Israel Adesanya has entered the legacy making portion of his MMA career.
Adesanya, who is 22-0 at middleweight and earned his fourth UFC title defense at UFC 271 with a decision win over former champion Robert Whittaker, has reached a pivotal moment in his career. That point is where former UFC champions — and all-time UFC greats — like Demetrious Johnson, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones — found out they had been so good for so long that the fighters below them in the pecking order had come up the ranks training specifically to take the title from them.
That’s the point in a fighter’s career where they can separate themselves and be spoken about as the best to ever do it in their weight class. It’s also when things become very difficult for a fighter.
Sure, there’s increased scrutiny from the media and the fans when a fighter finds the level of success Adesanya is currently experiencing, but that’s just noise. That babble can be tuned out and dismissed. What can’t be discarded with a smirk and a shrug is the fact that every other fighter in the division who believes they can unseat Adesanya is analyzing every one of his fights and breaking down every movement the champion makes. Fighters from Whittaker through young up-and-comers like Nassourdine Imavov have Adesanya in their head and in their sights.
That puts a lot of pressure on a fighter and it can change the approach of a longtime champion. Most recently, we saw it change Jones.
Where once Jones fought to the strengths of his opponents, he slowly morphed into a fighter who employed a safer style. Jones went from daring his opponents to beat him with the best they had to a game plan where the defense of the title was the most important thing.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that type of change. It’s 100 percent understandable. Knowing that UFC deals are structured wherein a champion makes exponentially more with the belt than without it might be a reason for the change in style. Age might also be a consideration. The recklessness, invincibility and conceit of youth eventually leaves even the most cocksure athlete. Preparation is also a consideration. The champ has to train to beat one opponent at a time. Meanwhile, every fighter below them is training, in one way or another, with unseating the titleholder in their mind from day one.
Adesanya has shown us he is an otherworldly talent. No fighter goes 22-0 in their weight class — with half of those wins coming in the UFC — by accident. He has separated himself from the rest of the 185-pound division in the UFC. There’s Adesanya and Whittaker and then a fairly wide chasm before the rest of the division comes into view. Now is the time for Adesanya to separate himself further from the rest of the weight division.
One way Adesanya won’t do that is via the logic he used in the UFC 271 post-fight press conference.
“You don’t do enough to win the title, you take the belt,” Adesanya said at the post-fight press conference. “This is not how this works.”
That’s a dangerous approach for a champion to take, because that is exactly how it works. The judges don’t — or at least, shouldn’t — give the champion any special consideration when scoring a fight. Thinking they do, and that a “close” fight will go to the reigning titleholder is a mistake.
Outside of Whittaker, Adesanya is in the same spot Anderson Silva was in when he was defending his title against over-matched fighters like Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia. With that, Adesanya has to decide how he wants to approach the next portion of his career. Does he want to take the Silva approach where he plays with his food and risks alienating fans — and maybe the UFC brass — or does he want to show his superior skill set and run over the fighters who are far from being his equal?
The decision Adesanya makes will go a long way toward how fans and media and perhaps some fighters consider his already decorated career when it comes to a close.