Israel Adesanya has shown off his unique talent since he first appeared under the UFC banner in February 2018. Thus far, he’s delivered at every turn. At UFC 259 on Saturday March 6, the charismatic Nigerian-born New Zealander will elevate his career into rarified air by accomplishing a feat that will separate him from every name in the history of the sport.
Reigning middleweight champion Adesanya (20-0 MMA, 9-0 UFC) is set to move up a weight class to challenge light heavyweight kingpin Jan Blachowicz (27-8 MMA, 10-5 UFC), and a win would put him on the short list of fighters to hold UFC titles in two divisions simultaneously.
The 205-pound championship bout headlines UFC 259, which is the promotion’s deepest fight card in recent memory. The event, which features women’s featherweight champ Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson in the co-main event, as well as Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight belt in the featured bout, streams live on ESPN+. Prelims start at 6:00 p.m. ET and are followed by the main card at 10:00 pm ET. UFC 259 is available exclusively to ESPN+ subscribers via pay-per-view.
Being a dual-division champion is not totally uncharted territory in the UFC. Conor McGregor broke the barrier as the first in 2016, and Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and Nunes have since followed suit. Adesanya’s trajectory, however, stands out from the rest.
The fight game is a cruel beast, and the road to the top is often turbulent with setback and bumps in the road. Only 13 athletes have won gold while undefeated in the illustrious history of the UFC, and aside from Khabib Nurmagomedov, every perfect record eventually fell by the wayside.
Holding multiple belts with a spotless resume has never been done before, which means Adesanya can forge a path all his own if he beats Blachowicz.
“Making history is not the main motivation, but it’s there,” Adesanya tells Rolling Stone. “Whooping his ass is the main motivation, and not getting my ass whooped. That’s the main motivation entering this fight. But the bonus is I get to be the fifth in UFC history to hold two belts at the same time.”
Although “The Last Stylebender,” who owns arguably the most lethal striking arsenal in the sport, is nonchalant about the magnitude of the moment, the depth of his task is nothing to dismiss.
Adesanya has never fought at light heavyweight under the UFC banner, and the 20-pound gap between 205 pounds and 185 pounds is the largest of any two weight classes.
Blachowicz is no joke, either. The Polish titleholder possesses proven knockout power, and he’s dropped and stopped men who are bigger than Adesanya, to boot. Blachowicz has the utmost confidence his shots will simply be too much for Adesanya’s chin to withstand, but Adesanya begs to differ.
Adesanya has intentionally opted not to add extra weight to his frame ahead of fight night. He says he’ll enter the octagon essentially as he would if he were fighting at middleweight. Because of that, speed and evasiveness will be keys to victory, and Adesanya sees a clear way to negate what Blachowicz brings to the table.
“If you look at my last fight (vs. Paulo Costa), I didn’t even get touched in the face once,” Adesanya says. “That was my M.O. Don’t get hit and hit the guy. Same thing (with) this fight: Don’t get hit and hit the guy. He’s got a lot of power, but I don’t plan on getting touched at all.”
If things go Adesanya’s way at UFC 259, it’s his intention to be active champion in two divisions. He “definitely” wants to return to middleweight next, he says, but also teased another trick up his sleeve, which could potentially be a jump to heavyweight to pursue an unprecedented third UFC title.
The fact Adesanya is even in this position just 37 months after his UFC debut is nothing short of remarkable. The 31-year-old gets more impressive with each outing, and only seems to be scratching the surface of his ceiling, too.
Adesanya was recently featured on the cover of Inked Magazine, and mainstream sponsors such as PUMA, BMW, EA Sports and more have already put their support behind his brand. A win over Blachowicz would set up his star power to rival anyone in combat sports, and his team sees massive opportunity for Adesanya to gain even more traction with a global audience.
— Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) February 27, 2021
“I really believe he has the ability to be MMA’s next major crossover star,” Adesanya’s manager, Tim Simpson of Paradigm Sports, tells Rolling Stone. “There was Ronda Rousey, who crossed over to a certain degree. There’s Conor McGregor, who transcended the sport and is one of the biggest celebrities on planet earth – not just in MMA – and I think Israel has all the potential to do the exact same.
“He can be anything he wants to be,” Simpson says; “Megastar, Forbes (highest-paid athletes) list, movies. He’s got the athletic ability, the personality and the drive to match.”
Pound-for-pound rankings are a subjective discussion, but it would be hard to poke holes in Adesanya’s case as the best right now if he wins at UFC 259. In his mind, though, he’s already there as the top dog. Now it’s just about solidifying that notion to the public with more “magic” in the cage.
“I’ve always seen myself as Number One,” Adesanya says. “I just keep doing what I do, and that’s the main thing that I’m focused on. It is cool with the numbers and stuff. But all the stats, it doesn’t really faze me. It doesn’t really deter me from my goal, which is to be the baddest.”