Israel Adesanya and the Golden Stepping Stone

"…18 months into his UFC career, Israel Adesanya is exactly what he knew he was, the best middleweight on planet earth… I would say a star was born tonight, but this star was born years ago…"

-Jon Anik on Israel Adesanya’s Title Win

Israel Adesanya has all the ingredients for superstardom. He has the look of a superstar; his accessories and jewelry coupled with his anime-inspired clothing forces people to look twice. He has a unique heritage; born to Nigerian parents and spending his early childhood in Africa before emigrating to New Zealand and fighting most of his professional bouts in the far east while nicknamed the black kiwi. He has undeniable skill; his kicking and all-round striking is arguably the best combination of raw skill ever seen in the UFC octagon. He has an educated teacher; in Eugene Bareman who’s stock continues to rise to the same heights as his prized student. He has a formidable team (CKB) which now includes a fellow champion in Alexander Volkanovski. He has an admirable work ethic; the kind of stamina to wake up at 4am, train till 6am, do a radio show by 7am, make a podcast appearance by 8am, train at midday, engage on social media, appear on T.V, sign autographs for fans and still end the day with a full workout on fight week. Three and a half years into his UFC career, he has headlined 5 shows, 4 of which were pay-per-views. Without a doubt, he is special.

Just half an hour before what was to be Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway II for the Interim Lightweight Title, the first round of the Co-Main Event of UFC 236 had just concluded. The horn told the audience that they were in for a treat. Over the next three rounds, Israel Adesanya and Kevin Gastelum would engage in a war that had everything an MMA fight would need. There were takedown attempts, stuffed and succeeded; there were strikes with fists, elbows, knees and feet; there were clinches in the open and against the fence; there were rocks and knockdowns. And as both contestants waited for the start of the 5th round, the picture was clear: something special was happening.

Israel Adesanya stood looking over at Kevin Gastelum, knowing he had just lost the fourth, he mouthed the words "You can’t beat me. I’m ready to die." On the other side, Kevin Gastelum looked over somewhat confused and impressed that the man standing across from him looked like he was reacting to allergies, but was still game for a fight. And then they engaged in the fifth, to crown what was the fight of the year for 2019. It was glorious. Adesanya meant what he said. He fought like he really was ready to die. There was skill and flair and showmanship in what was in the words of Joe Rogan "…likely a 10-7 round". Israel Adesanya won the Interim Middleweight Championship in a classic. And immediately he did, he made it clear, that the title Dana white wrapped around his waist was simply a ticket to the Robert Whittaker fight which would make him the Undisputed Champion.

Regularly in Interviews, Israel has made it a point to talk about how much he knew he had to work on his all round martial arts resume before coming to the UFC. And while the obvious guess means he is talking about his early MMA fights in the Supremacy Fighting Championship or the Australian Fighting Championship, where he amassed an undefeated 11-0 record; he has been quick to correct people that he has been doing that preparation as far back as his kickboxing days. So in his words, when he stood across the ring from Alex Perreira, Jason Wilnis, Yousri Belgaroui and Carl N’Daiye (some of which he handily lost), he was mentally being readied for the difficulties of the UFC.

If that is true, and we have reason to believe it is, then Israel may be the one fighter in the UFC who most understands the use of the stepping stone. He has used it to get to the UFC. He has used it to become Champion. And he is about to use it again.

Israel Adesanya wants to fight Jon Jones. That statement alone is enough to make heads turn in the MMA world. But with the notorierity Israel has amassed in the last three years, that statement turns more than just dedicated heads. Whether warranted or not, the people that know the sport more than we writers ever may say that that fight will surely command a super viewing; the kind that McGregor uses as leverage; the kind that Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal used to strike gold as the first Main Event of post-lockdown Fight Island. All signs point to Israel Adesanya vs. Jon Jones being a super Mega-Fight. It’s akin to Lui Kang vs. Shao Khan. Naruto vs. Pain. And that for the most part is Israel’s long term goal. But he needs a stepping stone. Enter the Polish powerhouse.

Jan Blachjowich knocked out Dominic Reyes to become a fairytale winner of the Light heavyweight Title. It was an accomplishment that many did not see coming at least until the match was made. And despite Jan calling out the man who dropped the title, it was another man’s callout that the UFC would find more intriguing. Israel Adesanya, after knocking out Paulo Costa (who is really a light heavyweight on fight-night) made his intentions clear that should no clear contender come forth for his title, he will challenge Jan Blachowicz for the Light heavyweight title. And just like that, Adesanya has set for himself another stepping stone; gold-coated on top of that.

This is because winning the light heavyweight Title is not what Adesanya really wants. He would have fought Jon Jones without it. But something about coming into the fight with the Title that has defined Jon Jones greatness makes it worth the while of the Stylebender. So it is set. At UFC 259, the main Event will be Israel Adesanya (Middleweight Champion) vs. Jan Blachowicz (Light heavyweight champion) in a super fight and should Israel win then the black kiwi will have for the umpteenth time called an audible on his own life which is looking more and more like the anime stories he geeks over. That is one leap too many. This is an MMA fight. So whether to the script or not, of course Izzy can lose.

Jan Blachowicz is a consummate professional. A thoroughbred mixed martial artist who can attempt takedowns with the same power he throws kicks and punches. He is the champion for a reason. But for the intrigued, it will seem that Jan’s story has reached its deserved end. He was defeated multiple times before and knocked down but then had to reinvent himself and come back with purpose and patience. This has made him a world champion at the age of 38. That was his goal. And so the story seems to only continue from Israel’s page. If Jan wins, it will open a volume 2 of his book. But should Israel win, then 2021 has the real possibility of being the year that we watch a through an octagon-shaped lens.

There will be plenty of time to paint that picture. For now, what is real is that Israel has seen what he believes is his best route to fight Jon Jones- the Light heavyweight title. Israel regularly says he "…knows this game" in a way that more athletes should probably pay more attention to. So far, he has run his race beautifully. He can dance, he can talk, he can strike and according to him, he can beat Jon Jones. We will only find out about that part should he do what he seems to have done for most of his professional career- place his foot on the golden stepping stone and level up.