Israel Adesanya: Why the Rush to Head North?

After winning the undisputed UFC middleweight title at UFC 243, Israel Adesanya was already busy confronting the first challenger to his shiny new throne: Paulo Costa, which is poised to become a must-watch event. The dislike between them was on display well before Adesanya took the title with a brilliant performance against Robert Whittaker. Now that he is officially “the champ,” he has his next contest all lined up, and he looks like he was tailor made to ratchet up the intensity of his first title defense, making it easy for consumers to surrender their hard earned dollars for the opportunity to see these men rectify their differences through violence.

And yet, amid all of this, he is talking about settling another score with the light heavyweight champion and pound-for-pound king, Jon “Bones” Jones, at light heavyweight.

The two have been going back and forth with each other for a while. But after his win, the animosity bumped up a level, and Adesanya made a bold declaration that I, for one, believe to be honest in intent. “I am not going to be one of these guys who doesn’t defend his belt,” said Adesanya to Ariel Helwani. “I am going to defend my belt actively. I am not going to be like him (Jones) and fight twice a year. They’re all trying to copy my shit so let me just defend my belt, then I will move up and I’ll come fuck him up.”

It’s Only Business

If there is anything (or any two things) that are almost guaranteed to make a fighter jump into a fray without any real fore thought, it would be money or trash talk. Likewise, if there are any two things almost guaranteed to get a promoter to make a such a fight, it is money and a bad-blood match up fueled by trash talk. In the fight game the former is the result of the latter; after that, they bag up the money and start cutting the checks.

This comes as no surprise to fans that have been following the combative sports for any length of time. Be it Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz, Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales, or, in this case, Israel Adesanya vs. Jon Jones, bad blood equals big business and it always has. But as in the actual craft of fighting, timing is everything, and to hear Adesanya talk about jumping up to fight Jones, it makes me wonder if he has his ego deep enough in his back pocket that he can keep to the schedule he has for his career.

“This guy (Jones) obviously is trying to force my hand,” said Adesanya to Helwani. “He’s trying to force my hand and I’m not stupid. It’s not about I’m not confident. Trust me. I will fuck this motherfucker up when I fight him. I just have to do what I have to do. I have to defend my belt. I just defended my belt and I am the new unified king. There’s three more killers, four more killers I have to fuck up at middleweight first. And then, then I will move up in weight, then I’ll jump up and fuck this guy (up).”

On the face of it, the plan Adesanya has is sound, if for no other reason than he is aware of the enormity of situation before him, should he decide to move up to the land of 205. Yet there is something about the openness of his called shots that makes me wonder why he is in such a hurry to move up in weight. While professional boxers have felt a need to do this since the beginning, the difference between weight classes is much slimmer in boxing. A fighter can move up in weight gradually, usually needing to move only four to five pounds at a time in order to fight for a new title in the next division North. Should Adesanya move up to light heavyweight, he is likely to suffer not only a four-inch reach disadvantage, but Jones is also likely to be 30 pounds heavier come fight night.

It’s All About Israel Adesanya’s Ambition

Ambition is something that fight fans love to see in fighters, for good reason. The combative sports have always been about risk; playing it safe usually isn’t a salient factor in the decision-making process. But if we take Adesanya’s timetable as a given, that translates to a move to light heavyweight in the next 18 months, if he fights three times a year and can remain injury free. Adesanya will be a youthful 32, and Jones will only be two years older; both men in their primes. While I have a great amount of optimism that Adesanya is at least equal to the task of defending his middleweight title, to move up and face Jones at such a pronounced reach, weight and power deficit is reckless. Given that Adesanya is 6’4” (the same height as Jones), a move to light heavyweight may be inevitable. But he would be well served to acclimate himself to the weight class by taking other fights at 205 before facing Jones. To do otherwise would be stacking the deck against himself, and if he is going to indeed defeat the greatest light heavyweight in MMA history, he doesn’t need any self-imposed hinderances, he needs advantages; as many as he can get.

Adesanya and Silva’s Comparisons Continue

Adesanya’s most relevant predecessor, Anderson Silva, knew all too well the advantages a fighter like Jones enjoys over smaller opponents. Jones isn’t just a long fighter, he’s an all-time great fighter that knows how to use his length of frame to such advantage that he makes fantastic fighters look average and wholly undeserving of the stage they share with him. For a short time, there was talk about a potential super-fight between Silva and Jones, when “The Spider” was still the greatest active middleweight champion in the sport’s short history. When asked in 2013 about the dream fight, Silva was quick to say that he felt Jones would defeat him in a contest, adding that the only advantage he would bring to the fight would be experience. “I don’t know,” said Silva. “In my opinion, Spider has more experience than Jon Jones, but that’s the only advantage.”

Obviously, Adesanya is not Silva. Each man is different, but if I am pressed to say who was better as a fighter in implementing such similar styles, I have to say Silva. My opinion is by no means a fact that ends any such discussions, but one only need look at the record of Silva, who he beat and how he beat them, in order to understand that his opinion is based on experience, not only as a middleweight fighter, but as a man who also moved up to light heavyweight three times during his own middleweight title reign. Silva didn’t just do well at light heavyweight, he was excellent, defeating James Irvin, Forest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar inside of one round each, without breaking a sweat. And after processing so much information about himself and how well he fought at 205, he knew Jones was still too much to contend with.

