With his outstanding second round KO of Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Israel Adesanya cemented his position as the middleweight division’s undisputed king. He now has a chance to become the promotion’s post-Conor McGregor superstar.
Despite having fought just once since 2016, Conor McGregor still casts a huge shadow over the UFC. The global attention garnered by the build-up to his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. brought unprecedented attention to the promotion and the sport of MMA more broadly.
However, it soon became a double-edged sword for Dana White as McGregor appeared to become bigger than the sport itself, and with the seeming decline in the Irishman’s interest in competition, if you don’t include last night’s tame call out of Frankie Edgar, – in tandem with his increasingly erratic behaviour away from The Octagon- the promotion has struggled to fill the black hole left by the implosion of its greatest star.
All those champions who have stepped up to the plate have been found wanting. Many if not all are great fighters. With regard to talent, the quality of the UFC’s current crop of champions is arguably as strong as it has ever been, despite increasingly strong competition from their main North American rivals, Bellator.
And yet, whether through inconsistency, injury, or just lack of that all-important intangible star power, none have even come close to fulfilling the role of that jewel in the UFC crown previously the role of McGregor, or, even, before him, the likes of Anderson Silva, GSP, BJ Penn or even Chuck Liddell.
Jon Jones, who Izzy has traded barbs with, is arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of his generation, has a reputation which is endlessly blighted by indiscretions away from the cage, and forever tarnished by failing drug tests, whether or not those results were ultimately overturned. Combined with an underlying lack of likeability which pre-dates any scandal, the promotion has always struggled to advance “Bones” as the face of the promotion, irrespective of his prodigious talent.
The heavyweight division is palpably short of iconic characters. Daniel Cormier is approaching the end of his career and the present champion, Miocic, despite being able to stake a claim as the division’s best ever fighter, is a quiet, undemonstrable character, and his story as a part-time fire fighter can only be told so many times.
Elsewhere championships change hands with relative regularity, and two-weight title holder Henry Cejudo suffers from the innate disinterest which seems to afflict the very low weight classes, while McGregor’s conqueror, Khabib Nurmagomedov, has neither the charisma nor the fighting style to fire the public’s imagination. The circumstances are ripe therefore for Israel Adesanya to seize his chance to become the UFC’s leading light.
His credentials are beyond dispute. In unifying the middleweight title, the Nigerian put on a dominant performance over one of the promotion’s most complete competitors. Whittaker, despite a relatively low profile, has among the most impressive CVs in the sport of mixed martial arts. Since winning The Ultimate Fighter welterweight tournament, the Australian went up a weight class and instantly found success claiming the scalps of Uriah Hall, Jacare Souza and wrestling phenom Yoel Romero on his way to claiming the middleweight title.
With such an outstanding record, it was assumed that Whittaker would have provided a sterner test for the interim title holder. However, aside being drawn into a couple of brawling exchanges, Adesanya could scarcely have looked in more control, flooring Whittaker at the end of the first before finishing the job in a second round in which it seemed as if he was able to land at will.
There may be tough tests to come, but future challengers appear more speculative than obvious. Paulo Costa and Jared Cannonier are presently riding high in the rankings, and it could be argued that he has yet to face a truly elite grappler like Yoel Romero. However, the speed with which his grappling has improved since he abandoned his kickboxing career is immense and, despite only formally being qualified to blue belt level in BJJ, he looked entirely at home against experienced wrestlers like Derek Brunson and Kelvin Gastelum. At 30, this progression seems likely to continue.
In short, unless McGregor can perform a reversal of fortunes in an unprecedented time-frame, Adesanya is the UFC’s clear candidate to promote as their new superstar. In addition to his combat credentials, he has a relaxed charisma, he’s articulate and likeable, and possesses the backstory of the young man from Nigeria who headed to the West to pursue his dreams and did so comprehensively and, almost as importantly, is almost entirely free of out-of-ring scandal beloved of sponsors.
No doubt there are others who capture the imagination of fight fans. The forthcoming Masvidal/Diaz title eliminator in the welterweight division will have the hardcore salivating. But either of those fighter’s will always be well equipped to play the heel. Adesanya is a clear shoe-in to play the UFC golden boy, and it’s important they get his future opponents and the promotion just right to make the most of what is clearly a truly special talent.