It was the UFC’s first “star is born” moment of 2018.
Israel Adesanya brought a fair bit of hype to his Octagon debut on Saturday night in Perth, Australia. The 28-year-old middleweight nicknamed “The Last Style Bender” has a résumé which includes 50 career professional kickboxing wins, a 5-1 record as a pro boxer, and knockout victories in all 11 of his previous mixed martial arts fights.
He has a compelling backstory as a native of Nigeria who also lived in Ghana and moved with his family at age 12 to New Zealand, where he took up martial arts to fight back against bullies.
Adesanya handled the pressure with aplomb at UFC 221, as he absolutely mauled Rob Wilkinson with an efficiently delivered array of strikes. Wilkinson was rendered a bloody mess and retreated into a defensive shell until the referee called off the carnage at the 3:37 mark of the second round.
— UFC (@ufc) February 11, 2018
“I slow-cooked him in the first; I fried him in the second,” Adesanya told reporters later.
To cap his night, Adesanya delivered a mic drop of a post-fight interview in the cage.
“Middleweights, I’m the new dog in the yard, and I just pissed all over the cage,” Adesanya said.
A strong track record, a compelling backstory, a stellar performance under the bright light and a personality: Adesanya checks off all the necessary boxes on the fight-stardom checklist.
But can the WME/Endeavor-era UFC get the job done and properly build Adesanya in a manner that maximizes his potential?
The company’s results with young talent over the past year-plus leaves that quite an open question.
There has been no lack of up-and-coming talent in the company in the year and a half since previous owners Zuffa sold the company. They include:
*Sage Northcutt, whose big promotional push predated the sale but continued afterwards. The telegenic youngster from the Houston area was rushed into headline slots while still a teenager, and looked bad in a pair of high-profile FOX network losses. He’s now a reclamation project at 21, training with Urijah Faber’s famed Team Alpha Male, and appears to be getting back on the right track under a less-intense spotlight.
*Paige VanZant, the telegenic youngster who made a big splash on the show “Dancing With the Stars.” VanZant has dropped three of her past four fights, including a decision loss to Jessica-Rose Clark last month in which she suffered a broken arm early but gamely continued until the final horn.
*Michelle Waterson, a strawweight nicknamed “The Karate Hottie,” whose Dec. 2016 win over VanZant on the FOX network was viewed by 4.8 million people, the largest FOX UFC audience since 2013. Waterson subsequently lost high-profile bouts to Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres, but will be back on network TV in a fight against Cortney Casey in an April UFC on FOX event.
*Yair Rodriguez, a handsome featherweight from Chihuahua, Mexico with a flashy striking style, was thought of as the company’s potential breakthrough Latin American star. He was rushed into a bout with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar too soon at UFC 211 and absorbed a hellacious beating. That was last May. Nine months later there’s still no word on when he might return.
There’s a recurring theme here: If you could potentially do side work as a model, the Hollywood agency which now owns the UFC will put you on the fast track. Others, such as undefeated lightweight Gregor Gillespie, a regular dude from Long Island who just happens to be great at fighting, don’t get such treatment. Gillespie just last month ran his record to 11-0 with nine finishes, but the UFC has done nothing to follow up and promote the potential star. Kamaru Usman, after winning his seventh straight UFC welterweight fight last month, was inexplicably trashed on television by UFC president Dana White afterwards because Usman dared to note that he was sick leading up to the fight.
And the UFC wonders why television ratings and PPV buys are trending down?
Maybe the UFC will put Adesanya on their Hollywood fast track. Maybe he’ll get the Gillespie/Usman treatment. Neither track has helped make the most of new faces the company badly needs to get over with the audience.
Here’s an idea: Go back to doing things the old-fashioned way. Adesanya’s fight was on the FS1 prelim card of UFC 221, which means hundreds of thousands of people likely saw his bout. That’s a good start. Bring him over to North America next. Feature him in Las Vegas, or New York, or Southern California, or somewhere he’s going to be guaranteed a big media presence. Slowly build his résumé against modest increases in competition each time out.
It should be a couple fights before he takes on someone ranked and there should not be an Edgar-Rodriguez mismatch anywhere on the horizon. Slowly bump him up to the main cards, to the FOX network cards, to the pay-per-view main cards.
And while we’re at it maybe give White one or two less television appearances and start getting someone like an Adesanya, who could potentially make the company real money, out in that limelight instead.
Adesanya, for his part, knows he’s being watched.
“I just want to say something to the UFC fighters, the personnel backstage,” Adesanya said. “I see you creeping on my Instagram, don’t think I don’t see you, you’re watching me and I’ve been watching you. But then when you run into me you act like you don’t know me. But you know who I am now.”
It’s up to the UFC from here to show they still know how to make sure a whole lot more people than just Adesanya’s fellow fighters know his name.
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