LAS VEGAS — Israel Adesanya is ready to level up.
But now, as he transitions into the next stage of his career, he’s ready to make that star turn.
For a long while, Adesanya had to prove he could defend the takedown, because he was a kickboxer and not many were foolish enough to willingly stand toe-to-toe with him and try to get him to the ground. But after brilliant performances defending takedowns in wins over Marvin Vettori and Robert Whittaker, that is now in the rear view mirror.
And given the level of his striking, he’s a threat to deliver an explosive finish at any point should he not have to spend so much of his time fending off takedown attempts.
He’s not sure exactly how the fight will go, but he does firmly believe one thing: It’s not going to end well for Cannonier.
“Honestly, I just I really think I’m going to f*** him up,” Adesanya said. “I’ve said this already multiple times, but I really feel I'm going to f*** him up. If he wants to try and take me down, go ahead. You won’t be the first one. If you want to stand up with me and test the stand-up skills, I welcome that too, because that’s what I specialize in. But yeah, just stay tuned, and expect the unexpected.”
Adesanya hasn’t been getting a lot of knockouts recently — four of his last five have gone to decision, including a challenge for the light heavyweight title against Jan Blachowicz that he lost — though a lot of that is the quality of opposition.
The higher up a rung a fighter gets, the more difficult it is to score KOs.
But UFC president Dana White pointed out that Adesanya has scored 15 knockouts among his 22 MMA wins. Given Cannonier’s style, White sees the bout as a brawl.
That might lead Adesanya to the kind of emphatic ending that he seeks. He’s a master counter striker and if he can lure Cannonier into his range and land something, it could be lights out. But what has White so excited about the fight is that Cannonier has serious power, as well.
Cannonier has 10 victories by KO among his 15 wins, and has been KOd twice in his five losses.
“This should be an absolute gunfight,” White told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t see either guy coming in and trying to wrestle or get this thing to the ground. I see a gunfight coming.”
Since he won the title in 2019 by knocking out Whittaker, Adesanya has been as active as any top-level UFC fighter. That’s getting him a lot of face time with the UFC audience and that’s important in developing into a superstar.
Conor McGregor did it faster than most because he was one of the best trash talkers ever and was delivering spectacular performances at the same time. Ireland was significantly, and passionately, behind him and that support helped make his story more compelling. It was similar to how the support boxer Manny Pacquiao drew from the Philippines helped push him into mainstream status in the U.S.
Adesanya was born in Nigeria, fought extensively in China and now lives in New Zealand, so that passionate home-country support that McGregor and Pacquiao got isn’t as obvious with him.
But beating elite opponents, fighting regularly and taking time to do media all contribute to the development of a superstar.
And Adesanya seems poised to burst into superstardom. He’s already one of the biggest names in MMA, but there are indications he may expand beyond the MMA fan base. He’s got an endorsement deal with Puma, a prominent shoe brand, and he’s outspoken on social issues.
That’s the recipe for success. He’s built the foundation fight by fight and is now ready to take it to the next level.
And one of his secrets is that while he sets goals and has a game plan for moving forward, he values fluidity. He’s able to adapt as necessary and that makes a huge difference.
“I’ve got good balance physically and mentally, so I know how to walk the fine line of not underestimating them, but not overestimating them,” he said of his opponents. “You know, being in the present and not looking in the future, or just peeking. I know the main thing for me is, if I don’t beat Jared, then all my plans that I have just push back. So that’s why I don't fret.
“I don’t hold on to the plans I have too dearly. I focus on the now, because if I don't get it done now, those plans become null and void. So that’s what helps me. Like I said, I have a good balance.”