Skip to main content

Why Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya Is the Future of UFC

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When I was growing up, my brother wanted to take karate lessons, a specific term that became a generic word for all the martial arts taught in strip malls across America in the ’90s. He and my dad joined a “dojo” run by a “sensei” who was Irish and wore a white pajama “gi” cinched by a black belt embroidered with tiny characters that no one could read. Since my brother and I are a year apart and would do everything together, I started taking karate lessons which were not karate, but a Korean martial art that was taught by a guy who had never traveled to Asia. A few months later, my sister, who’d previously been taking gymnastics, was enrolled next to her two brothers. In hindsight, it was probably so my parents could save on gas.


Related Videos

Karate was beautiful: the cadence and angles and synchronization of straight lines, limbs extended with centrifugal force and the pivot of hips, a kind of interpretive dance. But even back then, in the mid-’90s, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was shaking up everything about our ideas of martial arts. UFC’s concept was simple, and also the plot of the Jean-Claude Van Damme fighting movie Bloodsport: What if there were a tournament that pitted style against style to find out which was the best? What if Japan’s karate squares off against Israeli Krav Maga. What would happen if an Olympic wrestler fought a sumo wrestler? It was an exercise of excess, American ingenuity at its finest, with no holds barred and no strikes outlawed. Stick the two fighters in a cage that only opens when one guy submits or gets knocked out.

But the point of the words leading up to this is that Israel Adesanya, a Nigerian-born New Zealander and UFC Middleweight champ, is challenging the three-decades-long maxim of the sport of mixed martial arts, and when he contends for the Light Heavyweight title on Saturday, March 6, in Las Vegas, he’ll be continuing to revolutionize a sport built on revolution.

Hosted in Denver, Colo., in 1993, the UFC was originally decried by conservative politicians and fighting purists alike, and yet it spread like wildfire via VHS. The tournament’s first winner, Royce Gracie, choked out all comers with his family’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which borrowed the name of a Japanese style of martial arts but had as much to do with it as an Irishman has teaching a Korean style in Detroit. Gracie’s grappling neutralized bigger, stronger men by hugging them to the ground and then chess-moving around to isolate vulnerable spots like the neck or appendage joints. And it made fools of every other martial art, whose practitioners seemed helpless as soon as they ended up on their backs. There were no more wheel kicks and wide stances. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling were revolutionary, forever changing combat sports, because they did away with artifice and beauty, creating a new philosophy that only included dirty, brutal, and efficient technique.

Israel Adesanya kicks Anderson Silva during their Middleweight bout during UFC234 in Melbourne, Australia. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

It is all so simple on paper and pixel, but no one has yet managed to solve the sphinx-like riddle of Adesanya. Around half his fights go the full three- or five-round distance, but unlike his opponents, Adesanya takes markedly less damage since his range is so much greater (artillery takes fewer casualties than infantry), and he’s nearly as pretty in the post-fight as he is in the weigh-in. In the fights where he does score the technical knockout via strikes, they’re either the sum total of head shots via punches or a head kick that feints toward the legs before question-marking its way to the temple. Between, he shimmies and goads and poses as if looking down from Olympus.

There have been plenty of champs that draw eyes from outside the sport — Conor McGregor, certainly, along with Chuck Liddell, Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones, to name only a few. Like any other champ, Adesanya is very, very good, but how he’s very good is worth noting. A former professional kickboxer, he should be an easy meal for any wrestler or grappler in the Gracie mold, and in the modern era, every fighter is either a grappler or wrestler, so every fight should play out this way: tackle, ground-and-pound punches, fin. But Adesanya cannot be dropped. To even get close, opponents must thread the gauntlet of needle-precise fists and long kicks thrown from the dressing room. When opponents shoot, he sprawls or, most often, defends within the clinch, folding his incredibly long appendages into wedges that create space and eventually allow him to jog away. And then he’s regained distance, and a steady rain of punches and kicks to the face accumulates, and one finally makes everything go white and then black as his opponent keels over and the ref waves the match over.

Carmen Mandato/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Combat sports, like other contact sports, don’t often attract men of high character. But Adesanya, 31 and only three years into his UFC career, has the electricity of any of the previous or current greats and has avoided even a whiff of controversy. He boasts a perfect record within the octagon, and more than anything, he is a beautiful fighter to watch. In a sport that has eschewed style for substance from its inception, he proves that modern fighters can have both.

It should also be noted that Adesanya is a giant nerd in the same vein as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Adesanya, as potent and respected within his field, choreographs his walk-outs with Pokemon allusions, and his nickname, The Last Stylebender, is adapted from anime. It’s entirely possible that no one has ever tried to bully him, and it’s too late now.

