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Israel Adesanya is the real deal, and he knows what to do with the hype

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If you stick around the fight game long enough, you understand that a star’s journey is most vital in the hurdle stages — the early moments when he’s unfolding like a mystery, and dawning on everyone at once. The more a new phenom can abuse any prevailing skepticism, the better.

This is particularly true of Israel Adesanya, who on Friday night fought for the third time in six months and seems capable of doing just about anything he damn well chooses. In beating Brad Tavares in a way that nobody beats Brad Tavares in his first UFC main event, the praise was swift and effusive and full of manifest satisfaction. That’s what’s fun about hype; when done correctly, it’s a chance to assemble hysteria piece by piece, and move the line by degrees for a guy like Adesanya to live up to.

And guess what? Tavares may have looked to some like too much too soon, but he passed with flying colors.

In his first true “revelation” moment, the man who calls himself the “Last Stylebender” delivered by schooling a top 10 middleweight like it wasn’t no thang. As with any pending star, it was a loaded performance. He didn’t just tell everyone that the moment wasn’t too big, or the competition was too steep — he declared was that he is the steepness in a competition. That he was the man to beat. And when he said he wanted to fight the winner of the middleweight showcase between Uriah Hall and Paulo Costa — which takes place tonight at UFC 226 — it was Adesanya projecting his own destiny. He even went so far as to predict that Hall and Costa would beat each other up to the point that the victor would need time to recover, thus affording him some time off, while pointing out the pristine state of his own face after five rounds of fighting.

Say what you want, but the man commands his audience.

In this way, Adesanya has more in common with the early Conor McGregor than the early Jon Jones. He’s trying to control of the switchboard, and he has the kind of charisma to make his wants become common wants. Those are the ingredients for what Dana White might refer to as the elusive “it” factor (which is, essentially, a person who understands that hype is an anticipation-based drug, and happens to be a natural pusher).

Still, any comparisons to Jones or McGregor only matter at all because those guys went on to become pay-per-view kings and champions. What Adesanya really did was recall the carefree salad days of each, back to when McGregor was taking out a young Max Holloway and Jones was smashing up Brandon Vera — back before money, fame, dollies and court rooms made them all too knowable. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s that— like them — we’ve seen Adesanya coming the whole way. He’s proven to be a master of his own telegraphy. And he’s still in the process of giving us the vicarious feeling of the ride. Fans of MMA love to pick up the subliminal signal to “buckle up!” Through three fights, that’s what Adesanya is emitting.

Buckle up.

Obviously, it’s early in his career, and there are a zillion things that can go wrong, from injuries to bad influences to bad decisions and beyond. But as an action fighter who pretended to mark the octagon in his debut, who is a well-spoken Nigerian/New Zealander with a tattoo of Africa on his chest and who possesses a fighting ability that we’ve only begun to gauge the depths of, the sky’s the limit.

Adesanya was disappointed in his debut victory over Rob Wilkinson, and didn’t think he lived up to billing against Marvin Vettori back in April. He was measuring himself against the size of his own hype, which is a trait of a smart fighter just entering his prime — to view everything from 50 feet above. He was far more pleased with his victory over Tavares, and made that pretty clear in the post-fight press conference. He wasn’t smug at all, so much as knowing. What is it that he knows?

That’s what Adesanya’s catching everybody up to each time out, and it’s the best time to see a star like that. When we don’t know them well enough, yet really want to. When they’re still very much a work in progress, and not anywhere near where they’re going.

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