Israel Adesanya wasn’t supposed to be in the main event of UFC 234. But after putting on another strong performance it’s almost certain that his next headlining bout won’t be far off.
Now 5-0 in the UFC and 16-0 overall, Adesanya has more than backed up the talk that’s made him one of the sport’s most intriguing personalities seemingly overnight. He made his Octagon debut last February with legitimate kickboxing credentials in addition to his MMA accomplishments and so far has not disappointed, scoring wins over veterans like Derek Brunson and Brad Tavares.
His most significant victory happened on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia. Paired up with Anderson Silva, a true martial arts legend that Adesanya himself drawn comparisons to, Adesanya went blow-for-blow with the former middleweight champion and went on to win a clear-cut unanimous decision. That win only confirmed what a lot of observers have already been saying: Adesanya is the real deal.
UFC president Dana White agrees. Asked how Adesanya compares to stars like Conor McGregor, White didn’t shy away from declaring that Adesanya has an appeal all his own.
“The kid’s got ‘it.’” White said at the UFC 234 post-fight press conference. “He’s got that — not only is he talented in the Octagon, he’s talented outside of it too. His interviews are exciting, he’s an interesting guy. He’s fun to watch. And I think he’s got a really bright future here.”
The Adesanya-Silva fight was billed as a No. 1 contender’s bout, with the winner expected to fight the winner of a scheduled title clash between champion Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum. That matchup was the original headliner for Saturday’s card, but plans changed and Adesanya and Silva were moved to the main event after Whittaker was pulled from the card due to a hernia.
White confirmed that Adesanya is the No. 1 contender, but a meeting between him and Whittaker will be dependent on Whittaker’s health.
As for the replacement main event, White was thrilled with how both Adesanya and Silva fought and wanted to emphasize Adesanya solving the puzzle of Silva’s striking over any concerns about the 43-year-old Silva’s age.
“It was fun,” White said. “That first round was like a kung fu movie. It was a fun fight to watch, very fun. Two guys who are incredibly talented. I was saying yesterday, any oddsmakers that make Anderson Silva 7-to-1 is out of their mind. The guy’s always taking care of himself, he’s a great martial artist, and that was a fun fight.
“But Israel went in with a sold-out house tonight, a lot of pressure on him to go in against the guy — you know, Anderson’s  years old, he’s supposed to go in and beat Anderson, but those are the kind of positions you’re in that you’ve got a lot of pressure on you. Anderson even said, ‘All the pressure’s on him. There’s none on me.’”
And if White needed any further evidence that Adesanya could be a major star in the UFC, he received validation from a Hollywood buddy of his at cageside, actor Matt Damon. The two could be seen having an animated conversation as Adesanya and Silva battled and White was asked to elaborate on what he and Damon were saying at the time.
“We were just like, ‘Holy shit.’ We were saying what everybody else was,” White said. “‘This is awesome, what a great round, this is like a kung fu movie.’ It’s just fun to see two super talented guys, the up-and-coming kid and the living legend go at it like they did. Fun.
“And then when you think about it, we were talking leading up to this fight about how Anderson always wanted to fight a clone of himself. They really are a lot alike in the showmanship and the talent and the way they fight and you really saw that in the first round.”