFC main event in July, and put on a dominant show in going 25 minutes with an ultra-tough Brad Tavares, throwing everything but the kitchen sink against the tough Hawaiian before getting a unanimous nod.
By this point, fighters had begun calling Adesanya out, and Adesanya obliged Brunson, a cagey veteran with a superior wrestling game and respectable standup.
In a heated and at times over-the-top buildup, Brunson let Adesanya know his wrestling would expose his hype. Instead, it was Adesanya who let the world know, under the intense spotlight at one of the world’s most venerated fight venues.
Brunson wasted little time implementing his wrestling on Adesanya. But Adesanya successfully sprawled the bulk of his opponent’s takedown attempts. When Brunson engaged in the clinch and bullied his opponent to the fence, Adesanya stayed patient until he found an opening and scampered to safety.
Adesanya’s success made Brunson’s frustration mount, and as soon as the time was right, Adesanya struck like a cobra. Adesanya’s mix of knees, kicks, elbows and punches from all angles made for four knockdowns in the blink of an eye, the last two on successive punches, which caused the bout to be waved off at the 4:51 mark of the opening round.
Just like that, the 28-year-old Adesanya improved to 15-0 in MMA with 13 knockouts. His combined combat sports record including kickboxing and boxing is 96-8-1.
The postscript on the fighters listed up top is that all of them became legendary MMA champions. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Adesanya, having passed his biggest test to date, is already thinking along similar lines. Assessing the state of the 185-pound division after UFC 230’s main card featured four middleweight bouts, Adesanya believes he deserves the winner of the upcoming fight between champion Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum.
“You have ‘Jacare,’ [Souza], who’s already lost to Kelvin and Robert. Who wants to see that again?” asked Adesanya. “Then you’ve got Jared [Cannonier], he did well tonight. … Then you have Yoel [Romero], he’s unreliable. Also, he missed weight. Yoel doesn’t make weight all of the time, so that’s unreliable. [Luke] Rockhold, he makes weight but also pulls out and is unreliable. If Robert wins [at UFC 234], it makes so much sense to do it Auckland in Spark Arena.”
That may sound bold, but boldness hasn’t failed Israel Adesanya yet.
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