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In his first taste of U.S. stardom, Israel Adesanya’s biggest fight may be burden of expectation

UFC 248: Open Workouts Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Since his arrival to the UFC in February 2018, Israel Adesanya has had the attention of the mixed martial arts world. That tends to happen when you arrive to the leading promotion from a decorated background in another combat sport, and with a brash personality and natural charisma.

Whatever the expectations were for Adesanya back then, he has clearly surpassed them. In just his seventh fight in the organization, his headlining spot against Robert Whittaker helped set a UFC attendance record, drawing 57,127 fans to Melbourne, Australia’s Marvel Stadium. On that same night — less than two years into his tenure — he captured the UFC middleweight championship. He’s been a star at both the box office and in the cage.

It’s been a whirlwind rise for Adesanya, but the hard part starts now. Instead of being the arrow, he’s now the bull’s eye. The first one to take aim against him is Yoel Romero, the powerful, durable, ageless Cuban who lost in two cracks at the belt against Whittaker, results that were both painfully close and controversial.

By all rights, Adesanya should be facing undefeated Brazilian Paulo Costa, but Costa was taken out of the equation by a torn biceps, necessitating a backup plan. It was Adesanya who insisted on Romero, intrigued by his bogeyman reputation.

“There’s a reason I called him out,” he said after his UFC 248 open workout. “He doesn’t deserve this fight—not even close. But he’s a dangerous man. He’s a guy in this era that everyone runs away from. I’m a guy that, if I see people running away from something I’m like, ‘Why you running away? What’s over there?’”

The magnetic pull toward risk hardly stops there. He’s taunted longtime light-heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones from afar and publicly entertained the idea of fighting heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.

His willingness to fight the best available opponent is laudable, and frankly, what we desire of our champions. Still, those who have observed the sport for more than a few years have to be a bit unnerved by Adesanya’s full-throated audacity and ambition.

On one hand, of course he should be bursting with boldness; he’s 18-0! On the other, we have seen so many similar rapid ascents come crashing down that we wonder if he’s going too far to tempt fate.

Less than five years ago, we saw a very similar story unfold. Holly Holm went into Australia as an undefeated challenger in an event that set an attendance record and smashed the champion (Ronda Rousey). After destroying the destroyer, she seemed set for a lengthy reign and marked for worldwide sports fame. Instead, she was choked out by Miesha Tate in her first attempt at defending the belt. Since beating Rousey, Holm has won only three of her eight fights.

Still, if anyone seems made for this, it’s Adesanya. While his rise in MMA was quick, he experienced lean financial years in kickboxing and worked his way to the UFC after six years in the MMA trenches. He even turned down the UFC’s original contract offer in order to make sure he was fully prepared when he arrived. The man has paid his dues.

This is a different kind of pressure cooker though. He’s the champion and the main draw. He’s the favorite. He has so much to lose. Even the greatest UFC champions like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have admitted the crushing burden of fighting from the top.

So far, Adesanya seems unaffected, still loose and light as he prepares for Saturday’s UFC 248 headliner at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena, but if Romero’s history tells us anything, there will be grave moments of adversity headed his way. Romero has one built-in advantage over Adesanya: his wrestling. There is little question that if he chooses to make the fight a grind, he is capable of putting Adesanya on his back several times. That’s not something that any of Adesanya’s opponents have been able to do. Despite his wrestling bona fides — he was a two-time Olympian who captured a freestyle silver medal in 2000 — Romero rarely emphasizes takedowns in his offensive arsenal. And prior to this fight, he’s claimed his plan is a knockout.

A standup fight would be much more to Adesanya’s liking, and would tilt the odds further in his favor. His length, speed and angles are complemented by his creativity and output. Altogether, those traits will offer Romero problems he hasn’t yet seen in one middleweight package and may lead to another highlight-reel effort.

In a way, the fight is just a small part of what fans are signing up for. Adesanya is fast turning into a one-man event. He dances, he yaps, he swaggers and struts. He’s as much a showman as he is a fighter. And that’s what raises the stakes for him even higher than most champions. Everything that makes him so compelling to witness is fine when you’re winning. When you lose, it becomes ammunition for backlash.

Adesanya doesn’t seem to have any concerns about that, and for now, he shouldn’t. He should remain focused on the things that have brought him here, and that may further elevate him with continued success. He’s an experience, a star on the verge of worldwide renown, and he’s got the eyes of the fight world firmly on him this weekend. All he has to do to keep them there is be himself.

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