Israel Adesanya is the best striker in MMA. On Saturday night, a bolt of that brilliant combat lightning struck Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.
In front of the largest crowd in UFC history, the Nigerian New Zealander knocked out Robert Whittaker with a surgical double-hook combination in the second round of the main event of UFC 243. The Last Stylebender is now 18-0 in MMA and a remarkable 7-0 over 20 tornadic months beneath the UFC banner.
He was the interim UFC middleweight champion coming in, but he's not anymore. After making mincemeat of a decorated veteran in Whittaker, Adesanya is now the undisputed king at 185 pounds.
"We had everything from his plan A, plan B, plan C. In this fight we had it all the way up to Z," a seriously wired Adesanya told broadcaster Jon Anik in the cage after the fight. "Man, it's unreal. I've said this s--t for so long. I have no knockout power? ... I ate it and I gave it back two times."
Adesanya grew fractionally more serious when he discussed what would come next. Brazilian knockout artist and movie hunk Paulo Costa, aka Paulo Borrachinha, who spent the week antagonizing the whole of Oceania, looked on cageside as the new champ pointed in his direction.
"You know who's next," Adesanya told Anik. "I got this overinflated balloon animal, Borrachinha."
It was the only mistake he made all night.
Even as he verbally sparred with Borrachinha, a far bigger quarry was lurking close by. And darned if the quarry didn't leap full out of the water earlier this week and land right in Adesanya's boat. That's right: UFC light heavyweight champion and consensus pound-for-pound king Jon Jones. It was an organic back-and-forth that came to a frothy and public head just days before this fight. That's where the heat is, and that's where Adesanya's gaze should fall now. We'll get back to that in a minute.
But for now, back to Marvel Stadium, where Adesanya set the tone with his walkout. A former competitive dancer, the interim champ broke out a routine with some old dancing buddies before sauntering on toward the Octagon. Are you not entertained? You know you were.
When the fight begins, Adesanya, like his idol Anderson Silva, likes to start slow. The opening minutes saw him take a placid approach, a calm matador to Whittaker's onrushing bull. Normally one to stay tighter and more within himself, Whittaker lunged forward, perhaps taking a page from Adesanya's previous opponent, Kelvin Gastelum, who lost to Stylebender in April but still took him five bruising rounds behind a steady diet of forward pressure.
But Adesanya learned something too. As he sought to establish his own range, he ensured he stayed clear of Whittaker, deftly slipping and rolling to make sure none of those haymakers landed flush. Then, in the literal final second of the round, Adesanya landed a single counter right hook that dumped Whittaker onto his backside. Remember that strike.
In the second, Adesanya started to open up, and Whittaker began to bleed. That counter right was in full effect alongside body work and a couple of high kicks. The last of those counter rights landed with about three-and-a-half minutes left, at the end point of yet another, increasingly ragged Whittaker blitz. It was the beginning of the end. The end of the end was the left hook that followed a half-second later.
It was surreal to watch one of the toughest competitors on the UFC roster—the same guy who outlasted Cuban thunder god Yoel Romero not once but twice—crouch backward on rubber legs and fall to the mat as if crushing an invisible chaise lounge. Adesanya swarmed and landed a hammerfist or two, but Whittaker clearly didn't know where he was, and referee Marc Goddard rightly stepped in for the stoppage.
Is Whittaker's chin gone after years of brutal wars? Maybe. All we know right now is that no one has ever done him that way before.
It was superior work, and it more than earned Adesanya the right to his trademark playfulness (some might say silliness?) both before and after the competition. As his family and friends flooded the cage, Adesanya draped his new belt over his mother's shoulder.
A storybook night, right? Sure—right up until that callout.
The heat between Jones and Adesanya is more than marketing. There's genuine grit to it. Are both these guys self-promoters? We know they are. But that doesn't mean a grudge can't be based on something substantive, a dark pearl grown from a single grain of agitation.
We know Adesanya isn't exactly afraid of the spotlight. And you know what? The UFC kinda needs someone like that right now. And you know what else? Go ahead and replace "kinda" with "desperately." Jones is an MMA genius but doesn't have the world's highest Q-rating. These days, Conor McGregor's fights happen in bars and courtrooms. Daniel Cormier has one foot out the door.
This company needs a new star. If Adesanya faces Jones, he could be that new face. He could also become just the eighth fighter to hold two UFC title belts at the same time. Silva dabbled at light heavyweight, but that was before the "champ champ" era of greater divisional fluidity, ushered in by McGregor and others. Might Adesanya see this as a chance to render himself as a kind of fourth-dimensional version of his MMA hero? Adesanya could become the first person to defeat Jones by way of something other than an extremely fluky DQ. Might that fast-track him to legend status?
Plenty of people will argue it's too soon for Adesanya. That's not unreasonable. But what is he really risking? If Adesanya loses, Jones remains the person we thought he was, and Adesanya returns to the business of plowing through his "natural" weight class. Jones turns 34 in 2021—still his prime, perhaps, but it's the tail end of a typical window. Do you think Adesanya wants to field the ducking questions that will surely accompany this fight if they have it, say, two years down the road? And sure, Jones is more experienced with MMA, but after what Adesanya just did to Whittaker, I'm not betting against Adesanya given a suitable camp and the chance to properly move up to 205 pounds.
That's all the logical stuff. But the massive heat around it, which culminated over fight week, is the reason why the wheels should go into motion now.
Let's take a quick walk back in time, shall we?
It started in July, when Adesanya claimed Jones hasn't looked the same since the UFC instituted strict drug-testing policies. He also referenced Jones' semi-recent drug test drama, which resulted in a suspension and a last-minute venue change to save Jones' December 2018 fight with Alexander Gustafsson.
"I saw him live [in Jones' win over Thiago Santos]. He doesn't have it," Adesanya said on ESPN's Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. "He was great when he was fighting and there wasn't [drug testing agency] USADA around, but now the man needs to get back on the pictograms if he wants to be great again."
In an interview this week, Adesanya went so far as to call his shot—and a pretty gutsy shot at that. He predicted a date with Jones in a football stadium that hasn't even been constructed yet.
"I wouldn't say [Jones] is the ultimate, but he's definitely a boss on the game that I want to play against," Adesanya told The Mac Life. "Raiders Stadium, Las Vegas, that's where it's going to happen. I decided in July when I was in Vegas. Probably—the middleweight division's getting stacked. I like [Jared] Cannonier right now. [Paulo] Costa I got to take care of, and a few others. I'm saying 2021."
That was apparently a bridge too far for Jones, who took to Twitter to respond to Adesanya. (Warning: language NSFW)
When asked about that tweetstorm in yet another interview with The Mac Life on Thursday, Adesanya, seeming satisfied with getting inside Jones' head, opined that Jones "f--ked himself up by f--king around and tarnishing his own legacy. And I'm just doing me. I just have to keep doing me."
Adesanya's in for the fight. Jones would appear to be in. But it doesn't mean anything without the blessing of the biggest of the UFC's big men.
"Those guys have been talking smack back and forth," UFC President Dana White recently told Sky Sport New Zealand (h/t MMA Junkie). "If Israel wins and he really does want to fight Jon Jones, that's a really big fight."
Well observed. At this point, 2021 might be too long a wait. After this win, Adesanya's at a real, true peak, and it's coinciding with a real, true feud with the real, true GOAT.
The UFC and all other parties should strike while the iron is hot. Jones is the iron, Adesanya is the striker, and the fight community might be poised to forge a new superstar.
Scott Harris is a feature writer and MMA columnist for Bleacher Report.