Israel Adesanya Wasn't Ready to Play with the Big Boys at UFC 259

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 7, 2021

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

As it turns out, the pizza was oddly prescient. 

The night before his UFC light heavyweight debut, Israel Adesanya carried a little prop with him to the weigh-in scale. It was a pizza box. But not just any pizza box.

This box carried not so much a casual Italian meal as it did a metaphor, one designed to poke fun at the much-discussed size difference between Adesanya and his opponent, Jan Blachowicz, the light heavyweight champ. The message was that Adesanya, despite being several pounds below the 205-pound limit, wasn't all that worried about the number on the scale.

Maybe he should have been.

Adesanya (20-1) is still one of the UFC's best. He's still the champion down at middleweight. But on Saturday, his dreams of Jon Jones and of becoming just the fifth fighter to hold two UFC titles simultaneously were unceremoniously dumped on their backsides.

In the championship rounds, Blachowicz (28-8) pulled Adesanya to the ground and held him there for long stretches—those "deep waters" people always love to talk about—to take a unanimous-decision win (49-46, 49-45, 49-45). It was boring, it was dull, and it showed why Adesanya may not have been fully prepared for the men up at 205 pounds.

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After the fight, broadcaster Joe Rogan asked Adesanya whether the size difference played any part in the loss, his first as a professional MMA fighter. After dancing around the question for a moment, the challenger acknowledged the truth. 

"That was just my legs being fatigued," he told Rogan. "I knew what to do, and I was trying to do it. The size did play a factor, but my technique could have been a lot finer. It was like a bad day at the gym, except it was a bad day at the office tonight."

The bout endured several prolonged periods of inactivity. Adesanya, a counterstriker who was perhaps wary of Blachowicz's power, stayed cautious and coiled, while Blachowicz, who was fully aware of those deadly counters, chose to keep his own distance.

The first round was a lot of feeling out and data gathering, particularly for Adesanya, who spent much of the round (and fight) feinting and pawing. In the second, both men began to open up, with the champion leading the dance to a greater extent. Amid the Adesanya hype, it was easy to forget how much power Blachowicz carries in those two ham hocks at the ends of his arms, but the jab and right hook both started to find their targets, particularly to the body.

The third round came and went much the same, with each man trading shots but only after longer periods of inactivity. As the championship rounds began, it was still anybody's fight.

The first big offense of the fourth was also the evening's first real wrestling sequence, with Blachowicz putting Adesanya on his back with a clean power double. One of the big keys to a Blachowicz victory on Saturday—using size and weight to break down the undersized Adesanya—was in evidence as the champ worked in half-guard and then in side control. Even the pundits get one right sometimes.

For the first time in the fight and maybe his career, Adesanya was noticeably, almost startlingly the smaller man. He seemed literally powerless to get up. The rest of the round, which felt like it lasted maybe four hours, unfolded with Blachowicz mauling Adesanya on the mat.

The outcome was still up in the air for the fifth. Adesanya came forward a little more, but at this point, both fighters were slowing down. About halfway through the round, Blachowicz scored another double-leg takedown.

And that, as they say, was all she wrote. The champ again held Adesanya down for the rest of the round.

"I knew I could take him down," Blachowicz told Rogan after the fight. "I am bigger and stronger a little bit. I knew I was going to be better on the ground … I just had to wait for the right moment."

In retrospect, this move up almost seemed too easy. That's not to say that no thought or preparation went into it, but the public timeframe, especially with a title involved, was incredibly fast.

When UFC President Dana White announced the move in late December, he announced the title bout in the same breath. From that day to Saturday, it only took Adesanya 66 days to get his title shot. That's not a big turnaround time. 

Was Adesanya wrong not to add mass as part of his move up to light heavyweight? If this is what happened in his light heavyweight debut, imagine how lost he'd look at, say, heavyweight, against an opponent like, oh, I don't know, Jon Jones

Being the consummate competitor and champion that he is, Adesanya told Rogan he'd be back. But for now, it looks like he's leaving light heavyweight in the rearview.

"It's definitely not a one-off. I'll definitely be back [at light heavyweight]," Adesanya said. "Like I said, dare to be great. But I'm going back to 185. And I'm gonna rule that b---h with my iron Black fist."

Adesanya understands that legends need bigger story arcs than everyone else's. Middleweight is and will remain his natural home—but he's also cleaned it out, or close enough. He'll have relatively safe harbor there, but he'll need to return to 205 pounds if he wants to join the champ-champ club, which he very much does. Next time he might just need to bring a few more pounds, or at least pizzas, along with him.