With Marvin Vettori finally in his rear-view mirror and Robert Whittaker next again on his list of title challengers, Israel Adesanya may have hit the rematch chapter of his UFC reign. But that doesn’t mean the UFC middleweight champion is lacking in motivation.
Far from it.
“The idea of lapping the division is what excites me,” Adesanya said on Monday’s debut episode of The MMA Hour. “I want to do that. It’s not really about Whittaker. It’s about just over-lapping everyone. That excites me. And also he’s been on a run, he’s beating some tough guys — so to do it again like I did Vettori, just to leave no doubt and just plant a flag in their head and let them know, ‘I own that. That’s mine.’”
Adesanya, 32, has been a dominant force in the middleweight ranks since his UFC debut in 2018. “The Last Stylebender” has won all 10 of his octagon appearances at 185 pounds, and he’s largely done so in style.
After dispatching Vettori for a second time at UFC 263, Adesanya was expected to return later this year against Whittaker, who he previously defeated via second-round knockout in 2019. But that appears to no longer be the case. On Monday, Adesanya confirmed news that his rematch against Whittaker will “most likely” be delayed from UFC 268 in November to sometime in early 2022 as a result of COVID restrictions in the Oceania region both he and Whittaker call home.
For a fighter like Adesanya, who maintains one of the most active schedules of any current UFC champion, that means potentially sitting out for the longest layoff of his UFC career. That sort of break “might’ve been dangerous” for him in the past, Adesanya admitted, but the former kickboxing champion is actually choosing to embrace it this time around.
“I’m kind of glad I have this time off, because I really get to learn a lot more new skills, new skills that I can use when I come back. Because when you’re in fight camp, you’re trying to just get in fighting shape. So now I really get to just up-skill the martial arts,” Adesanya said.
“I feel like I just want to apply pressure, put it that way. I want to apply pressure right now, so to do that, you have to really get this kind of work done outside of camp. Not just float around the gym. Just clocking in, clocking in, really getting those XP points, and that’s what I’m doing. So I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying this — they say ‘time off,’ but it’s not really time off because I’m working every day.”
Though Adesanya’s immediate path may lead to Whittaker and through the rest of the upcoming middleweight contenders, Adesanya told The MMA Hour host Ariel Helwani that he still finds himself intrigued by the challenge of the heavier weight divisions. He took a risk in March and attempted to move up to light heavyweight in a champion vs. champion match against Jan Blachowicz, but fell short and lost a competitive unanimous decision.
A second shot at two-division glory isn’t something that Adesanya is concerning himself with now, but it is a goal he plans to attempt again at some point — especially if his old rival, former UFC champion Jon Jones, somehow makes his way back down to 205 pounds.
“The story’s not over yet. There’s ways that this can happen, so stay tuned,” Adesanya said.
“I’m not a quitter. Like I said, you’ve got to know when to hold them. To know, OK, you’re going to fight another day. I went up to 205, tried my best hand at it, it didn’t work out. So I’m definitely going to fight for that belt again — and depending on who’s holding that belt [it could against Jon Jones], because if you go up to heavyweight, f*ck that up, and then go back down to 205. So, yeah, there’s many ways the story can be written, like one of them Goosebumps (choose your own adventure) books.”
The loss to Blachowicz at UFC 259 still stands as Adesanya’s only loss of his MMA run. It snapped the undefeated 20-0 streak that began his MMA career and sent the middleweight king back to the drawing board after being out-wrestled and out-pointed by the larger man.
But though the setback was disappointing, it’s not one Adesanya dwells on.
“It’s done. In the past,” Adesanya said. “Why would I hold onto that? I learned something off the mats, so I still pick the lessons, but I don’t hold onto the fact, like, ‘Oh man, I lost.’ Nah, you just went up there, tried to achieve a side mission. I didn’t quite get all the XP points but you got a lot from this, but now I’m back on the main mission, which is defending my crown at 185. And then another time down the road, you open another side mission.
“So like I said, the game’s not over, the story’s not finished yet.”