LAS VEGAS (AP) — Israel Adesanya has the otherworldly fighting prowess and personal charisma it takes to become the next mixed martial arts crossover superstar.
What the UFC middleweight champion doesn’t have are the feats that would make him famous in the wider sports world, and it’s time to wonder if he can provide them.
Adesanya’s lukewarm title defense against Jared Cannonier at UFC 276 on Saturday night was another missed opportunity for arguably the UFC’s most impressive overall athlete to reach the next level of stardom.
In fact, Adesanya’s last three middleweight title defenses since his failed run on the light heavyweight belt have been decision victories in what MMA pundits call technical, tactical feats.
Many others call them boring, no matter how seriously Adesanya (23-1) takes it.
“They don’t know what real fighting is, or real finesse,” Adesanya said afterwards when asked about the fans who booed, whistled and left early during his last two rounds in Las Vegas.
“The big ones are all coming to this point,” Adesanya added. “Anderson Silva, GSP (Georges St. Pierre), I’d see them and say, ‘That was a great fight,’ and people would boo them. Same with (Mohammed) Ali, (Floyd) Mayweather. You’re getting to the point that you’re so awesome, people just want to see you fall.”
But as a media-savvy fighter whose love of anime inspired his nickname – The Last Stylebender – Adesanya knows the importance of iconic moments. With his gravity-defying athleticism, he is one of the few MMA fighters who can create them solely from his own talent.
He hasn’t really done it since knocking out Robert Whittaker to claim the undisputed UFC 185-pound title in 2019. network for days.
Before facing Cannonier, Adesanya promised to do something spectacular — something worthy of the high Vegas ticket prices or the hefty $74.99 (not including the required ESPN+ subscription) for pay-per-view shows in the US.
He didn’t, and he didn’t take any chances to give himself a better chance of doing it – and then the New Zealander called fans “stupid”, “drunk” and “drongos” because they expected him to do what he said he would.
He preemptively shook off all criticism by saying he was having “a bad night.”
“But on my worst day, I can kill the best man,” Adesanya said.
It’s not all Adesanya’s fault, of course. He’s a brilliant counterpunch, and when an opponent like Cannonier is hesitant and sparing with his attacks, Adesanya can’t do what he does best.
But the gap between Adesanya’s personal appeal and his Las Vegas cage strategy was shocking.
Adesanya did a ring walk, designed as a tribute to The Undertaker, complete with purple smoke and the professional wrestler’s signature music and hat, while carrying an urn with Cannonier’s name on it. He battled Cannonier with a french tip manicure and sparkly nail polish on his toenails.
“I like putting on a show,” Adesanya said of the pageantry. “I like to entertain, and I did.”
The match-up looked set to give Adesanya the opportunity to unleash a stunning head kick or an unprecedented combination. Instead, he took a comfortable win, taking Cannonier apart from afar in another point fight.
That style can win belts, but it rarely wins legions of fans outside of the hard hitting fighting circles. Unless he develops a cult of personality along the lines of Mayweather’s antihero persona, it won’t take him to the highest level of fame and fortune that only the greatest fighters ever achieve.
It’s no secret that the UFC is in a prolonged superstar drought behind Conor McGregor, still easily the most bankable star in MMA, even though he has won exactly one fight since the administration of former President Barack Obama.
A new generation of champions are on top of the sport, but no one in that cohort has anything close to the celebrity of McGregor or Ronda Rousey. Jon Jones comes closest, but the self-sabotaging champ hasn’t fought in 2 1/2 years and has nothing on deck as he moves up to heavyweight, a division in turmoil surrounding absent champ Francis Ngannou.
Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski top most pound-for-pound lists, but those beloved stars aren’t exactly looking for fame outside the cage, and they haven’t pushed it on them.
Adesanya wants it all and he has one of the biggest personalities in the sport. Climbing to the middleweight throne in quick, impressive fashion, he has the charmingly combative demeanor of a fighter that should be known in households around the world.
“It’s an acquired taste to thrive under this spotlight,” Adesanya said. “I thrive. I don’t melt.”
Adesanya should have another excellent shot at becoming ubiquitous in his next fight against Alex Pereira, the Brazilian kickboxing sensation who knocked out Sean Strickland at UFC 276.
“It didn’t make me excited, and neither did the crowd,” Pereira said of Adesanya’s win. “I was very sorry to see that. I hope if we fight, he puts up a better fight than that. I’m definitely going to let him fight to give the audience a better show.”
Pereira is a newcomer to MMA, but he already knocked out Adesanya during their kickboxing career. A career-defining crossover moment looms for Adesanya to grab.
“I like the story,” Adesanya said. “My life is a movie. My life is an anime. I’m up against a man who beat me in kickboxing, and he’s still after me.”
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports