Opinion: Israel Adesanya, Wise Opportunist

By: Lev Pisarsky
Jan 12, 2021

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In a past article, I detailed Israel Adesanya's exceptional intelligence in his fight against Paulo Costa. He recently showed that he is equally smart with regards to his career, moving up to light heavyweight to challenge Jan Blachowicz on March 6. I call this opportunism, but without any negative connotation. In the brutal, unforgiving world of MMA, with few money fights and one's time at the top limited, a martial artist has to strike while the iron is hot, and should be always looking for the right set of circumstances to exploit. In this article, we'll examine why the middleweight champion's decision appears so good, at least on paper, and other examples of opportunism, some less successful than others.

Adesanya faced a tough situation at 185 pounds. He hadn't cleaned out the division, but there was a notable lack of good fights. The man Adesanya dethroned, Robert Whittaker, has made a case for a rematch, but it's not an appealing encounter for Adesanya. Without the prospect of crowds in Australia for a large live gate, the fight isn't a big money one, as Whittaker was only a moderate pay-per-view draw during his time as champion. More relevantly, a win would do little for Adesanya, as this is already an opponent he has beaten convincingly, while a loss would hurt his status very badly.

Marvin Vettori, a fighter we profiled last week, is also hoping for a rematch, but that's even less appetizing. Vettori isn't any kind of a draw at all, and again, a win would do little for Adesanya. What's worse is that Vettori has a very solid style and is almost impossible to put away quickly or look good against. Adesanya could win a smart, skilled fight, but it may hurt his status if it's not dominant or crowd-pleasing.

Who else is out there on the horizon? Darren Till may be intriguing, but he has most recently dropped a decision to Whittaker—granted, I scored the fight 48-47 for the Brit—and thus would need to win at least a couple more fights. Kevin Holland had a great 2020, but let's not forget that most fans and media members thought he lost to Gerald Meerschaert as well as Alessio Di Chirico in 2019, and looked very average against Darren Stewart quite recently. He still needs a win or two to be a legitimate contender. And that's unfortunately it for the suddenly thin middleweight division. Dana White must once again be regretting the day that he let Gegard Mousasi sign with Bellator.

Meanwhile, fighting for the 205-pound title against Blachowicz is a great situation. It would do wonders for Adesanya's status to be only the fourth champ-champ in UFC history, conquering a new weight class. And if he loses, it can be forgiven, as he will be fighting a clearly larger man. In terms of money, it's an intriguing enough challenge to make for solid PPV numbers. And most relevantly, it's an outstanding match-up for Adesanya stylistically.

Look, I'll be the first to admit I have underestimated Blachowicz in the past. I thought Corey Anderson would beat him like a drum in their rematch, given that he had done so in their first encounter, when he was young and inexperienced. And I surely believed that Dominick Reyes, fresh off what I and most people felt was a clear win over Jon Jones, would badly out-strike and make him look silly. Instead, Blachowicz, who, contrary to his “legendary Polish power” moniker, only had two knockout victories in 13 UFC fights prior to that, notched highlight-reel stoppages via strikes against both. Incredibly, he is genuinely getting better in his mid-to-late 30s.

However, even accounting for his improvement, it's hard to see what Blachowicz can do effectively against Adesanya. His wrestling is solid, but not quite good enough against the middleweight champ, who is notoriously difficult to take down and even harder to keep there. In the stand-up, I don't know what he can do to stop Adesanya from implementing a very similar gameplan to what he did in defeating Costa. Namely, staying on the outside, sniping him with well-timed jabs and kicks, defending beautifully, and then finishing him off. I realize that Reyes tried something similar, but while Reyes and Adesanya are both 6-foot-4, Adesanya has an additional 3 inches of reach to work with, not to mention a far more potent kicking game and better defensive instincts. It's hard to see Blachowicz's offensive punching blitzes having much success. He is almost certainly slower than the much younger Costa, who was also competing 20 pounds lighter. The betting public agrees, as Adesanya is currently a healthy -260 favorite.

Of course, opportunism doesn't always work, as the famous saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men goes. In recent years, quite a few of Glover Teixeira's younger opponents probably thought they would be facing a famous name who was washed-up and an easy out, with a once great chin that was now failing its owner, who would get routinely knocked down. They found, to their amazement, that the spirit of combat still burned bright for the legendary Brazilian, who has administered a number of brutal beatings and is now on an improbable five-fight winning streak since being routed by Anderson, and possibly in line for another title shot.

I think there might be some opportunism at play with Dan Hooker, who is set to face former Bellator MMA lightweight champ Michael Chandler at UFC 257. I'm a big fan of both men, and after narrowly losing one of the greatest fights in MMA history to Dustin Poirier, Hooker is looking to get back into the title picture with a win over the debuting Chandler, an all-time great and a big name who may be on the downside of his career, and may have a rough match-up against the long, powerful Hooker. Frankly, I'm inclined to agree with this, but we will soon have our answer, one way or another.

What are some other examples of opportunism you can think of in the sport?

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