By: Aiden Holczer
The United Fighting Alliance, more commonly known as the UFC, is the premiere fighting organization in the ever expanding world of mixed martial arts (MMA). The UFC has been given the difficult task of advertising an inherently violent product, many refer to in disgust to as “human cock fighting,” to a wider audience. Under the guidance of current president Dana White, they have excelled at this goal even beyond the most avid MMA fans dreams. In pursuit of cold, hard cash the UFC took the formula that has worked for boxing and turned it up to 100.
Until recently, the only weight division the average boxing fan cared about was the heavyweight division, as the crown of “Heavyweight Champion of the World” is one of the most coveted in all of sports. That was until the early 90s, when a 155lb boxer named “Prince” Naseem Hamed entered the sport. Like I said before, the heavyweight division was far and away the most popular division in boxing, and the only voices and faces the average fan knew were all heavyweights. Muhammed Ali, prolific for his skill and legendary trash talk, became synonymous, to a lesser degree of course, of what was to be expected from the Heavyweight division. “Prince” Naseem Hamed took that long-held expectation and flipped it on its head.
His ring entrances alone became the stuff of legend, entering on a flying carpet (don’t ask how), a lift, a palanquin, and even to a well rehearsed rendition of Micheal Jackson’s “Thriller.” His trash talk was that of a pitbull, but came out of someone with the body of a Yorkshire Terrier. He wasn’t just all glitz and glam though; he was a legitimate boxer. A southpaw, adder-fast with one punch knockout power, all in the featherweight division, for crying out loud! Suddenly, the average boxing fan was no longer paying attention to just the heavyweight division, but to the little guys and everything in between.
The UFC took this concept and ran with it. Within every division, you will find that every fighter has a personality that resonates to at least one audience member, allowing them to have someone to root for. Connor McGregor: you either love him or hate him. Khabib Nurmedagedov: humble until provoked, and an absolute monster on the ground. Sage Northcutt: a genuinely nice guy but was never very good. CM Punk: a former WWE wrestler that also seemed like a genuinely nice guy but is infinitely worse than Sage Northcutt. Nate Diaz: the physical embodiment of the word “gangster.” Jon Jones, Amanda Nunez, Tony Ferguson-just to name a few more of these fan favorites. Keep in mind that none of this is scripted, the UFC has simply provided the opportunity for all of its fighters to show the world who they really are.
Every once in a while, comes a fighter that fits the formula of self advertising perfectly, hits every cue on time, and, if he or she can just show the world their talents, can go down as an all-time-great, and, more importantly for Dana White, make the UFC a crap-ton of money. Currently, that fighter takes the form of new UFC middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya. I believe he’s poised to become the biggest draw in the UFC since its posterboy, Connor McGregor.
Nigerian-born Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya, took up kickboxing and MMA as a passion at the age of eighteen, after watching the Muay Thai film Ong-Bak. It was immediately apparent, however, that it wasn’t just a hobby. Adesanya amassed an amateur kickboxing record of 75-5-0 (27 KO) before signing with the UFC in 2017.
Adesanya made his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson, finishing him with a brutal combination of elbows and knees in the second round, giving him the Performance of the Night bonus. After his debut, the UFC began to give him many high-quality opponents. Starting with Brad Tavares in the Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale, who he defeated by a dominant unanimous decision, earning the Performance of the Night bonus in back-to-back fights. Next Adesanya faced Dereck Brunson in UFC 230, finishing him in round one via technical knockout in the second round, once again winning the Performance of the Night.
After putting away his last three opponents with relative ease, the UFC would give him one of his hardest opponents to date: MMA pantheon great, Anderson Silva. Silva was one of the UFC’s first true superstars. He completely revolutionized MMA as a whole and brought the product to a larger market. As someone who watched Silva fight almost religiously, I was absolutely thrilled to hear that one of my favorite fighters of all time, was about to come out of retirement to fight someone who I believe is a miniature version of himself. Ever since my first time watching Israel fight, I immediately recognized similarities between his and Silva’s game. Both fought with majority Muay Thai and Kickboxing styles, had deadly knockout power, and were creative enough to constantly keep their opponent guessing.
