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Israel Adesanya wanted to fight the monster, until it came time to fight the monster

MMA: UFC 248-Adesanya vs Romero Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The thing about predicting legacy, talking trash and swaggering around the cage is that it’s all good when you’re putting on a show and all bad when the show falls flat. UFC 248 was what Israel Adesanya wanted, what he asked for. He ran straight for the middleweight division’s bogeyman, Yoel Romero, a fight that he said was selected exactly because it was the scariest thing he could do, a match that would help define his history.

In retrospect, it will probably be one he skips past when he considers his career’s greatest hits. Adesanya won last night, the first title defense in what may well turn out to be a lengthy and celebrated reign, and that’s no small thing given the championship stakes. Still, it wasn’t the kind of glorious victory that has come to define his UFC tenure thus far. Stung with an overhand left in the first round, Adesanya went conservative, opting to concentrate on feints and defensive movement to keep Romero at bay while chipping away at his dangerous opponent with leg kicks from the outside. It was all strategy and little flash, only a semi-Stylebender performance. Yes, it was a perfectly valid approach and enough to earn him a unanimous decision, but it was also very much at odds with the outlook he voiced before the fight when he said, “I’m a guy that, if I see people running away from something I’m like, ‘Why you running away? What’s over there?’”

It only took him a few minutes in the cage with Romero to change his tune.

“It was a hard fight but — cliche — I did what I had to do,” he said. “You see he’s going to be limping after this. Look at his leg. I f—ked his leg up. He touched me in the first round, that was the hardest shot he could land on me. After that I knew I could take his best shot, so I did what I had to do. I picked him apart.”

To be sure, he’s hardly the first guy to walk in the cage with a plan, feel a Romero blast and move on to option B. But when you walk to the cage flanked by two women throwing rose petals at your feet as he did last night, well, you are kind of sending a message about greatness that people expect you to meet. Or at least attempt to meet.

The tone was set early, when in the first round the pair combined to land just six strikes. Adesanya struggled to get started because his traps for Romero went unmet. His frequent feints meant to draw engagement were largely ignored as the challenger waited … and waited .. and waited for sporadic and mostly ineffective moments of explosion.

Both Adesanya and Romero blamed each other for the periods inaction and in truth, they did both hold some of the blame. It got bad enough that prior to the start of the fourth round, exasperated referee Dan Miragliotta implored them to get more active, saying, “You’ve gotta give the judges something to score.”

By then, Adesanya had at least picked up the pace ahead of Romero, slamming his shins into Romero’s right leg enough that it had turned several shades of black and blue. It was his top target of the night, which was enough to win the judges’ scorecards but not enough to win over the fans expecting the sniper to more thoroughly and decisively engage an often-stationary 42-year-old opponent. By the end of the night, the T-Mobile Arena crowd was openly booing him, a surprising turnaround from just five months ago when Adesanya took out Robert Whittaker in front of a rabid record crowd in Melbourne, Australia.

If anything, last night was about learning lessons for him. Before it, he was already fully formed, a marksman with an unblemished record and a title on his mantle. But the dynamic changes once you become champion. When all eyes are pointed in your direction, when all your colleagues want what you have — your hardware, your spotlight, your place at the head of the table — there are threats around every corner. You can’t just be what you were; you are continually asked to transform with that new burden of expectation.

The good news for Adesanya is that if he needs a little image repair, he shouldn’t have to wait too long for an opportunity at it. Top contender Paulo Costa was sitting cageside last night, clearly disgusted with the lack of action he was seeing in front of him. Costa was supposed to be the man standing in front of Adesanya until an injury sidelined him, and he’s expected to be ready to go in two or three months. A young, undefeated knockout machine, Costa is a savagely aggressive fighter who seems incapable of taking a backward step. If Adesanya wants a firefight, he’ll no doubt get it.

It is a crazy thought that a fighter who is now a perfect 19-0 somehow came out of a championship win with a bad night, but that’s what happened. It’s because we know what he’s done and what he’s capable of. It’s because of his bravado. He is unquestionably an excellent fighter, but when you remind the world of your own greatness from time to time, you can’t be surprised when the world reminds you that you didn’t quite reach it.

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