Adesanya's UFC title reign still lacks something special

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Israel Adesanya, right, kicks Jared Cannonier in a middleweight title bout during the UFC 276 mixed martial arts event Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS – Israel Adesanya has the otherworldly fighting ability and the personal charisma necessary to become mixed martial arts' next crossover superstar.

What the UFC middleweight champion doesn’t have are the highlight-reel performances that would make him famous in the wider world of sports, and it's time to wonder whether he can provide them.

Adesanya's tepid title defense against Jared Cannonier at UFC 276 on Saturday night was another missed opportunity for perhaps 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 at the light heavyweight belt have been decision victories in what MMA experts call technical, tactical performances.

Many others call them dull, no matter how earnestly Adesanya (23-1) objects.

“They don’t know what real fighting is, or real finesse,” Adesanya said afterward when asked about the fans who booed, whistled and left early during his final two rounds in Las Vegas.

“The greats all get to this point," Adesanya added. "Anderson Silva, GSP (Georges St. Pierre), I’d see them and say, ‘That was a fantastic fight,’ and people would boo them. Same with (Muhammad) Ali, (Floyd) Mayweather. You get to this point where you’re so great, 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 among the few MMA fighters who can create them solely from his own talent.

He hasn't really done it since he knocked out Robert Whittaker to claim the undisputed UFC 185-pound title in 2019. Adesanya has earned one stoppage victory in his five title defenses while doing nothing that would put him in front of everyone on a social network for days.

Before he faced Cannonier, Adesanya promised to do something spectacular — something worthy of the hefty Vegas ticket prices or the stiff $74.99 (not including the required ESPN+ subscription) for pay-per-view shows in the U.S.

He didn't do it, and he didn't take any risks to give himself a better chance to do it — and then the New Zealander called fans “dumb,” “drunks” and “drongos” for expecting him to do what he said he would do.

He pre-emptively shrugged off any criticism by saying he had “an off night.”

“But on my worst day, I can kill the best man,” Adesanya said.

It's not all Adesanya's fault, of course. He is a brilliant counterpuncher, and when an opponent like Cannonier is tentative and sparing with his strikes, Adesanya can't do what he does best.

But the split between Adesanya's personal magnetism and his cage strategy in Las Vegas was jarring.

Adesanya did a ring walkout designed as an homage to The Undertaker, complete with purple smoke and the pro wrestler's trademark music and hat while carrying an urn with Cannonier's name on it. He fought Cannonier with a French tip manicure and sparkly polish on his toenails.

“I like to put on a show,” Adesanya said of the pageantry. “I like to entertain, and I did just that.”

The matchup seemed to provide Adesanya with the opportunity to unleash some stunning head kick or a combination never seen. Instead, he grinded out a comfortable win, picking apart Cannonier from a distance in another point-fighting performance.

That style can win belts, but it rarely wins legions of fans outside of hard-core fight circles. Unless he develops a cult of personality along the lines of Mayweather's antihero persona, it won’t take him to the top level of fame and fortune that only the greatest fighters ever reach.

It's no secret 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 former President Barack Obama's administration.

A new generation of champions sits atop the sport, but nobody in that cohort has anything near the celebrity of McGregor or Ronda Rousey. Jon Jones is the closest, but the self-sabotaging champ hasn't fought in 2 1/2 years and has nothing on deck while he moves up to heavyweight, a division in turmoil around absent champion Francis Ngannou.

Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski are atop most pound-for-pound lists, but those well-liked stars aren't really seeking outside-the-cage notoriety, and they haven't had it thrust upon them.

Adesanya wants it all, and he has one of the biggest personalities in the sport. He ascended to the middleweight throne in swift, impressive fashion, and he has the charmingly combative attitude of a fighter who should be known in households worldwide.

“It’s an acquired taste to thrive under this spotlight,” Adesanya said. “I thrive. I don’t melt.”

Adesanya should have another prime opportunity to become ubiquitous in his next fight against Alex Pereira, the Brazilian kickboxing sensation who knocked out Sean Strickland at UFC 276.

“It did not excite me, and it did not excite the crowd,” Pereira said of Adesanya's win. “I was very sad to see that. I hope when we fight, he does a better fight than that. For sure, I am going make him fight to give a better show to the crowd.”

Pereira is an MMA newcomer, but he has already knocked out Adesanya during their kickboxing careers. A career-defining crossover moment looms for Adesanya to seize.

“I like the story,” Adesanya said. “My life is a movie. My life is an anime. I’m facing a guy who’s beaten me in kickboxing, and he’s still chasing me.”


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