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Is Israel Adesanya the end of middleweight’s lack of fun?

Jordan Breen contemplates the arrival of a new middleweight champion, and hopefully the start of a more thrilling series of fights for the 185 lb strap.

Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Since Israel Adesanya’s king-making performance against Robert Whittaker on Saturday night – in front of an alleged 57,000-plus in Melbourne, Australia – I’ve been constantly having a debate (or maybe, more accurately, a dialogue) with myself. For many, Adesanya’s performance – from his theatrical GenkiSudo-esque dance routine entrance, to his rousing knockout finish in the second frame – cast him among the biggest stars in MMA despite the little time he’s had in the spotlight. And it’s left me wondering what his true potential and ceiling is; how exactly he’ll stack up against No. 1 contender Paulo Henrique Costa? Or what injuries will rear their ugly head? All those sorts of things.

Then I realized… I really don’t care. I don’t care, not out of indifference to the subject, that’s not the case at all. I don’t care because I’m simply appreciative that middleweight is finally fun. And I’m thankful that Adesanya might be the perfect poster boy for that development.

This may seem strange to you Johnny-come-latelys, but middleweight was kind of the bastard division of MMA for years. With Adesanya having given fans a thrilling, magnetizing vision of the future, let me walk everyone through what a gruesome exposition this weight class used to be during our modern era. No slight to proto-era middleweight pioneers like Erik Paulson and his flowing ponytail, but these tidbits cut to the heart of why Adesanya and whatever may come next are such causes for optimism.

In 2001, Zuffa had already tapped Nathan Marquardt to be its first middleweight champion, and its braintrust went out to watch the Pancrase champ face Gil Castillo at an IFC Warriors Challenge card in Friant, California. In the midst of the fight, Marquardt suffered a back injury, rendering him essentially uselessly for the last three rounds. That resulted in the ‘Great’ losing a decision to the uninteresting, vanilla Castillo, much to the horror of Zuffa execs and the Pancrase reps, who had flown over the Pacific to cheerlead for their champion.

But, a deal is a deal, so Castillo got to fight for the inaugural UFC middleweight title against Dave Menne at UFC 33—one of the most screwed-up and botched cards ever. Their resulting god-awful, no-offense 25-minute fight contributed to the card going over its allotted pay-per-view time. All of which resulted in UFC 33 going off airwaves halfway through the Tito Ortiz-Vladimir Matyushenko main event.

You might think that things would get more sane, more base, more natural when Murilo Bustamante beat the brakes off Menne to take the middleweight title. Of course, that’s not how this history goes. Instead, Bustamante’s first title defense was against the ever grimy and litigious Matt Lindland, who turned UFC 37 into a farce by false tapping to an armbar. But, Lindland insisted he didn’t tap just to make a fool of referee John McCarthy, which led to the bout being re-started—where the American promptly got punched out before getting tapped again with a guillotine. It’s no wonder Bustamante left this company for Pride FC just months later.

Paulo Fihlo by Guilherme Cruz
The best middleweight in the world, circa 2003?

At this point, the middleweight division was in a pure state of lulz. Most reputable websites ranked Paulo Filho, who hadn’t actually fought in the division, as the top middleweight in the world. Basically, no one cared about the middleweight division on any level whatsoever.

Trying to get the title back in circulation after two years of vacancy, the UFC put together a little informal, de facto tournament with Robbie Lawler, Matt Lindland, Evan Tanner and David Terrell. Terrell shockingly clobbered Lindland – much to the company’s quiet joy – while Tanner finessed Lawler—much to the company’s more obvious horror. The late Tanner, a well-liked journeyman, went on to become champion. But his days at the top were numbered. Just as soon as he’d toppled Terrell, he was lined up against Rich Franklin—who Zuffa had hand-selected to be the face of the division. He was the man who would wear the gold, reign like a true champion, and legitimize the weight class.

Obviously, we all know that honor and distinction would go to the man who ended Franklin’s reign and rearranged his face in the process: Anderson Silva. Silva went on to rule the division with an iron fist for nearly seven years, and 10 successful title defenses. And while Silva’s reign helped cement him as one of the greatest fighters ever, his handful of clunker title defenses – such as Thales Leites and Demian Maia – made fans grow listless at times. It speaks volumes that the lone time people were truly excited about Silva’s exploits, no matter how legendary, was his feud with a testosterone-fueled Chael Sonnen of all people. Undoubtedly, Silva is an all-time MMA great, but his presence and dominance was not a rising tide that lifted all boats. And apart from 23 minutes in his first fight with Sonnen, did little to inject electricity into the weight class.

