Strength isn't always measured in muscles. Power isn't always assessed by size.
Or at least they shouldn't be. And you want to know how I know that? Because I just watched Israel Adesanya dismantle a far bigger, substantially stronger and considerably more lantern-jawed opponent in Paulo Costa in the main event of Saturday's UFC 253. Adesanya (20-0) used leg kicks early on to hobble Costa (13-1) before swooping in for a violent TKO at 3:59 of the second round.
"I told you guys. Anderson Silva left a great legacy, and I said I want to do service to the middleweight division," Adesanya told broadcaster Jon Anik after the fight. "That's a hard act to follow. But we're doing the work, right?"
Adesanya is correct in suggesting that Silva's 10 middleweight title defenses probably won't be a realistic goal anytime soon. But that doesn't mean he can't be the best in the UFC right now. And I don't just mean at middleweight—I mean the whole operation.
The champ was his usual self, all fast-twitch grace and thousand-mile glares. But a narrative of lopsided domination does a disservice to Costa, who was in the bout for a good one to two minutes before Adesanya really started to take control.
Adesanya's kicks to the thigh and knee of Costa were making hay from the get-go. Costa, who's normally associated with punches, has some pretty underrated kicks of his own. On Saturday, he used them to sting the champ's legs and solar plexus.
But Adesanya has kicks too. Damage piled up, and Costa seemed to become more preoccupied with taunting his opponent into a brawl than working. The kicks also helped the champ manage distance so Costa couldn't get close enough to go into a frenzy. With that possibility subdued, Adesanya nabbed the round on any normal person's scorecard.
To start the second, both fighters had serious welts on their legs. You could see a series of large purple splotches up and down Costa's leg. The fight's first big firework came halfway through the round, and it was Adesanya who supplied it. A head kick slammed home, and Costa wobbled back. The announcers let out a collective bellow. In any normal time, that kick would have blown the roof off.
Costa somehow stayed upright—the man does have a chin on him—but a cut had opened somewhere near his hairline, and blood began to trickle.
Adesanya smelled that blood, unwinding his defensive coil to press the action. A punch combination slammed home, and Costa hit the mat. The champ swarmed with punches and elbows (did one or two of those get the back of the head?), and then got into mount. Costa was not in great shape at this point, and he rolled away from the action, precipitating the TKO stoppage.
So who's next, Champ? After beginning his post-fight remarks with talk of Silva and The Legacy of the Middleweight Division and whatnot, fans might have wondered whether an announcement about a potential move up to light heavyweight was coming. But then you remember that, with Jon Jones now departed from the division, that grass probably isn't looking so green these days.
Adesanya did have a callout back at middleweight: Jared Cannonier. That is, Adesanya said, if Cannonier (13-4) defeats ex-champ Robert Whittaker next month at UFC 254.
"I love his energy," Adesanya said of Cannonier. "He's a beautiful, beautiful man. ... He's the one I want to fight next."
The fight makes sense on paper. Cannonier, at No. 3, is the highest-ranked middleweight not to have faced Adesanya. After that, the choices are limited. If Adesanya faces and defeats Cannonier, the remaining top-10 fighters he hasn't faced include Jack Hermansson, Darren Till, Chris Weidman and Uriah Hall. Those are very good fighters, but none would seem to have the formula to threaten Adesanya.
But that's a problem for another day. There will be no shortage of willing bodies, because a date with Adesanya is starting to look like a winning lottery ticket. His main events are big business, and he has all the so-called intangibles.
The UFC has to be looking at him that way as well, particularly with Conor McGregor now off doing whatever it is he's doing.
And there's the crux of the matter: If McGregor isn't coming back, who does the UFC have as the face of its franchise, so to speak? To my way of thinking, in the current landscape, it's Adesanya or no one.
We're not thinking just of fighting skills, but the whole package it takes to make a star. By that metric, Adesanya is the UFC's best as we sit here now after watching another surgical strike from the UFC's newest doctor of doom. Adesanya may not be the biggest cat, but he's looking bigger by the day.