We should have known that the enormity of the moment was never going to overwhelm Israel Adesanya. That, maybe, it was exactly the opposite. That the cavernous stadium in Melbourne, Australia holding a UFC record 57,127 fans, that the burgeoning international rivalry and his publicly stated dreams, they were all necessity; part of the high-stakes backdrop he craves. For “the Last Stylebender,” pressure is propellant, crowds are current, fighting is theater.
Adesanya has generated interest wherever he roams, but UFC 243 was the natural evolution of his show, a one-night party that captivated a continent. It was largely sold on his middleweight title matchup with Robert Whittaker, and damn if he wasn’t going to give the masses a night to remember.
He started things off with a dance. There was a time when Adesanya wanted to be a choreographer, and to this day, he credits his dancing with the footwork that makes him so difficult to hit. Watch Adesanya slide off the center line as opponents advance and you’ll appreciate the benefit of his past lessons. So many fighters have thunder in their fists but granite in their feet. They swing and stay bolted to the floor, but Adesanya is always moving.
So yes, of course he danced out to his party, right out through the tunnel and to the cage, a short but full routine with some of his old partners, and it was fun and energetic, but it was also one of those things that ratchets up the tension of the moment. You can’t go out and dance all carefree and then get knocked out, because the whole fight world will accuse you of being unfocused. In the last moments before the fight, when you choose to unnecessarily expend your precious energy on leisure, well, that’s it’s own kind of statement. If you win, you’re a showman; if you lose, you’re a showboat.
“Who else on this kind of stage is going to do that, and then go out and whip some ass?” he said at the post-fight press conference.
Who else indeed? Adesanya is now a certified headline act. Robert Whittaker may have been the champion, but all week, the focus was on whether Adesanya could rise to the occasion. Whittaker didn’t make it easy on him.
From the beginning, the champion pressed the action, trying to force a more rugged and physical fight than Adesanya prefers. Adesanya is a finesse fighter, and works best in space. He likes to feint and force his opponent into mistakes. Whittaker tried to undercut his plans by moving forward and finishing his advances with wide hooks, but Adesanya was never there. He was patient and practiced, and continually slid just out of the way as Whittaker’s overshot the mark.
The tide changed at the end of the first. In one of the few exchanges of the round, Adesanya slipped an overhand and dropped Whittaker with a check hook.
“I always established my distance so I never felt in danger,” he said. “I never felt in danger. Leading up to this fight I said, ‘Fear is not real, danger is real,’ and I’m a dangerous man. I was the danger.”
Buoyed with confidence, Adesanya never looked back. The final sequence was a similar kind of quick draw, both men firing left hooks, but Adesanya’s straighter and truer and on the mark, dropping the champ and leading toward the finish.
While most of the fans had cheered Whittaker on the way into the arena, Adesanya had won them over by the time he was making his way out. He straddled the cage and bathed in the adulation for the party he’d created.
He seemed so comfortable in the moment, like he had lived it before. When he walked into the post-fight press conference, he swung his legs up on the table and smiled, the division’s boss kicking back in his office. Later, he took a celebratory FaceTime call from his cousin in Nigeria. This was his show. Every bit of it.
“I said before the fight, ‘This is one of my toughest tests, but I’m going to make it look easy,’” he said. “I told you.”
The next step already seems clear for Adesanya. He’s likely to draw Paulo Costa sometime in early 2020. Costa was on hand in Melbourne to watch the fight, and the two exchanged words and taunts and extended fingers, but seem to have common ground in agreeing theirs is the fight to make. Good. The challenge for Adesanya’s team will be to contain his ambition. He has said he’s interested in fighting Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, and now that he’s the champion, those ideas will probably gain more traction, but there should be no rush.
Adesanya says he’s doing this for legacy first, so he should start by establishing his championship resume. He has a couple of contenders waiting, and should he get past those challenges, he’ll probably be able to call his own shots. He has noted that it’s more difficult to stay champion than it is to become champion — suggesting he’ll concentrate on the division — but he also says he will carve his own path.
“It’s about taking names,” he said. “Taking out the greats of this game so when it’s all said and done, it’s not about, ‘He won that belt.’ Nah, it’s ‘he beat the f—k out of everyone they put in front of him.’”
In MMA, that’s the kind of party we can all get behind.