By Ben Fleming
When you think of football, you think of Messi. Tennis, you think of Federer. Cricket, Kohli. Boxing, Joshua. The list goes on. Every sport has their athlete at the fore, who fans across the world can recognise. UFC, despite being one of the fastest-growing franchises in recent years, still yearns for their next big star.
Conor McGregor is still the name that resonates with most casual fans and members of the public, but his public controversies and lack of fights in recent years mean he represents nothing more than a marketing tool for the UFC and hardly a catalyst to draw in new fans. Jon Jones, the current pound-for-pound best in the UFC, has currently relinquished his light-heavyweight belt and looks set for an indefinite hiatus before moving up to the heavyweight decision. Finally, the man who famously defeated Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, seems set to retire shortly, and his quite, media-shy persona means he isn’t one to garner the interest of the masses in the same way as his famous Irish adversary.
However, all is not lost in the UFC’s quest for a new superstar. Jorge Masvidal, made famous from street fighting videos with Kimbo Slice, has enjoyed a career resurgence in recent years and, despite his most recent loss against Kamaru Usman, ‘Street Jesus’ is still a popular and growing name for the casual audience. Colby Covington, the Welterweight contender, made famous through his bizarre close friendship with the current president, Donald Trump, has made a name for himself with his politically outspoken rants but perhaps is too controversial to be pushed as the main star of the UFC.
The responsibility, therefore, may fall to ‘The Last Stylebender’, Israel Adesanya, the current UFC Middleweight Champion. The lanky, unassuming, Nigerian-born, kiwi-bred, lover of comic books and anime, is diametrically opposed to the archetypical figure that members of the public would think off when considering a UFC fighter.
But therein lies the key to what makes him so appealing and such a promising marketing tool to the UFC. He represents something so unique, not only inside the cage with his breath-taking performances but outside the cage with his charismatic and comedic persona. He is a cannonball of potential just waiting to be shot into superstardom.
Adesanya’s rise to elite status within the UFC has been meteoric in every sense of the word. From his debut fight February 2018, it was just over a year until he would fight for the interim belt against Kelvin Gastelum. That run, including a passing of the torch fight against UFC legend and former middleweight king, Anderson Silva, saw Adesanya breeze past the competition with ease. The swiftness of feet, sleight of hand and variety of offensive striking caught the attention of UFC fans from early on. But questioned remained whether this style and Adesanya’s physique would come to cost him against the elite in the division.
What Adesanya has shown in his last 4 fights against top opposition, is that he has the technical proficiency, ringcraft and fight intelligence unlike anyone mixed martial arts has ever seen. Whilst this may seem hyperbolic, anyone who has watched his recent fights will have been witness to these incredible displays of fighting. Against Robert Whittaker, the elusiveness and timing on display finished a man who had never been knocked out at middleweight before.
In his most recent fight against Paulo Costa, a physically bruising, quasi-cyborg, juggernaut, previously unbeaten in his career, was dismantled in a matter of minutes by a combination of brutal kicks, razor-sharp jabs and a sweet left hook. Adesanya went to twitter to publicly gloat, and rightly so, that many fans could not understand how the ‘skinny’ man beat the big guy, in Paulo Costa. It is this unfathomable technique and power that Izzy has shown that has put the middleweight division to the sword. He is soon to be a pound-for-pound great but in the octagon is not solely where his strengths lie.
Outside of the cage, Israel has made huge strides. He was the recent cover star of the UFC 4 video game, alongside Jorge Masvidal, recognising his huge following and stardom within the sport. In interviews and on his social media, he has spoken candidly about racism, especially in the wake of the recent surge in interest surrounding the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Most recently, he became the first MMA fighter to sign with the sportswear company, Puma, singing a multi-year deal to represent the brand. In a company where out of cage controversies have too-often muddied the reputations of their best athletes, it is hugely welcome for Dana White and UFC to have an athlete like this in the public eye.
So where does this leave Izzy? He has shown the octogen capabilities and necessary charm and charisma outside of fighting. His nationality, backstory and skills make him a hugely marketable asset, primed and ready to break through the MMA world into a mainstream sporting celebrity. All that is left is for the UFC to throw their machine behind him fully. We have seen what heights can be reached with McGregor and Rousey when pushed properly, so it seems only a matter of time before Israel Adesanya is the next star seen everywhere throughout the sporting world.
Image: Fivealmond via Wikimedia Commons