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After a meteoric rise in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, Israel Adesanya silenced all doubters when he knocked out 185-pound kingpin Robert Whittaker to become the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight ruler at UFC 243. Finding the finish midway through the second round, “The Last Stylebender” was able to counter everything “Bobby Knuckles” could throw at him, and though the Nigerian-born New Zealander took some shots, he never appeared to be in any trouble. After the match, Adesanya called for a collaboration with Marvel, as well as a match with a “Ricky Martin Wannabe” for his first title defense.
Although he only started fighting for the UFC in February of last year, Adesanya has been viewed in the eyes of many fans and pundits as the promotion’s next breakout star. Confident and outspoken, the 30-year-old has never shied away from making the most of his moments in the spotlight and even choreographed a dance for his entrance into the arena at UFC 243. While a large number of fight fans have become enamored with Adesanya’s antics, he has drawn ire from others who see his boasting as arrogance, though polarization often accompanies those who rise to the level of crossover superstardom that Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey achieved.
That being said, with all the hype surrounding the newly-crowned middleweight champ among hardcore fans, the noise outside of the MMA fanbase isn’t quite as loud -- in fact, it's nearly silent.
Despite dispatching of the sitting 185-pound champion in such dominant fashion and cutting an engaging promo in his post-fight interview, Adesanya’s profile remains far below that of the promotion’s major stars. Although UFC 243 ended the weekend at a strong 1+ million Google searches in second place for the weekend, it still was only half of the 2 million+ searches UFC 241 and UFC 239 managed to achieve, cards that featured Nate Diaz and Jon Jones respectively. From a social media perspective, Adesanya’s followers are still growing from his performance across multiple platforms, but as of this writing they’re still well below several notable names on twitter (Tony Ferguson, Stipe Miocic, Max Holloway) and charismatic contenders on Instagram (Derrick Lewis, Cowboy Cerrone, Holly Holm). That isn’t to say that Adesanya’s stock isn’t sharply rising, but in terms of popularity outside of the sport, he isn’t trending at the crossover star levels of Mcgregor, Rousey or Jones.
There are several factors that are holding Adesanya back from true superstardom. For one, the UFC’s pay-per-view deal with ESPN+ has siloed the promotion off from a large number of casual viewers. By taking away multiple avenues for infrequent consumers to order a pay-per-view and forcing them to sign up for a monthly subscription service, it limits the ability of up-and-coming fighters to make a name for themselves outside of the hardcore fanbase. Considering only 20 percent of the record-breaking 2.4 million UFC 229 PPV buys were done via a streaming service, there’s little doubt that the UFC has the same casual viewership potential that it had before the switch.
Another issue that came into play for “The Last Stylebender” are his performances on the way to capturing the title. Despite a flawless 7-0 record in his UFC career, only two of those were by way of TKO finishes going into the title fight at UFC 243. While some of his decision wins were quite exciting (i.e. his match against Kelvin Gastelum) historically fighters begin to reach a level of transcendent superstardom after a string of impressive finishes, with McGregor, Rousey and Jones all having dispatched their opponents in brutal fashion on the way to capturing gold.
There is also Adesanya’s polarizing personality. His nickname an ode to the popular anime “The Last Airbender.” The 30-year-old has an affinity for the Japanese medium of entertainment and isn’t afraid to show his fandom, whether it's through pre-fight rituals or during interviews. Although that resonates with some fans, it will naturally turn off others who dislike such content and view it as something they can’t relate to. While Adesanya’s trash talk has been entertaining, that will always turn off a certain subset of fans that are tired of brash behavior among fighters, especially combined with some of his bizarre NSFW social media choices.
It’s important to note that this does not mean Adesanya cannot reach the level of a crossover superstar. The UFC middleweight champion can be extremely exciting, and his ability on a microphone can reach the masses of the casual fans that tune in for the bigger fights. With that in mind, Adesanya’s best chances of reaching that next level is an exciting win over an already established megastar, which can give any fighter a major boost in popularity outside of the sport (Holm and Diaz are prime examples of this). After already calling out Jones previously, a win over the undefeated lightweight champion could be just what Adesanya needs to become a bonafide superstar, but until that point, he’ll have to be content with being a star in the world of MMA -- and defending his belt against another undefeated contender hungry to hurt the new champ.