Adesanya on path toward UFC legend status

LAS VEGAS — Israel Adesanya was not made for this. Oh, the UFC’s middleweight champion is a born fighter, if ever there was one. He’s smart, talented and ambitious, and just three years since he debuted in the UFC, he’s about to challenge light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz for his second belt.

Adesanya would become only the fifth fighter in UFC history to achieve that feat, following Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo.

Adesanya and Blachowicz will headline UFC 259 on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Apex in front of, at max, 200 people and no fans.

Adesanya belongs in a building in front of 50,000 screaming fans, not in a television studio where few can appreciate his brilliance up close.

As great as he already is, with a 20-0 record, a No. 2 ranking in the Yahoo Sports pound-for-pound list and making a bid at becoming a champ-champ, it pales in comparison to what he might become.

His eye wanders. He is not one to look past his upcoming opponent, but he also knows that boundaries are simply barriers set by someone else. Just because only four other people have held championships in two weight classes concurrently doesn’t mean it’s too much for him to become the fifth.

And just because no one has ever held a title in three weight classes at once doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to try.

If Adesanya beats Blachowicz, at some point in the not-too-distant future, he’ll make a bid for the heavyweight championship, as well. It probably won’t happen if Francis Ngannou defeats Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 260 on March 27, and not just because Adesanya and Ngannou are friends.

Ngannou cuts weight to make the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds and it’s probably not a match-up that makes sense for Adesanya.

But if the champion were to be Jon Jones, the former light heavyweight champion and Adesanya’s great rival, well, that is a different story.

Should he defeat Blachowicz, he’ll do what Amanda Nunes, one of the four others to have become UFC champ-champs, has done and defend both.

“I’ll go down to middleweight and defend that and then I’ll go up to light heavyweight again,” Adesanya told Yahoo Sports. “This is my frame. My frame is, I guess, very versatile. I’m able to do that, but I don’t have to put on the muscle like people always think you have to do. They think you have to put on this excessive amount of muscle to go to heavyweight or light heavyweight, but I think that’s a bit silly if you ask me.

“But in time, everything will be unfolding.”

Let’s say it now: If Adesanya manages to become a champ-champ-champ, it will be the greatest single feat in mixed martial arts history, and nothing else will be close.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 04: Israel Adesanya of Nigeria interacts with media at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya could become the UFC's first triple champion. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Adesanya has great physical skills and he knows how to use them. His footwork is up there with the best in the UFC and he has a great sense of timing and distance.

His greatest attribute, though, is his smarts. He understands the fight game from all aspects, from promotional to the technical elements needed in the cage.

And so he naturally relied on what is his best asset when talking about breaking down Blachowicz, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whose punching power enabled him to break former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold’s jaw.

“I will attack him the way I attack everyone else, with smarts, with my brain,” Adesanya said. “I attack calculatedly and even when I take risks, I’ve already calculated them, so when I take those risks, the percentages are in my favor. I do what I always do. I do what got me to the dance, and keep the same energy.”

He’s not at the level of stardom that Conor McGregor is yet, but McGregor took several years to reach those heights. He joined the UFC in 2013 and really took off with the Jose Aldo fight in late 2015.

The Nate Diaz fight his next time out sent him to the next level. It was the kind of rivalry fans love: Two talented guys who dislike each other intensely and who talk a lot of trash.

Adesanya has that same kind of rivalry with Jones, but it won’t take him to the next level until they actually meet in the cage. If they do, that fight would lift Adesanya the same way the Diaz fight made McGregor a legitimate worldwide superstar.

But first, he needs to defeat Blachowicz for any of that to matter. And he knows that his footwork will be the key to controlling the fight.

He’s brilliant enough that he’s gotten into opponents’ heads and won the fight before the bell sounded. A case in point is his last defense against previously unbeaten Paulo Costa. They had a number of interactions before the fight that all played out in Adesanya’s favor.

When the bell rang, Costa wasn’t the fighter he had been before. Adesanya had broken him. He’s not bothering to try that with Blachowicz, though, because he read the situation and realized it wouldn’t work on Blachowicz like it did Costa.

“If I really wanted to play up on that, yeah, I could,” Adesanya said of mind games. “But there’s nothing that makes him an easy target. He’s not as emotional as Paulo was. Paulo was easy to play with both emotionally and mentally. Jan is not as emotional as Paulo was so there’s no point in wasting my energy trying to do anything with him. And also, he never said anything stupid to me first. … But all of the pressure is on him. He’s representing for the light heavyweights. Here comes this skinny boy from the middleweight whose going to whip his ass. So he has to step up and strive for the light heavyweights.”

It was subtle, but it was a dig and a bid to insert himself into Blachowicz’s head. The guy is a master, and on Saturday, he’ll prove he’s a master where it matters, as well.

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