Adesanya has an excellent opportunity before him at middleweight. The division is wide open, and he has no shortage of big fights that could put him in headlining or co-headlining slots on many big UFC cards. His fight with Costa will be a big one, and after that he could face Yoel Romero, Whittaker (again), Ronaldo Souza, and even the likes of Chris Weidman or Luke Rockhold, should either fighter find the demands of light heavyweight to be too much (as Rockhold was recently demolished in his first bout in said division). If he could defeat such a field of fighters, he would be headed in the right direction to claim the mantle of the greatest middleweight champion ever; a staggering accomplishment having nothing to do with Jones. But instead of trying to surpass the legacy of Silva (who still stands as the best middleweight in UFC history), he is already assuming victory over a division―an assumption that is far from certain―in order to assume an even greater victory over Jones.

Take Notes From Sugar Ray Robinson

Great fighters have always had to walk the line between confidence and hubris. But the most successful of the great fighters knew they could only eat one meal at a time. Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter to ever lace on a pair of gloves, was a prime example of focused confidence, without hubris. He mastered his division, utterly, going so far as to fight Jake LaMotta six times in order to prove the Italian punisher was no match for him. He eventually moved up in weight, but he took his time, and back then, boxing was more like MMA due to how few weight classes the sport had back in his era. Robinson was exacting in everything he did because he knew nothing was certain, save for the fact that a fight would never go past 15 rounds. When you look at his resume, it is astonishing to see just how many hall of fame fighters he faced and beat, and doing so, in such commanding fashion, has seen him awarded a near permanent spot atop nearly every boxing pound-for-pound list. And he didn’t have to fight Joe Lewis to do it.

If we are to attend the history of MMA with a critical eye, we can honestly say that Adesanya has approximately seven years to cement his legacy before age finally begins to catch up to him, slowing his step. But before then, chances are high he will be facing many great challenges at middleweight in the form of fighters who have yet to appear. Each year that the sport of MMA continues to grow, the fighters are getting better and better because they are starting their training younger and younger. There will be other fighters that arrive in the UFC, tearing through their divisions en route to the title, and sometimes they arrive suddenly, as did Ronda Rousey, for instance. Another example is Jon Jones, who was honestly the best light heavyweight in the UFC after his second fight with the promotion. The version of Jones that tossed Stephan Bonnar around like a ragdoll was more than ready to fight for the title. One minute, the landscape at 205 was crowded with great fighters that could contend for the title. The next minute, there was Jon Jones, and everyone else was just background noise. Adesanya could find himself in the same predicament, wholly unprepared for the emergence of a wunderkind, unless he dedicates himself to preparing for that possibility now, focusing all his energies in the middleweight division, where he enjoys so many physical advantages.

Some will argue that should Adesanya move up and fight Jones, if he wins, he’s a superstar and an instant lock for greatest pound-for-pound fighter, ever; should he lose, it won’t harm his stock any because everyone loses to Jones. What they don’t consider is what psychological damage a loss to Jones could have on Adesanya, who identifies himself as a man without limitations. These ideals are reflected by his trainers, who have openly spoken about Adesanya bypassing light heavyweight in order to move up to heavyweight to face Stipe Miocic. That kind of ambition, while admirable for its daring, also speaks to a kind of bias that is dangerous; no matter how good any fighter is, every human body has limitations and moving up to heavyweight is a very painful way to find them. Adesanya can only put on so much weight before he begins to lose speed and mobility; two cornerstones of his success. While the adage that skill trumps size has been proven in the past, it is only generally seen when the larger man is at a skill deficiency. Stipe Miocic is the most successful heavyweight champion in UFC history because he is not only powerful, but highly skilled. Perhaps Adesanya could emulate the formula of Michael Spinks, a light heavyweight boxer who bypassed the cruiserweight division in order to fight Larry Holmes at heavyweight. He was successful in defeating Holmes, but it was not a compelling fight and he did not look his best, nor did Holmes. It is also worth noting that soon after, Spinks was annihilated by Mike Tyson, proving that adding weight to one’s body could not fortify a light heavyweight chin against a heavyweight punch.

Ramifications of a Defeat

For a man like Adesanya to suffer a defeat at the hands of his declared rival (Jones), his pride would be confronted not only by the sting of defeat, but by the reality that he, like everyone else, honestly does have limitations. For a man that fights so freely, learning that there are boundaries he cannot surpass may hamper his ability to excel within them. Great fighters like Adesanya aren’t content to say that they’re going to be the best by doing what everyone else does, but better; they want to be better than the rest because they can do what no one else can. They long to be the exception to the all rules; to transcend the limitations that constrain all others so that they can rise above the rest. When the freedom found in imagination is confronted by the realities of the physical world, abruptly announced by defeat at the hands of a rival, imagination is suddenly forced to conform, if for no other reason than to identify and define that which they hope to overcome. Consider: if Adesanya were to “jump up” to “fuck up” Jones after defending the middleweight title four times, only to have Jones defeat him instead, does anyone believe that he would simply return back to middleweight, content to resume his domination of that division while knowing that Jones has imposed a limitation on him, by force?

Likely, Adesanya would only fight at middleweight in order to keep his name relevant so he could make another attempt at defeating Jones. In such a case he is no longer a middleweight king; he’s a middleweight title holder, or steward, who will abandon that throne at the next available opportunity for the chance to defeat Jones and reclaim that which was taken from him. In the world of combative sport, trying to serve two masters is usually a recipe for disaster, and in such a situation, Adesanya would be trying to do just that.

While no one likes to wait for anything, especially greatness, sometimes the surest course is found on the road you walk, rather than the path you run. The light heavyweight division isn’t going anywhere; it will wait for Adesanya. It is up to him to make certain that when he gets on Highway 205, he’s the best version of himself possible, and that his motives are far larger and grander that simply fighting Jones. Indeed, when he makes that move, it should have nothing to do with what he can take away from Jones, but rather what he can bring to the entire division: magic.

Watch Israel Adesanya’s post fight speech at UFC 243:

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