Israel Adesanya is one of the most dominant champions in MMA today, a fact he proved once again at UFC 271 with his latest defense of the middleweight title against Robert Whittaker. But not everyone has celebrated the performance. Adesanya’s close decision win over Whittaker was the champion’s third fight in a row lacking in many of the highlight-reel moments that became Adesanya’s calling card during his rise to the UFC title.
You’d have to date back to September 2020 to find Adesanya’s most recent finish in his dazzling victory over Paulo Costa. And during an in-studio appearance Wednesday on The MMA Hour, Adesanya acknowledged that his success has come at a cost in that regard.
“I’m starting to fall into this — not a trap, this issue,” Adesanya said on The MMA Hour. “Like, I realize that [Anderson] Silva had as well. UFC 97, he fought Thales Leites and he beat him up, pieced him up, but people were like, ‘Oh, it was a boring fight.’ I’m like, no, it wasn’t. Yeah, Thales didn’t really do much later on, because he was too scared to engage.
“Later on [at UFC 271], we thought Rob was going to press the action, because you’re down, his corner’s saying he’s down, but he was just moving away. There was one point he was drifting and trying to set me up for a trap, and I was like, ‘That’s my move,’ and I went back to the center. And then he then came to the center and then we kept on fighting.
“But yeah, I’m starting to fall into that trap. Same thing with UFC 112, Abu Dhabi, Demian Maia, and people were just like, ‘Oh, [Silva is] this, he’s that,’ and they forget, they completely forget, and it’s just recency bias. But I had fun. That’s one thing I’m glad [about]. I had fun, I was present from the first round to the last bell. My last fight before that [against Marvin Vettori], I wasn’t. I got bored, because I was just like, ‘This guy’s not a threat to me. He doesn’t pose any threat.’
“But this fight, I could not afford to get bored,” Adesanya continued. “I could not afford to have that, because Rob will crack you.”
Adesanya remains a perfect 11-0 at middleweight in the UFC. He is MMA Fighting’s No. 2 ranked male pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and has rarely been challenged in a meaningful way at 185 pounds. Even if Adesanya’s prior fight before Whittaker may have lacked a true memorable moment, he still outclassed Vettori from pillar to post and the outcome was never once in doubt. The same can’t be said, however, for UFC 271.
After a slow start, Whittaker came on strong in the championship rounds and mounted the most intense test of any challenger of Adesanya’s middleweight title reign, faring much better than he did three years earlier in his knockout loss to Adesanya at UFC 243.
Some in the MMA community even left UFC 271 believing that Whittaker had won, including Whittaker himself. It’s a suggestion that Adesanya firmly disagrees with, even if he wishes he’d done certain things differently.
“I wish I’d really trusted my instinct and just stayed southpaw, because I was doing work southpaw, man. I was on it,” Adesanya said. “And the shots I was looking for weren’t really there on the orthodox side.
“The first fight, I had trusted my instinct and I just went with the flow, and I called an audible — we stepped away from the game plan. But this time, after the first round, I wish I had just asked Eugene, ‘What dropped him?’ I normally do, but for me, I didn’t want to focus on the past and then try and look for that shot again, so I was just like, ‘Nah, don’t ask.’ And if I had known it was a southpaw straight left [that may have helped], because in the middle of the fight, when I was southpaw, I felt so good, and I was like, ‘I’m not a southpaw like [Yoel] Romero or [Kelvin] Gastelum like he’s fought. It’s different.”
That being said, even if Whittaker fared better in the rematch than he did at UFC 243, Adesanya still dismissed the idea of Whittaker deserving the judges’ decision as laughable.
“How the f*ck you going to think you’ve won when your corner is telling you you’re losing the fight?” Adesanya said. “... I know I won the fight. There was no doubt in my mind.
“He and Vettori are sipping the same wine that Costa was sipping.”
As for what’s next for the champion, Adesanya reiterated that he hopes to return again in the summer, likely in June or July.
The top two middleweights currently in position to challenge for the belt are Jared Cannonier and Sean Strickland, both of whom scored recent wins. But in Adesanya’s mind, there’s no question that Cannonier has the rightful claim to be his next foe.
“He’s got to be next. He is next,” Adesanya said. “Strickland, I have other plans for him.
“I said to Cannonier after the [UFC 271] weigh-ins in the morning, I was like, ‘Please take care of this dude [Derek Brunson] so I can get some fresh meat,’ and then he obliged.”
Adesanya added that he plans to stay at 185 pounds this year, even if a move back to 205 pounds remains a goal of his for the future. He wants to be a busy champion after only competing twice in each of the past two years, and that means raising his hand early and often as the UFC begins to flesh out the rest of its 2022 schedule.
“Realistically, I can do three [fights in 2022],” Adesanya said. “Push for four.”