Adesanya made plenty of headlines in MMA on Saturday night when he faced off with Dricus Du Plessis following the South African’s victory over Robert Whittaker at UFC 290. By becoming the first middleweight to beat Whittaker other than Adesanya since 2014, Du Plessis announced himself as the next contender to Adesanya’s UFC title in thunderous fashion, and the heated post-fight exchange between the two African-born fighters became one of the most discussed storylines coming out the best UFC event of the year.
As no stranger to fight promotion, Sonnen is all-in on what the champ is selling.
“I’m looking at Adesanya here, man — there were some things that happened Saturday that I’ve never seen in television before, not just I’ve never seen in sport,” Sonnen said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I thought Adesanya was the star of the show. I don’t think that program [UFC 290], of which I really enjoyed, I don’t think that program is the same in my mind or in history without Adesanya’s appearance, and he didn’t throw a single punch. I think that is fascinating.”
If the rivalry between Adesanya and Du Plessis was already heated, it erupted into a raging inferno due to the language and ugly racial undertones invoked in the scene at UFC 290.
Du Plessis first captured Adesanya’s attention in March when he proclaimed himself as “the African fighter in the UFC” based on his residency in South Africa. Du Plessis stated that he and teammate Cameron Saaiman “breathe African air, we wake up in Africa every day, we train in Africa, we’re African born, we’re African raised. We still reside in Africa, we train out of Africa. That’s an African champion, and that’s who I’ll be.” When asked to elaborate on his comments, Du Plessis noted that the Nigerian-born Adesanya lives in New Zealand and defended his comments by stating that he never called himself “more African” than Adesanya or former African-born UFC champions Kamaru Usman or Francis Ngannou.
Adesanya, however, took exception to Du Plessis’ words.
The rivalry has since become so contentious that the upcoming Adesanya vs. Du Plessis showdown is likely to be one of the UFC’s biggest fights in the second half of 2023.
And Sonnen believes it could be a catalyst that takes Adesanya’s career to the next level.
“I’ve never seen somebody like Adesanya, and I’d only say that a couple of other times,” Sonnen said. “I was in the room when Wanderlei Silva walked in and there was like a glow around him. That happened to me one other time in this sport, it was the first time I ever saw Royce Gracie, and there was like this aura. I’m bringing this to because there’s a different game being played here by Izzy. And you want to know who should be watching this? It’s not [Dricus] Du Plessis. It’s not the rest of the division. It’s Conor McGregor.
“Izzy is coming for his spot. Izzy is coming for top draw in this sport — and he’s not that far away. By the way, he truly made that program for me. I’m a fight fan. I understand the importance of the interview, I understand the importance of the walk, I understand the importance of the song that you choose — I’m a fight fan, I tuned in to watch the fights. There’s times I’ll be driving in my car that I’ll have to turn on the ESPN [feed], I can’t even hear anything but I don’t want to miss the fights.
“But what Adesanya did, that show is not the same [without him]. I was at a bare-knuckle show about two months ago and Conor McGregor showed up, and it was a massive deal from a perspective of entertainment. From having something to look forward to that you weren’t promised and wasn’t on the marquee, the presence of Conor was greatly felt, and it was discussed in the media long after. So that’s why I bring the example of Conor and Adesanya, because now I’m seeing that Izzy can play that same game, and he can play it very powerfully.”
As for an controversy around Adesanya’s actions at UFC 290, Sonnen isn’t concerned with the chirping of online critics. He’s of the mind that all press is good press as long as it gets people talking — and willing to fork up $79.99 for the eventual pay-per-view.
“I loved it,” Sonnen said. “And I know that’s sensitive. I don’t know how the media [is going to handle it], I don’t know what you and I are going to do as this fight builds up. If these two are trying to make it about who is African — oh, and by the way, we’re going to draw a distinction by the color of your skin — I’m out. I’m out. It’s just one of those topics that you stay away from. I was trained in this. I never step in those landmines. I have a degree in sociology. I realize there’s very few things you can do with it, but you can discuss race and ethnicity. That’s literally what I got my degree in. This was a very meaningful moment.
“Please understand what happened here. OK, you had the No. 1 guy, who has solidified in our sport — Israel Adesanya will for sure go down in the Hall of Fame. Israel Adesanya is filthy rich. He’s ranked No. 1. He’s the rich, he’s the powerful guy. You’ve got Du Plessis, who’s just an up-and-comer, man. Du Plessis is trying to get this contract to try to get some scratch for the first time ever. I’ve been in Du Plessis’ shoes, when people think you’re the bad guy and I’m broke, I’m just trying to pay my bills.
“The rich guy came in and scolded the small guy, and it was a fascinating thing because Israel still always has an ability to maintain a man-of-the-people status,” Sonnen continued. “He never has let his group grow, right? They’ve got a small and tight thing there in New Zealand. Eugene Bareman does not get the credit that he deserves from a leadership standpoint.
“It’s a really interesting thing, and you watch Izzy, he’s got this small circle. It doesn’t matter how many millions he’s got, he’s a pissed off guy that thinks people are trying to take things from him, that people don’t give him his respect, that people don’t give him his due. But that’s how we got here in the first place. And it’s very hard to maintain that same mentality when your life is so different. When you’ve already climbed that hill, it’s very, very hard. You almost have to force it. It’s a forced discipline. And I see Adesanya do it.”