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Israel Adesanya makes the most of his default main event

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If somebody had said on Friday that come fight night at UFC 234, Kelvin Gastelum would be holding a UFC belt before ever fighting Robert Whittaker, Donald Cerrone would be slugging beer out of an old cowboy boot, and Israel Adesanya — the belle of the ball — would be talking about himself as Rock Lee going against Anderson Silva’s Gaara, well, I’d have said take my freaking money.

What the hell was going on in Melbourne? Why did everything seem so upside down Down Under? Why was Joseph Benavidez dressed like he was there to clean your bathroom? Why was he sitting with Henry Cejudo? Why did Cejudo lend Gastelum that new shiny belt to parade about like it was his? Why did words like “ringworm” and “staph” and “hernia” become the buzzwords of the night? And finally, why was “Smile’n” Sam Alvey so freaking mad? Isn’t his gimmick to smile against all signs of danger and pain?

Nothing was quite as it seemed on Saturday night at the Rod. It started with the news that Whittaker was scotched from his middleweight title fight just hours beforehand due to a freak abdominal issue. That sucked. UFC 234 was already constructed like a boxing card in that it was top heavy to begin with, but by losing the main event it became…well, let’s just say we’d be forced to use our imaginations.

Still, the X-factor on the card was never Gastelum-Whittaker. It was always Israel Adesanya, the burgeoning star still very much in the throes of his come-up. It was the fact that Adesanya was fighting Anderson Silva, the old GOAT with the untold reserves. It was the clone battle, the old versus the new, yesterday’s UFC versus today’s. Not everybody thought the fight was awesome when it was made a couple of months back, but it slowly dawned on people over time. There were enough beautiful insights going on to overthrow any feel of a novelty fight. By the time Silva cried tears of gratitude at the weigh-ins, you knew the fight had more import than can be quantified by the strict meritocracy.

It meant something to Silva. And it meant something to Adesanya, too, even if he found himself downplaying just how much to keep his focus.

In some ways, the fight was unideal for those reasons. You stick a fingerling prospect like Adesanya in there against a practiced and true, motivated Anderson Silva, you run the risk of having it backfire. Silva was a massive underdog coming in with virtually no pressure whatsoever. For a guy who has spent the bulk of his adult life in the pressure cooker to produce in big moments — to sell, fight and defend for so many years — this was a walk in the park. From Silva’s perspective, he had nothing to lose.

From Adesanya’s? It’s a hell of a thing to enter a fight with a consensus GOAT with everyone seeing it as inevitable that you’ll win. Silva is no formality, and nothing in MMA should ever be taken from granted. Adesanya, who was fighting for only the fifth time in the UFC (all within a calendar year), was guarding against a complacency that had been assigned him by UFC hype packages and media. His whole job on Saturday was to overcome it.

Which he did.

Dana White said it was like a “kung-fu movie,” and there was a feeling of that in there. At various times, the hands came down and cinematic posturing broke out. There were kicks whizzing by people’s heads, and exchanges where each man took a solid shot, only to shake it off and say, “your powers won’t work on me” with the lips not quite matching the words.

The dramatic flare was in Silva’s resilience. Perhaps he wasn’t the same Silva that put the voodoo on Forrest Griffin back at UFC 101, but he could still move. He was still Silva, and he still understood the marvel of being Silva. His ability to wow came through when he flashed his offense and showed that his reflexes were still there. Were there moments when his histrionics nearly got the best of him? Goddamn right there were. It wouldn’t be a Silva fight if didn’t lose his mind a bit.

Silva dropped his hands and invited Adesanya’s punches right to his chin, and he even absorbed a couple of shots when he did. Back in the day, it was such hot-dogging that got him knocked out by Chris Weidman. Against Adesanya he was able to withstand the torrent. Adesanya isn’t a one-punch specialist; his thing is the deadly sequence. Even at his advanced age, Silva proved that he could hang with his protégé for 15 minutes. There would be no deadly sequence to end him, and no baton pass either. There were just two guys at entirely different junctures of their career, fighting in a fight so taut with emotion that it verged on reluctant.

It felt almost ceremonial. A graceful passage from idolatry to self-realization.

Adesanya won in what became a default main event, his first ever. Was it glorious? It was enough. The big-feel drama was there, even if the finish wasn’t. Afterwards Dana White seemed convinced that he had the “it” factor that the fight game covets. That was kind of the whole point of the exercise. Now it’s up to the UFC to determine whether to stick Adesanya in a title shot next, and bypass Gastelum…or, if Whittaker is out for an extended period, to book Gastelum-Adesanya for an interim title.

In any case, Adesanya’s time arrived sooner than expected, and — in a game where so many well-intentioned plans fall through — he made the most of it.

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