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On the anniversary of Israel Adesanya’s UFC debut, has he already justified the hype?

A look back at Adesanya’s rookie year, and the performance against Anderson Silva that capped it off

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It has been one hell of a year for Israel Adesanya. The Nigerian-born New Zealander super-prospect is one of the most highly regarded talents in recent memory, sporting an unblemished record — which improved to 16-0 following his convincing and enthralling victory over Anderson Silva at UFC 234.

Adesanya made his UFC debut at UFC 221 on February 11th, 2018 — one year ago. In that time, he has put together a streak of five consecutive victories under the UFC banner, and has largely met the lofty expectations which have accompanied his rise.

The belief in Adesanya as a potential – or even probable – future champion is not merely a product of his upside, but of his skill set, its continued maturation, and how that skill set already fares on paper against the UFC’s finest middleweights.

With the exception of his fight against Marvin Vettori in his second UFC bout in April, during which he seemed to tire and struggled to shut down his opponent’s top game, he has rarely shown a moment of vulnerability. Still, the questions raised in that fight were valid ones, and Adesanya rose to answer them with astonishing swiftness.

MMA: UFC Fight Night Phoenix-Adesanya vs Vettori Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Less than three months after defeating Vettori, he faced veteran middleweight Brad Tavares in a five round main event. Tavares had won five of his previous six bouts, with the lone loss coming to current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. Where Adesanya had struggled with conditioning and wrestling in a three-rounder against a much less credentialed opponent, in Vettori, Adesanya stuffed 11 of Tavares’ 12 takedown attempts, and comfortably outstruck the veteran middleweight for the entirety of the five round affair.

Four months later, he took another tremendous step up in competition at UFC 230, opposite top 10 mainstay Derek Brunson. Brunson was, by far, the most difficult challenge of the ‘Last Stylebender’’s career to that point. Boasting one of the division’s best wrestling games, Brunson looked to force the fight to the floor early, attempting seven takedowns during the ill-fated first round. Adesanya stuffed each shot with apparent ease, and then sent Brunson to the land of wind and ghosts with effortless precision. The American hardly landed a strike. It was as close to a flawless performance as anyone could envision, and it came against what was supposed to be his most formidable challenge.

MMA: TUF 27 Finale-Tavares vs Adesanya Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Prospect development is more art than science. The more gifted a fighter, the more easily they may find themselves rushed into challenges for which they are as of yet unprepared. Max Holloway, for example, may look near-untouchable in 2019, but he signed to the UFC with just four professional fights worth of experience, and held a 3-3 promotional record before the win streak that would carry him to championship dominance. Conversely, failure to properly challenge a prospect can lead to the peaks of their formative years being wasted, or their development becoming stunted entirely. Bellator’s Michael ‘Venom’ Page is a notable example of an exciting talent who, seven years into his career, should be long past facing the David Rickels and Evangelista Santos’ of the world.

It would have been reasonable to hold concerns about Adesanya in mid-2018. It was perhaps premature for a man who struggled with Marvin Vettori in April to face both Tavares and Brunson in the same calendar year. That he improved so much in such a short span is incredible, and few saw Anderson Silva as more than Adesanya’s next potential victim. Due to an unfortunate hernia suffered by Robert Whittaker, Adesanya even got the opportunity to headline a UFC pay-per-view days prior to his one year anniversary with the promotion. That, too, is incredible.

MMA: UFC 230 - Brunson vs Adesanya Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations were high against the 43-year-old Silva, and while those expectations may not have panned out exactly, Adesanya’s performance was far from disappointing.

Across three rounds, Silva was cleanly outstruck by the younger man more than 2:1. The second round was close, though two judges gave Adesanya a clean 30-27 sweep. The story of the fight cannot be told through numbers alone, however. And the concept of story is particularly important to this fight, because the action seemed so heavily driven by underlying narratives.

Discussions of clones and Silva’s confrontation with his apparent new-age equivalent were played up most, but the bout held a deep undercurrent of respect. Silva’s weeping at the weigh-ins led to a touching moment of empathy when Adesanya himself struggled to hold back tears. He would later claim that Silva was merely trolling him, but the moment remained poignant in a bout so clearly headed towards Silva’s cannibalization at the hands of a young man who looked up to him for so long.

Thematically fitting, Silva dug deep into his bag of theatrics, showboating openly as Adesanya responded in kind. It was an exciting martial display reminiscent of a kung fu movie — with the narrative undercurrents of the fight playing out perfectly through the bodies of the combatants. Adesanya’s early lead, Silva’s veteran comeback in the second round, and finally, the new age standing victorious as mutual respect resonated between the two.

MMA: UFC 234-Adesanya vs Silva Jasmin Frank-USA TODAY Sports

It was a beautiful bout, and a perfect example of how a fight can tell a story beyond victory, defeat, crushing impacts, and physical consequences. If we are to argue that mixed martial arts is a form of art, Adesanya vs. Silva must stand as one of the foremost examples.

Whether the performance reinforces or slows Adesanya’s hype is a different matter.

It is true that Adesanya did not finish, and probably deserved to lose a round against, a 43-year-old Anderson Silva. It could also be argued that Adesanya – to some degree – held back, caught up in the emotion of this tremendous moment in his career — and the once-untouchable man who shared the cage with him. I generally avoid speculation as to how “seriously” a fighter is taking a fight, but there may be some merit to that idea.

More importantly, what Silva has shown in the twilight of his career is that his advanced age belies his incredible defensive prowess, and that still makes him a very difficult man to look good against. Chris Weidman may have knocked him cold, but Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping, Daniel Cormier, and now Israel Adesanya have failed to repeat that accomplishment. Even Cormier, dual-division champion and finishing machine that he is, was able to do very little against Silva’s stifling defensive work.

In terms of a fighter’s first twelve months in the UFC, Israel Adesanya’s 5-0 rookie year must stand among the best in history. While his first pay-per-view headliner did not produce the dominant statement of conquest many had envisioned, it is no reason to temper expectation. He is likely a single win away from a title shot, and it is difficult not to be optimistic about the world class kickboxer’s chances against the elites in the striker-heavy middleweight title picture.

Adesanya’s most beautiful performance was not his most affirming, but it was no catalyst for doubt. As hesitant as I often am to put too much faith in developing prospects, Adesanya already passes the eye test of a man who can compete with, and defeat, his division’s best fighters. It is clear to me that Adesanya is a very special talent, one that I fully expect to see competing for UFC gold in the very near future.