The two met at UFC 234, and the fight was everything I wanted and more. The fight went the distance, with both fighters showing how talented they really were. Israel would win by unanimous decision, but not before an amazing moment between the MMA legend and up-and-comer, embracing after the final round and raining compliments upon each other. It truly felt like a passing-of-the-torch moment.
Unfortunately for Israel, his next fight would also go the distance. He was to take on top middleweight contender, Kelvin Gastelum for the Interim Middleweight belt. To put it simply, this fight was a war. Both fighters landed nearly one hundred significant strikes, which is defined as anything that isn’t a jab. Adesanya landed four knockdowns on Gastelum, helping him solidify his victory via unanimous decision and take home the Interim belt. This war of a fight was one of the best things to happen to Israel in his career so far. In combat sports, it is important to see a fighter’s chin get tested and to see how they respond in the face of adversity and exhaustion before giving them a title shot. And Izzy showed all doubters that he was the real deal.
White could deny Israel no more, announcing he was to take on Robert Whittaker in a unification bout to decide who would be the Undisputed Middleweight Champion. The fight was held to be in Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, on October 5th. Following a great undercard, the highly anticipated fight was set to begin. The fight surely lived up to the hype. Both fighters pressuring one another the entire time. Whittaker, a very talented striker, tried to get the overhand right connecting early. Israel took notice, and early in the second round, after nearly putting Whittaker away at the end of round one, countered it with a flurry of blows followed by a strong hook that put Whittaker to sleep. Israel was now the Undisputed Middleweight Champion.
Now that I’ve gone over the objective history of Israel’s young career, allow me to get into what I believe makes him potentially the biggest draw the UFC has seen since “Connor-mania”. To begin with, the UFC is a business, and the only thing that makes Dana White happier than throwing a belt around Connor McGreggor’s waist is cold, hard cash. Israel has already proved he can bring in the numbers. Early numbers from the Whittaker fight show that he drew the largest crowd in UFC history, with 57,127 fans filling the seats. Despite competing against the Georgia vs. Tennessee college football game (CFBG), Michigan State vs. Ohio State CFBG, Major League Baseball playoffs, Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Lakers preseason game, and being moved to ESPN 2, UFC 242 drew nearly 700,000 viewers at its peak.
Numbers aren’t everything; personality definitely plays a factor. Israel Adesanya is relatively young at 30 years of age, but his personality is that of a much younger person. Like “Prince” Naseem, Israel is fond of putting on a show. In his fight against Whittaker, he and his lifelong friends performed a choreographed dance as part his ring walk, complete with acrobatics. He is outspoken about his love for anime and tv. After his ring walk, Israel jokingly sealed Whittakers fate by pretending to sign his name in the book from the popular anime, Death Note. His nickname, “The Last Stylebender”may sound familiar to any avid Nickelodeon fans born in the late 90s to early 2000s. Yep, his nickname derives from the hit TV show, Avatar the Last Airbender.
Adesanya’s punches aren’t the only thing that cut deep; his trash talk is something to behold. After becoming the undisputed champ, Israel immediately went on to call out, Jon Jones, who in my opinion and many others, is the best UFC fighter to ever enter the octagon. He also went on to call Paulo Costa an “over-inflated balloon animal”, and suggested he wanted to fight him before he tests positive for PEDs. For someone that showboats, trash talks, and to many, seems to put too much thought into things besides fighting, it would only seem natural that he isn’t well liked. That would be wrong Israel has over 1.6 million Instagram followers and is quickly becoming a fan favorite of the new generation of MMA enthusiasts.
Whatever the next step Israel makes in his career, it is clear to me that I and the entire MMA world will be watching with bated breath.