In a sport as dynamic, global and ever-evolving as mixed martial arts, any given calendar year is likely to offer a number of fighters breaking through to new competitive heights and fame, and 2018 was no exception.
Think of Ray Cooper III, who began the year as an unheralded entrant in the Professional Fighters League welterweight division and the answer to a trivia question, only to slug his way to the playoff final on the strength of four straight sensational knockouts. Or Anthony Smith, who opened 2018 as a solid middleweight -- albeit one who had never been a contender or even ranked -- then bumped up to light heavyweight and won three straight fights via stoppage, cementing himself as a Top-5 fighter in his new division and earning a potential title shot against Jon Jones in 2019.
However, for his blend of in-cage achievement, rising stardom and for having seemingly appeared out of nowhere to become one of the new faces of the sport, Israel Adesanya edges out all competitors. The future of “The Last Stylebender” seems so bright that it’s easy to forget that a year ago, practically nobody in the Western Hemisphere knew who the heck he was.
When Adesanya debuted in Ultimate Fighting Championship at UFC 221 in February, he was an intriguing prospect but little more: a lanky kickboxer with a flashy style who had gone 11-0 in Oceanian and Asian regional shows, with all 11 wins by stoppage. While his highlight reel was already an eye-opener, to be blunt, plenty of fighters show up to the UFC with gaudy records and most turn out to be just another fighter. Look no further than Adesanya’s debut opponent in that fight, Rob Wilkinson, who had punched his own ticket to the big show with a similar 11-0 record only to lose his debut to Siyar Bahadurzada.
Adesanya destroyed Wilkinson that night, burying the Tasmanian in the second round under a hail of knees and punches against the fence. In doing so, he answered one of the questions hovering over any flashy striker debuting in a top-level promotion, as he deftly avoided the takedown attempts of a determined foe and forced the wrestler to tire before he did. His second UFC fight, against Marvin Vettori, was another impressive performance: a split-decision victory over a very game and gritty opponent who was willing to throw offense on the feet as well as shoot for takedowns. In the midst of the grinding three-round battle, Adesanya still found time and space to uncork a variety of exotic spinning kicks as well as elbow strikes from odd angles.
Clearly realizing it had a burgeoning star on its hands, the UFC gave Adesanya his first headliner slot in only his third fight with the promotion -- as well as a substantial step up in competition. In the main event of “The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale” in July against longtime fringe contender and perennial tough out Brad Tavares, Adesanya came through with flying colors, sweeping the last four rounds and leaving the Hawaiian brawler looking a step behind the whole time.
Having gone 3-0 in less than half a year, cutting through the middleweight division like someone playing a video game on casual mode, Adesanya then landed a coveted spot on the UFC’s November card at Madison Square Garden. At UFC 230, he faced Derek Brunson, a longtime Top-10 contender who nonetheless seemed tailor-made as a showcase opponent for him. After all, Brunson had once gone rushing headlong at middleweight champ Robert Whittaker, throwing haymakers for a brief few minutes before being knocked silly for his kamikaze tactics.
However, no such performance was forthcoming from Brunson this time. Instead, the former NCAA Div. II All-American leaned on his wrestling chops, working hard to get the fight out of the danger zone and onto the floor, where he could presumably put his enormous strength and solid top control to use.
It made no difference; Adesanya turned aside Brunson’s takedown and clinch attempts and tagged him with strikes from a bewildering array of angles. After stunning Brunson with a knee during a clinch break, “The Last Stylebender” smelled blood and began lighting the North Carolinian up with punch combinations as Brunson, fell, stumbled, and rose, only to fall again. Referee Herb Dean stepped in to halt the withering assault and it was all over in 4:51, another dominant performance for the newest addition to the UFC middleweight top 10.
Going 4-0 against a steadily improving gauntlet of opponents would be impressive by itself, but Adesanya did so with style, as his nickname would suggest. The New Zealand-based Nigerian is a natural performer and entertainer, a dancer in and out of the cage, and a walking sound bite who appears more interested in drawing laughs and talking himself up than denigrating his foes. In short, he has quickly developed into the type of fighter that can headline cards anywhere in the world, and Australian and New Zealand cards can be built around. In an organization with 600 fighters but only a few dozen major names and faces, that may be as much of an accomplishment as simply winning four fights.
Adesanya’s next step is a match in February with all-time great Anderson Silva at UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia. While the fight with the 43 year-old former champ might be seen as something of a bucket-list item for avowed fan Adesanya and a keep-busy fight as Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum settle the middleweight title on the same card, Adesanya may well be in line to be the next challenger for that belt. That’s quite a rise for a man who has taken the UFC by storm, and it’s the reason Israel Adesanya is Sherdog.com’s 2018 “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.”