Conor McGregor debuted in the UFC in April of 2013 and fought for the interim featherweight title 25 months later. Given that he recovered from a torn ACL during that stretch, his rise from prospect to champion was alarmingly quick. And yet compared to Israel Adesanya — who fights Kelvin Gastelum for the interim welterweight title on Saturday night at UFC 236 in Atlanta — it was a long, drawn out affair.
Adesanya debuted just last year at UFC 221. He won a fairly impressive TKO victory over Rob Wilkinson and — because he wasn’t enamored with his own performance — he literally hiked a leg at his effort. Fourteen months later, he’s in the coveted spot to win gold, having traveled through former champions and contenders at warp speed. Like McGregor, he’s getting a crack at a place-holder title in just his sixth UFC fight, yet at this rate he will have defended his title six times before 2020 is through.
“It’s happened maybe six months faster [than I thought it would],” Adesanya told MMA Fighting. “It’s not too crazy, not anything I can’t handle. I’ll be ready for this.”
Adesanya is 29 years old, and plenty used to a busy schedule. When he was kickboxing between 2011 and 2017, he had stretches where he fought nearly every other month. In 2016, Adesanya fought nine times on three different continents. After beating Bogdan Stoica in China he fought twice in one night with Glory less than three weeks later, winning a middleweight tournament in Broomfield, Colorado.
The only thing different for Adesanya right now is that his popularity is rising at the same pace as his hand.
“I take time off still, just not as long as I intend to in the beginning, because I get itchy feet real quick,” he says. “Yeah, this is nothing new to me, I’ve been fighting back-to-back-to-back for years. It’s just now it’s in the UFC. I’ve fought five times in the last year, so three times in one year ain’t bad.”
Adesanya’s last victory was a mojo swapper over longtime middleweight champion Anderson Silva at 234 in February. Adesanya was able to showcase his wide arsenal of strikes against the lanky Silva, but he also demonstrated some resiliency during intervals when Silva scored on offense. He calls the gravity of beating a legend like Silva a “great moment in my life, not just my career.”
The fight was a natural springboard to Saturday’s title shot, which Adesanya has been envisioning for a long time.
“Definitely, winning he belt has always been part of the plan, but not the final goal,” he says. “It’s just part of the goal.”
The other part? In the big picture sense, Adesanya has his sights set on being the next transcendent star in the UFC, a must-see attraction on par with Ronda Rousey and McGregor. As an African-born fighter who lives in New Zealand, he knows he has global appeal. It helps that people constantly compare him to Jon Jones due to his wingspan and artisanal striking. It also helps that Dana White mentions his name as the next big star at just about every media stop — a recurring thing that hasn’t slipped Adesanya’s attention.
“It just shows how they value me,” he says. “I told them from the get go, just give me one chance. It just shows where they put me in the company, that I’m an asset to the company.”
In the smaller picture, Adesanya wants to win the interim title and then the unification bout against Robert Whittaker once he’s fully recovered from abdominal surgery to repair a collapsed bowel.
“Definitely, when I get Whittaker in August — he wants to return in August — I’d like win that and be defending my belt by the end of the year.”
As for Gastelum, who has quietly taken out his share of hyped fighters, Adesanya sees him as the next obstacle in his way.
“He’s a shorter guy, compact, very strong,” he says. “Good boxing I think, not very good with his kicks, and good wrestling. He’s a championship caliber opponent, but unfortunately he’s matched up with me.”
What ultimately happens if everything goes to plan, and he leaves Atlanta with the interim middleweight title? Adesanya says don’t expect the new champion to change.
“I’ll keep that same energy, but I’ve been ready for everything since day one,” he says. “I’ve been ready for all this. I know once I win the belt I’ll still be keeping that same energy, even when everything around me changes, and everyone around me changes.”