In the days leading up to his first attempt at earning undisputed UFC gold, Israel Adesanya is unfulfilled just limiting his vision to what is directly in front of him. Just days ago, he kicked off fight week by boldly telling Irish website The MacLife that he has his eyes on fighting UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones in Las Vegas in 2021. Always looking to one-up himself, the next day Adesanya became enamored with a new idea, telling Australian-based Submission Radio that he wouldn’t mind skipping the 205-pound division altogether to head straight toward a super fight with heavyweight UFC champion Stipe Miocic. In the same interview, Adesanya confirmed he wants to be the biggest star in the UFC, eclipsing Conor McGregor.
“I’m coming for those numbers as well,” he said.
Adesanya has got some big eyes on him. That trait is not unusual for fast-rising contenders. What has stood apart for him so far though, is his ability to quickly reach each new rung of the ladder. How rapidly did he navigate a path toward the top? His UFC debut was barely a year and a half ago, and he’s already fighting for the belt. By comparison, McGregor took a year longer to get his first undisputed title fight.
While Adesanya’s enthusiasm is to be admired, fans who wonder whether he’s overly ambitious have reason to question whether his focus has flickered too far into the distance. There is an entire graveyard of fighters who while preparing for a key fight, voiced a goal of becoming multi-division champions and sport-transcendent superstars. Most, however, waited until they at least captured a first belt. And most, of course, never reached their objective.
Adesanya has so far seemed immune to the things that sideline these sorts of quests — pressure, politics, and opposition chief among them. But one thing we know is that starting at UFC 243, everything changes for him.
Everything gets ratcheted up, expectations rise.
For his first act, he will step foot into Marvel Stadium — yes, it’s named after the iconic superhero brand — in an event that is predicted to break the UFC’s all-time attendance record. Over 56,000 are expected to pack the stadium in what is set up to become a star-making performance. All he has to do is win.
For Adesanya to take the next step in his plan, he’ll have to do it against an MMA opponent that is more complete and in his prime than anyone he’s yet to face. So far this is his UFC hit list: Marvin Vettori (3-2-1 in the UFC), Brad Tavares (current No. 12 middleweight), Derek Brunson (No. 9 middleweight), Anderson Silva (unranked but aging legend), and Kelvin Gastelum (No. 4 middleweight). That’s a decent collection of scalps, but Robert Whittaker stands a level above. He has been excellent since moving to middleweight eight fights ago, and hasn’t lost in over five years. At 28 years old, he should also be in his athletic prime, although he has suffered through a slew of health issues including knee, hamstring and abdominal injuries. He has also openly discussed a battle with depression.
It is the last of those that is perhaps the most concerning for fight fans, although Whittaker’s willingness to discuss the subject at least suggests he has positively addressed the issue.
If Adesanya sees Whittaker as vulnerable, he only needs to look back at Whittaker’s ferocious battles with Yoel Romero for evidence of the current champion’s mental fortitude. In the first fight between them, Whittaker lost the first two rounds and in the process, aggravated an existing leg injury that made his base unstable for the remainder of the bout. With a compromised body and no room for error, Whittaker rallied over the last three rounds to take the fight and earn the championship. In the rematch, Whittaker broke his right hand barely a minute into the fight and gutted out a decision win. The champ has guts.
His courage combined with Adesanya’s flamboyance make this matchup riveting. Both fighters excel in the striking realm, but through contrasting styles. Adesanya is a master of feints and flash, of forcing reactions and creating openings. Whittaker is a bit more fundamental in his approach, concentrating on well-executed basics such as double jabs, the straight right hand and the front kick. He is technically proficient and tactically complete.
How these dynamics will play out in real time is quite literally anyone’s guess. The fight’s odds are currently a virtual tossup, and that’s what makes the fight so intriguing. Bundled within is the Australasian rivalry between the two, and ultimately, the potential ascension of Adesanya to the star status he covets,
Adesanya certainly has the makings of someone special. He was born in Nigeria and spent some time in Ghana before moving to New Zealand as a teenager. He started training after being bullied, and credits his dancing background with his fancy footwork. He once dreamed of becoming an animator, but instead gravitated toward kickboxing, where he compiled a 75-5 record before transitioning into MMA. He has a quirky but charismatic personality, traits that seem to be reflected in his unique fight style.
While he is serious about his craft — he remains unbeaten at 17-0 — he is a natural showman and entertainer. That has helped create a bit of an aura around him, as has his ability to turn a phrase to cameras and recorders. He memorably announced himself as a contender well over a year ago by telling the middleweight division, “I’m the new dog in the yard, and I just pissed all over the cage.”
So far, his bravado has gone unbowed. Whittaker has the goods to set back Adesanya’s dreams, but if you believe in destiny, the prospect of Adesanya evolving to the next level of his powers in a superhero arena before a mega-crowd of onlookers, well that seems downright preordained as the perfect site for the first stage of world domination.