NEW YORK – Of all the fighters on the UFC 230 pay-per-view who seem on the verge of truly breaking out, Israel Adesanya is at the top of the heap. The decorated 29-year old kickboxer-turned-MMA fighter has gone 3-0 since debuting in the UFC in February at UFC 221, and is now booked in opening slot on Saturday night’s main card at Madison Square Garden. His fight with Derek Brunson is considered a litmus test of sorts to find out exactly where he’s at in terms of fighter aptitude. It’s also to see how he handles himself against a veteran knockout artist in the biggest spot of his career.
Or so all of that would appear. Adesanya sees it a little differently.
“It’s a great showcase fight for me, with his style and my style,” Adesanya told me at the media day in Manhattan on Thursday. “Styles make fights. So I’m going to make this fight. He’s a guy that’s hit or miss in his career, so with me he’s going to miss and get hit.”
It may seem as if Adesanya is speaking in a kind of Seussian style, perhaps spliced with some Muhammad Ali bombast. The truth is, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Though he’s only been on the UFC’s radar for less than a year, “The Last Stylebender” has been practicing for this moment his whole life. He has envisioned himself in big spots, fighting big name fighters, beating those same fighters, and giving victory speeches. He has pored over his word choice the same as he has contemplated — in granular detail — his own combinations. He has imagined the money he will generate as something altogether actual. He has spoken to Joe Rogan a million times, and called out every fighter he’s going to.
Perhaps all of this is what Dana White calls the “it” factor really is: The unveiling of what has lived in a phenom’s mind for years, confessing itself in the form of an unbreakable self belief — a self belief that becomes positively magnetic as the victories begin to feel inevitable. In other words, the magic of revealing all that belongs to one’s willful depths. The interplay between wild expectation and personal delivery. Everything Adesanya has done thus far has felt lived in, because he so thoroughly casts the idea of his own destiny. He’s going places people say? No, he’s already been.
That’s what Adesanya believes, anyway, and that’s one of the reasons he has a buzz to his name. In that way, he is very much like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, the two top grossing stars the sport of MMA has ever know. Both of them had the word that has come to stand in for the kind of compelling greatness that captivates an audience — “it.” To hear Adesanya tell it, he truly believes he’s finally cashing in on something that he has long accepted as already true.
“You know,” he told me. “You know when you have that. A lot of guys just shy away from it. A lot of guys just can’t handle the spotlight and the pressure, so they shy away from it, like ‘oh, I don’t want to be in it.’
“That’s never me. I knew what was happening, and I knew how they were looking at me. It wasn’t about them, it was about me. I had ‘it.’ I’ve envisioned it, and it’s just another day in the office now. It’s regular. All the people I’ve seen, Ronda, Conor, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen do this kind of shit for years, and I’ve always put myself in that position.”
Here he taps his head.
“When you think of something over and over again, your mind doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. It’s all in your mind. It’s a memory. So for me, it’s easy.”
Easy is not the kind of adjective that fits nicely into the fight game. Chaotic is a word that comes to mind. Brutal, graceful, shocking, literal, merciless. But easy is the word that Adesanya uses, and he uses it with the kind of aplomb that makes you believe him. Even in the bright lights of New York, Adesanya feels right where he should be. The moment is not too big, he says, nor is MSG too hallowed a hall. He feels like he’s right where he should be, which is the intangible mark of an “it” man.
So when I mentioned to him that Dana loves to identify that “it” factor, Adesanya cuts me off. “He said it to me when I first met him,” he says. “He said, ‘I like Ronda, I like Conor, I like you.’” Then Adesanya makes the money gesture with his hand, rubbing the thumb back and forth across the middle and index fingers. “I’m the new cash cow. I’m not going anywhere.”
As if the conversation is getting a little too esoteric, Adesanya reels it back in a minute.
“It’s not just that, it’s the skills at the end of the day,” he says. “If you don’t show up in the cage all of this is bullshit at the end of the day. I know what I bring to the table, I know my work. That’s why I’m able to push for what I want.”
Adesanya is not afraid to push for what he wants, and he’s never surprised when he gets it. One of the original funny stories I heard about Adesanya was from Ariel Helwani, who had texted him after the Rob Wilkinson fight in February to see about him coming on The MMA Hour. It was the first time Helwani had ever texted him, and Adesanya’s text back was, “I’ve been expecting you.”
Is the world only catching up to something that he already knows about himself? Israel Adesanya, the fresh new middleweight who believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s the next big thing, thinks so.
“Yeah, everyone else is late to the party,” he says. “I know who I am. I’ve known this about myself for years.”
Saturday could change things, but given what we’ve seen so far, hard to dispute that he knows it.