Brazil’s Anderson Silva (L) attacks his Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

The post-Silva era gave us teases of excitement, but nothing we could feel was reliable or stable. Chris Weidman looked like the future torchbearer, after his pair of stoppages over the ‘Spider,’ but injuries and a beating at the hands of Luke Rockhold quickly quelled that notion. Rockhold himself was, as usual, beset by injuries before his historic upset loss to Michael Bisping. And while Bisping’s unlikely title win in his 26th Octagon bout will remain an iconic moment in the sport, we all knew he wouldn’t be a long-reigning champion. Something Georges St. Pierre, ever the shrewd businessman, stepped out of retirement to prove. He clobbered Bisping to add a middleweight title to his all-time welterweight supremacy, then promptly retired again.

For several years now, that’s been part of the middleweight M.O. It’s a step forward, then one (if not often two) steps back. Just when there are glimmers or hope, chances for sustainable excitement, the seeming opportunity to have a division full of appealing matchups – with a sustainable champion taking on new and interesting foils – something dashes those expectations. Whether it’s been a lack of prospects, promotional beef, injuries, upsets, retirements or anything else fans could think of. And so I’ve wondered for several days now, would an “Adesanya era” – note that I used a hypothetical “would,” as I’d never want to make the Joe Rogan “Machida era” mistake – be any different?

The “it factor” is notoriously nebulous and hard to define, but I think it’s fair to say that Adesanya’s combination of panache and pizzazz in and out of the cage is palpable. There’s a reason fans, and the UFC itself, took to him so quickly and vehemently. For my money, he strikes a great balance between being unorthodox and dynamic in the cage, without deviating into the clownishness that often made fans irate with the aforementioned Silva. Likewise, he is a clever and incisive trash talker, without veering off into the unhinged, childish vulgarity we often see with Conor McGregor. I think both of these attributes bode well for the star-making process.

UFC 243 Whittaker v Adesanya Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

More than that, I would suggest that – to some extent – star-making in MMA for any promotion (but especially the UFC) is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone has, or is perceived to have said ‘it’ factor, promotions are almost always instantly seduced by the suggestion of potential and seek to push said individual as vociferously as they can. If a fighter turns up in the UFC and it’s suggested, for any reason – fight style, youth, good looks – that they could be a star, the UFC will do its damnedest to make them a star. Sometimes we get Jon Jones and Conor McGregor out of it. Sometimes we get Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant.

While the ‘Borrachina’ fight – with its trash talk already in full swing and a pair of complimentary styles – is a brilliant fight title defense for Adesanya, one pending issue with his ascent to stardom is both activity and quality of opposition. So far, the ‘Last Stylebender’ has fought seven times in just 20 months in the Octagon; what kind of pace will he sustain as a champion if he is to reign? And, if he does reign, what sort of fights are we looking at? There may be some purchase in a Kelvin Gastelum rematch down the line. And Yoel Romero, who arguably beat Costa in their contest earlier this year, never seems to go away despite his age. Otherwise, the UFC will need to hope recent undefeated blue chippers like Deron Winn and Edmen Shahbazyan, or Russian signings like Shamil Gamzatov and Roman Kopylov, blossom incredibly quickly.

On the flip side, a shiny new champ and star for the UFC in 2019, the Nigerian-born Kiwi may potentially be afforded opportunities that champion of yesterday were not. In the past – during the reigns of Silva and St. Pierre for instance – the UFC was married to the idea of keeping fighters in their respective divisions, by and large, and simply affording whoever was next on deck a title shot. That is no longer the case. Not only does every fighters with clout wield more ability to dictate their forthcoming opponents, the promotion itself is keen to make the biggest fights possible to draw dollars and eyeballs—rather than keeping athletes in neat, stringent weight classes.

UFC Fight Night: Cejudo v Dillashaw
UFC fight-booking getting wild in 2019.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Suffice to say, if Adesanya can thwart his first handful of righteous 185-pound challengers, we’re going to immediately be inundated with fans – and the fighters themselves – calling for welterweights to move up and light heavyweights to drop down in order to get a title shot and a sterling payday against the king at 185 lbs. Adesanya’s bluster about moving up a weight class to take out Jon Jones is premature (and transparent at this point in time). But realistically, if he stays fairly active and is able to get in two or three strong defenses over a year to 18 months? I think we’re already looking at the UFC exploring 170 and 205 pounds in order to find intriguing, appealing challengers for the company’s new championship crush.

Israel Adesanya didn’t somehow singlehandedly make middleweight enjoyable in some solitary, revolutionary act. What’s important is that if his potential and charisma are what many interpret them to be, he offers a vision of sustainable entertainment and electricity—rather than the brief flashes we’ve been subject to over nearly two decades. No doubt, he has shown us he can bend styles, but can he break the mold of middleweight history? Only time will tell, but at least that in-between time figures to be calculably fresh and fun.

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