UFC 248: Adesanya’s quest for all-time greatness
UFC Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has accomplished everything that he said he would inside the Octagon so far — and in a frighteningly short amount of time. And yet, it feels like the biggest fights of his career are still ahead of him.
Adesanya’s (18-0) rise to superstardom is the ultimate success story. In a way following the blueprint most recently set by Conor McGregor, “The Last Stylebender” became a total package and one of UFC’s strongest assets. He’s walking the walk and talking the talk — without fail. The taste of defeat is alien to him.
The 30-year-old New Zealander, who also proudly represents his Nigerian roots, came into the UFC a little over two years ago. He was rated very highly from the get go, but at the same time he was very raw. He was scrawny. Many thought he was too one dimensional with kickboxing being his background and preferred style.
The other reservation towards Adesanya at the beginning was that he embarked on his UFC journey at the age of 28. That’s not old per se, but perhaps a little too late to become a phenom at wrestling or BJJ. But Adesanya wasn’t phased in the slightest.
His personality oozes confidence. He’s comfortable in his own skin and confident in his skillset to a point where it may sometimes come off as arrogant. And calling Adesanya arrogant is probably not too far fetched either. But it comes with the territory. He’s one of the baddest men on the planet and he knows it —all the while also being humble in his success and embracing the story of his come up.
Many fans and media feared that Adesanya would one day get exposed by a superior grappler or wrestler. It’s safe to say the man in question never even took that notion into consideration. And for good reason. He has continued to prove his doubters wrong. He made the opponents who were supposed to take him down and maul him respect his game.
Per the UFC Stats, Adesanya’s takedown defense is exceptional. He defends opponents shots at an 85% clip. He discourages his opponents from shooting, leading them down a one way street towards failure by inviting them into the dragon’s den and forcing them to strike.
On the feet, as much as Adesanya would probably hate that comparison, he has the swagger of Jon Jones about him. Make no mistake about it, Adesanya is a far more decorated striker. But his frame, his reach, his demeanor, the way he makes his opponents uncomfortable to stand across from him — it’s shades of a young Jones. The key difference is that Adesanya never has to resort to bringing the fight onto the mat. His defense and striking is that good.
Adesanya’s standup is lethal. It’s incisive, precise, and devastating. He lands 4.46 significant strikes per minute at a 50% success rate and has finished 14 of 18 opponents. Other than the Kelvin Gastelum fight, where Adesanya absorbed 91 significant strikes in a five round war, “Stylebender” doesn’t take a whole lot of damage either. His style has proved to be the recipe for success. But Adesanya is not quite done yet. In terms of all-time greatness, this is only the beginning.
It’s cliche, but winning a world title really is harder than defending it. Your greatness is defined by how long you can stay on top. Can you continue to motivate yourself and perform at the highest level in order to protect your throne? The initial signs would suggest that Adesanya will be able to do that. But only time will tell.
Test number one is this weekend at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas against Yoel Romero (13-4). A test openly welcomed by Adesanya. Romero is highly respected by all and feared by many. But Adesanya looks excited for that challenge. He has acknowledged that he will have to fight the most dangerous opposition to prove that he belongs in the all-time greats conversation — and it doesn’t get a lot more dangerous than “The Soldier of God.”
The fight announcement did not go by without criticism. Romero is coming into this fight on the back of two consecutive losses. But Adesanya doesn’t care; and neither should the fans. MMA is not a team sport. Form doesn’t matter. Anyone can win on any given night and back to back losses don’t make Romero any less threatening.
Adesanya also continues to have a chip on his shoulder despite reaching the summit. That’s just who he is. Lack of motivation is not likely to ever be a factor. And to add to that, on paper, Romero could be Adesanya’s biggest stylistic challenge to date.
But in reality, Romero is different. He refuses to use his world-class wrestling background to his advantage and that has given his opponent’s an edge over him before. Saturday could be the same old story. In spite of his reputation, Romero only averages 1.79 takedowns per 15 minutes at a 31% success rate. It’s a shame because with his size it could be a lethal weapon. Perhaps Adesanya’s striking prowess will force the 42-year-old to reach that far into his arsenal.
The other thing that will make Romero a worthy and formidable opponent is his drive. At his age, it’s not a reach to assume that this may be his final shot at UFC gold. With that, his fire may very well be burning hotter than ever before. And that’s why an Adesanya win should not be overlooked in the slightest should he get his hand raised on Saturday, despite all the narratives.
After doing what he did to former champ Robert Whittaker, a win over Romero will push Adesanya even higher in the greatest middleweight of all time hierarchy. And he wants to continue winning and clearing out every new contender. Adesanya is locked in on greatness. He’s a man on a mission.
Adesanya has set out some ambitious goals for himself following his arrival into the UFC and he has smashed through them all in spectacular fashion. Now that he’s at the top, the list grew. All-time greatness and a 2021 clash of giants with Jon Jones are set in his sights. And that’s why his first title defense against Romero could very well be career defining.
*All the stats in this article are per UFC Stats.
Sports journalist based in CA, USA.