On Saturday, fans like me will flash back to the strip malls of our youth, remembering the beauty of kicking and punching when Adesanya takes on Jan Blachowicz for the Light Heavyweight title. UFC 259 has a compelling card, which includes two other championship bouts, as well as the return of Islam Makhachev, an out-of-nowhere fighter who spent his COVID year whopping opponents like they were on an assembly line. But at the top of the card is the UFC’s brightest star, Israel Adesanya, taking on a Polish knockout artist and brawler on a four-fight win streak. Eyes are watching, waiting for the winner. But more than that, we’re waiting for the magic Adesanya has had since his debut, a distinct fighter that the never-seen-before sport has never seen before.

Editors' Recommendations

UFC 276 Could Have the Best Fight Card We’ve Seen in 2022
Israel Adesanya at a press conference for a UFC event.

UFC 276 is happening this weekend and is bringing with it one of the best fight cards we've seen all year. Two championship bouts are taking place on the main card, and other UFC fan favorites including Sean O'Malley and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone are entering the Octagon as well. Read on to learn more about who's on deck to fight on Saturday, how you can watch the UFC 276 live stream online with ESPN+, and why you don't want to miss out on what is shaping up to be one of the biggest pay-per-view events of 2022.

UFC 276 is a pay-per-view event, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship always brings the heat with these numbered monthly exhibitions. You can expect at least one championship bout for such events, but UFC 276 features two: The main event is a showdown for the UFC Middleweight Championship, with Israel Adesanya defending his title against Jared Cannonier. For the co-main, UFC Featherweight Championship Alexander Volkanovski is facing title challenger Max Holloway.

Read more
Charles Oliveira’s Record Going into UFC 274 & Best Performances
Charles Oliveira fighting Tony Ferguson at UFC 256.

On Saturday night in Phoenix, Arizona, UFC Lightweight Champion Charles "Do Bronx" Oliveira is facing down top title contender Justin "The Highlight" Gaethje in one of the most highly anticipated fights of the year. This will be Oliveira's second title defense since winning the belt in 2021. If you're looking to watch UFC 274 online this weekend and want to know more about the defending champ, we've picked out a few of the best fights and finishes from his long MMA career. After reading up, be sure to sign up for ESPN+ and grab the pay-per-view so you can stream UFC 274 live.

Charles Oliveira has been a staple of the UFC lightweight roster for more than a decade and has racked up an incredible record of 32 wins, eight losses, and one no-contest throughout his professional career. "Do Bronx," so nicknamed due to his poor upbringing in a favela in Sao Paolo, Brazil, seemed an unlikely candidate to become UFC Lightweight Champion. His journey through the division has been long and bumpy, and he has bounced between lightweight, featherweight, and catchweight during his 12 years with the UFC. You could write a short book about Oliveira's 41 professional bouts, but here are five of the champion's best and most career-defining finishes leading up to UFC 274:
UFC on Versus 2: Oliveira vs. Elkins
Oliveira's career with the Ultimate Fighting Championship began in 2010 when he made his league debut at UFC on Versus 2. There, he faced Darren Elkins at lightweight. After a rocky start with Elkins seeming to take the high ground early on, Oliveira immediately recovered from a slam to the mat and submitted his foe in the first minute of the first round with an armbar. It was a fitting preview of things to come, marking the beginning of Oliveira's knack for upsets as well as his run as one of the top submission artists in the lightweight division; a whopping 20 of his 32 professional victories have come via submission.
UFC Fight Night 170: Oliveira vs. Lee
UFC Fight Night 170 was notable for being the last show in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the promotion to postpone further events. Charles Oliveira faced Kevin Lee, another top 10 lightweight, as the headliner on the main card in front of an empty arena. The event took place in Oliveira's home country of Brazil, and although Lee was favored to win, Do Bronx clinched an upset victory with a guillotine choke submission in the first minute of the third round. This win earned Oliveira a co-headlining spot on the UFC 256 main card against Tony Ferguson, setting him up as a real contender for a future title shot. Oliveira's victory at UFC Fight Night 170 also accelerated his upward trajectory which would soon culminate in him becoming the champion of one of the most top-heavy divisions in the UFC.
UFC 256: Oliveira vs. Ferguson

Read more
What Channel Is Fury vs. Whyte on Today? Watch Boxing Live
fury vs whyte channel head to event

Today, boxing history is being made as Tyson "Gypsy King" Fury is fighting what looks to be his last bout. The lineal WBC and The Ring heavyweight champion will be defending his throne against challenger Dillian Whyte, the interim WBC heavyweight champion, at Wembley Stadium in London, England. This is a pay-per-view event, and if you're trying to find out what channel Fury vs. Whyte is on today so you can watch it live in the U.S., we've got everything you need to know right here.

ESPN and Fox are the only two broadcasting networks that have secured the rights to the Fury vs. Whyte pay-per-view in the U.S., but if you're specifically looking for the best way to live stream Fury vs. Whyte online, then our strong recommendation is to go with ESPN+. For $7 per month or $70 per year, you get a ton of live and on-demand sports content placed right at your fingertips. It's also the best way to live stream UFC fights and is currently the only venue for watching UFC pay-per-views online.

Read more