New UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya talked, kicked and punched his way to superstardom

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

He’s got the frame of Jon Jones, the dynamism of a prime Anderson Silva and the ability to sell a fight like Conor McGregor.

Israel Adesanya is not only the undisputed middleweight champion after a rousing second-round knockout of Robert Whittaker Saturday before a record crowd of 57,127 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, in the main event of UFC 243, he’s also a bonafide superstar.

Guys are going to be moving up from welterweight and down from light heavyweight with the hope of landing a fight with him, because they’ll make their biggest paychecks against him.

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He danced his way to the cage on Saturday, having fun and appearing relaxed as if he was heading to the park to chug a few beers and play a softball game with the guys in the neighborhood. But he fought with the precision and cool of Jones and Silva, two of the greatest to ever set foot in the Octagon.

It’s always hard to put a finger on what makes someone a star, but you know it when you see it. Fans react to fighters who give them something they can’t get elsewhere and you know the instant you see and hear Adesanya that he has the ability to move people. He did an elaborate entrance with three dancers that needed special approval by UFC president Dana White.

As Whittaker walked to the cage, Adesanya grooved to the champion’s entrance music.

“Right now, I’m Hollywood,” he said.

He was composed and in his element once the bell sounded, a guy who was where he knew he was meant to be and was doing what he loved. Whittaker tried to close the gap by leaping it and hitting Adesanya with a few jabs, but there was never a moment of worry or look of concern on Adesanya’s face.

He was moving out of the way of Whittaker’s punches, but not so much so that he took himself out of range. And when the moment presented itself, he took advantage.

He dropped Whittaker just before the bell sounded to end Round 1, a round that Whittaker probably would have won had Adesanya not landed that shot to drop him.

The end came just as quickly in the second, when Adesanya avoided a Whitaker shot and hit him with a right hand-left hook combination that finished the fight.

Israel Adesanya celebrates after his knockout victory over Robert Whittaker in their UFC middleweight championship fight during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on Oct. 6, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)
Israel Adesanya celebrates after his knockout victory over Robert Whittaker in their UFC middleweight championship fight during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on Oct. 6, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)

Whittaker gave up four inches of height and 6½ inches of reach, and struggled to lay hands on Adesanya.

“He’s tricky to hit,” Whittaker said. “He’s very tall and he’s good at leaning back.”

Adesanya was like a cobra, waiting for the right moment to lunge forward and strike. As a result, Whittaker had the sense he was in control of the bout.

“I was doing well until I wasn’t,” Whittaker said, grinning ruefully.

Whittaker spoke of a rematch, and while he may get one down the line, he didn’t do anything Saturday to make the UFC believe the outcome would be any different. Whittaker is a world-class fighter and Adesanya clinically took him apart.

Timing always plays a role in a fighter’s rise to stardom and Adesanya’s entrance onto the scene comes at a perfect spot. He’s got potentially great opponents, led by unbeaten Brazilian Paulo Costa, who was cageside Saturday.

Costa, who is built like a tank, is coming off a stirring victory over Yoel Romero at UFC 241 in August.

Given their ability to put people to sleep, an Adesanya-Costa fight figures to be big business.

But Costa isn’t alone. Adesanya has a burgeoning rivalry with Jones, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion and the sport’s OG until this point. Adesanya, though, has dared to taunt Jones and “Bones” has reacted angrily.

Adesanya even suggested at one point before the card that he’d be down for a superfight with heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, who is also 6-4 with an 80-inch reach but who has 50 or 60 pounds right now on Adesanya.

UFC officials have to be salivating over a future with Adesanya, who seems poised to become the sport’s biggest star.

“I think Israel Adesanya can fill stadiums anywhere in the world,” said Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer who pinch hit for White at the post-fight news conference. “There’s no doubt that this guy’s going to be a huge star. He’s incredibly charismatic. He’s got a style that is really, really interesting. He’s got an incredible personality, so I think you’re going to see him involved in a lot of big events in Las Vegas, Australia and who knows where else. There are a lot of big events for this guy in his future.”

While still in the Octagon, Adesanya asked Marvel Comics, “Let’s do something together.” One gets the impression that Marvel executives were probably giddy hearing that and that many major companies will look to do business with him.

He made the win Saturday sound simple, and said he was ready to adjust if necessary.

“He threw everything we expected,” Adesanya said. “Like I said in the New York fight [against Derek Brunson], we had everything from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C. In this one, we had plans all the way up to Z. It’s honestly unreal.”

But it is very real. This is a guy with otherworldly talent and the charisma to match.

Fortunes change in the fight game, particularly MMA, in an instant, but Adesanya is going to be around for a while.

Much like for the last five years everyone around 145 or 155 pounds mentioned McGregor’s name, the same is going to happen for the next few years with Adesanya.

That tells you all you need to know about how big Adesanya has become in his less than two years in the UFC.

He’s the money fight even for some of the best fighters in the world.

The good times are about to roll.

Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya trade punches in their UFC middleweight championship fight Saturday in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)
Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya trade punches in their UFC middleweight championship fight Saturday in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)

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