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UFC needs to be smart after unproven Israel Adesanya shined in debut

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Israel Adesanya has all the potential in the world. But be smart when promoting — and booking — “The Last Style Bender,” UFC.

Some people anticipated Israel Adesanya’s UFC debut in a big way. Others weren’t sure who “The Last Style Bender” was. Even after UFC 221, the majority of MMA fans still don’t.

But that’s not to say fans shouldn’t keep their eyes out for Adesanya moving forward. The New Zealander fought in the Octagon for the first time this past Saturday in Perth, Australia. A large betting favorite heading in, Adesanya bested Rob Wilkinson on the UFC 221 preliminary card with an impressive second-round TKO.

Adesanya fought calm, cool, and collected. There was no sign of so-called Octagon jitters that cause many debutantes to under perform when they hit the big stage for the first time. Perhaps that is because he’s a former GLORY Kickboxing competitor and boasts an impressive 65-5-2 record in that combat sport. Maybe it’s his 5-1 boxing record that had him knowing he’d be able to beat Wilkinson, who before the bout was 0-1 in the UFC.

Or maybe it’s the aura of confidence that surrounded Adesanya in the final steps to his debut — walking out in Perth Arena, saying goodbye to his corner men, stepping into the cage, waiting for Bruce Buffer to roar his name to the audience.

He had a good reason to be confident. He took care of Wilkinson with relative ease. Wilkinson took him down three times, but Adesanya didn’t let his opponent do much damage — if any at all — on top. He got right back to his feet, where he shined.

He lit Wilkinson up in the striking department. He found his groove just a few minutes into the three-round fight, and started teeing off with fluid punches until the referee had seen enough.

But don’t interpret his confidence in the wrong way: Adesanya is not cocky — at least I don’t think he is. Five years down the road, could he turn as brash as Conor McGregor or Michael Bisping? Anything’s possible, but right now, he simply knows he has many tools in his tool bag.

However, Adesanya is also charismatic and assertive. We saw that in his post-fight interview after stopping Wilkinson. His chat with UFC commentator Jon Anik directly followed a celebration that included Adesanya pretending to urinate all over the Octagon canvas.

“Middleweights, I’m the new dog in the yard. And I just pissed all over this cage,” Adesanya said while looking into the camera.

Adesanya certainly knows how to get people talking and to remember him. That’s why he very well could be a star.

But in the mixed martial arts world, the 28-year-old is still unproven. He’s had only 12 pro fights and first competed in MMA only six years ago. He has lots of room to improve — and he certainly will get even better — but that doesn’t mean he’s unbeatable today.

So, the UFC needs to be smart when promoting — and booking — Adesanya.

As far as the matchmaking goes, three words: Take. It. Slow.

Rushing the undefeated prospect into a top 15 fight right away is the worst move the UFC could make. We really don’t know how good Adesanya is; no disrespect to Wilkinson or his other opponents, but I need to see more before calling Adesanya, who was born in Nigeria, a future UFC champion. Imagine if Adesanya, say, faces Paulo Costa in his sophomore UFC appearance and gets destroyed? That’s not a career-ender, but that’s not exactly what you want to have happen to a potential future star. A setback’s a setback. The UFC needs to limit those for Adesanya early on.

Give him winnable matchups. Give him fellow inexperienced fighters he can “style” on and look good against. Give him fighters that can’t take him down and grind on him (he showed off pretty good wrestling defense last Saturday, but what if he faces a former college wrestler on the next level?). I’m not saying the UFC should feed Adesanya “cans” that don’t deserve to be on the UFC roster — step-ups in competition are needed for growth, but let’s make them baby ones, OK?

That’s how you build a star. The UFC isn’t all that great at building stars, so the promotion might just fail with Adesanya like it does with so many others. The matchmakers might just pair him up with another super promising fighter, and we might just realize Adesanya needs more time to develop as a mixed martial artist. But meanwhile, his chances of stardom would decrease drastically.

Adesanya, a potential goldmine for the UFC, has given the UFC a situation so easy to screw up. The UFC needs to play this smart — and safe.

We should see Adesanya in the featured preliminary bout on FOX Sports 1. We should see five-minute highlight clips all over the promotion’s social media. We should see him on pay-per-view — even though it’s a dying model — sooner than later. We should see him at media day and open workouts. Hell, maybe the UFC can work its magic and get him on all the big TV shows. Point is, we should see Adesanya’s face everywhere we look.

The UFC needs to say he’s the next big thing and people will be intrigued. Then the UFC needs to show those people what Adesanya has to offer in the cage, and they’ll tune in next time he fights.

And then before you know it, two years will pass, and Adesnaya will have a few hundred thousand followers on Twitter (currently, he sits at less than 8,000). Maybe a million if he’s lucky. And during that time, he hasn’t cracked into the official UFC rankings — but that’s OK, because he has five tremendous knockouts over middle-of-the-road competition.

If the UFC gives him time to develop as a UFC fighter, he can be a force to be reckoned with in the middleweight division.

And a star.

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