For UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, the year 2021 was one to forget.
Adesanya booked two high-profile bouts last year, falling short in his bid to become a two-division champion when he challenged light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz at UFC 259 and then dropping back down to 185 pounds to log his third straight successful title defense in a rematch against Marvin Vettori at UFC 263.
The loss to Blachowicz was the first for Adesanya, a former kickboxing standout who is currently 21-1 in MMA. In an interview with ESPN ahead of a rematch with Robert Whittaker this Saturday at UFC 271 in Houston, he admitted that he had become complacent in his recent fights and has had to re-calibrate as he aims for a busy 2022 campaign.
“I want to get three this year,” Adesanya said. “At least, at least three fights this year. I’m not happy. Last year was my, to be honest, most lackluster year in my UFC career, I feel. It was just two fights. I went up to light heavyweight, failed that side mission, and I defended my belt at middleweight, and there’s a point in that [Vettori] fight I got bored. My [striking] coach ‘Twista’ was like, ‘Don’t get bored, Izzy. Stay in it.’ I remember he said that and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, true.’ He could notice. I don’t know what he saw, but he just noticed I switched off. I was just like, ‘Meh, this isn’t fun anymore.’ Because the guy wasn’t trying to win, he was trying to survive. I was like, I’m the one with the belt, you’re being super defensive, so yeah.”
“I’ve accomplished a lot, exceeded a lot of my goals, but I’ve written down new ones. I’ve jotted down new ones that I will accomplish, so yeah, I’m going back to my younger self. I’m tapping back into my younger self when I was soaking everything up, really enjoying the moment, really all the experiences I was soaking up. So I’m tapping back into that young Izzy.”
Being “bored” in the Vettori fight didn’t cost Adesanya as he went on to win a lopsided decision, but he lost on points to Blachowicz three months prior. The Polish star used a combination of steady striking and timely grappling to win a unanimous decision over Adesanya.
Adesanya has heard talk that Whittaker may similarly employ wrestling to throw him off in their second fight. However, he doubts that his rival will be be as successful in that department, especially considering that it wasn’t all that damaging for Blachowicz either in Adesanya’s opinion.
“Where in that [Blachowicz] fight did I actually get hurt,” Adesanya said. “He beat me, guaranteed. Some people don’t agree, but I think he beat me, just. But where in that fight did I actually get hurt? I never felt in danger once in that fight. He was in danger because I rocked him. He even admitted it, he felt my power. But where in that fight was I actually hurt. I never felt in danger once. I never felt like I need to escape my hip, I need use this leg, I need to do this, because I was just like, he’s gonna rest on me, he’s gonna lay his weight on me because he doesn’t me to get up because knows what he felt when we were standing. There was no point in that fight where I ever felt like I was in danger, like I was going to lose this fight.”
“I wasn’t trying, that’s the thing, when Jan was doing that,” Adesanya added. “It was kind of similar to what Twista said in the Vettori fight. I was kind of bored, to be honest. I was just like, ‘Alright, are you going to posture up or something? Try and punch me? Are you gonna try and go for a submission?’ I was waiting for something, but Jan was just doing enough so the referee keeps it going. He’s a veteran, he made the right moves and congrats to him. If that’s what [Whittaker] wants to do to try and win this fight, try it. I don’t know if he’s 225 pounds, but try. And he’s never felt me grapple. Everyone that’s felt me grapple, they know I’ve got that strength. But once they feel it, it’s different, because of the frame they think, ‘Skinny boy. No power.’ They find out.”
With Adesanya pointing to complacency as a reason for his disappointing year, he has emphasized a return to his roots. Adesanya turns 33 this year, but feels that he has once again “soaked up the game” as he had earlier in his career.
As he authors the next chapter, Adesanya is taking a cue from a hip-hop legend while keeping his remaining goals in mind.
“I know for a fact, in myself, I am over the halfway point of my fighting career. I’ve been doing this since 2008 and I’m still young, I’m fresh, I feel like I’m only getting better because like I said I’ve tapped back into my younger self and I’m learning so much and I’m really growing as a fighter, as a martial artist. I really want to close the show like J. Cole, when he put out his last album, he put this documentary out, I think it was called Applying Pressure, and I resonated with that because I was like, I want to make sure by the time this is all said and done I applied pressure and I really got everything I wanted to do done. So that’s what I’m doing right now, I’m applying pressure and yeah, pressure makes diamonds. I’m still shining, man.”
Watch Adesanya’s ESPN interview below: