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Israel Adesanya: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of MMA career

He is one of the most popular fighters there has ever been in Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) but Israel Adesanya’s MMA career is at a…

He is one of the most popular fighters there has ever been in Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) but Israel Adesanya’s MMA career is at a crossroads right now. After a surprising defeat in his last bout, “The Last Style Bender” has some deep thinking to do about what he does next.

Until his most recent fight, it looked as though Adesanya was back on track to continue as a middleweight champion and carry on defending his title. No one seriously expected him to lose his crown at UFC 293 and now he has resorted to watching some of his UFC colleagues fighting for championships instead.

But, as we wait for the chance to see Israel Adesanya featured on the top UFC lines again, let’s take a look back at his career. This profile begins in Lagos and follows the fighter through the ups and downs of his career – and then asks, “What next?”

Early Career

Israel Adesanya was born in Lagos in 1989 and became interested in martial arts at an early age, enrolling in a taekwondo after-school club. But at the age of ten, his family relocated, initially to Ghana, and then to New Zealand. It was there that he would develop as a man – and as an MMA fighter.

Adesanya didn’t actually take much interest in sports while at school but started training in kickboxing after being bullied when he was younger. He soon showed a real talent for the sport and ended his studies at the age of 20 to concentrate on training to be a professional.

Winning his professional kickboxing bout at just 19, Adesanya rose through the ranks and ended up winning the Glory middleweight championship in 2016. He ended his kickboxing career with a record of 75-5, although two of those losses came against the Brazilian, Alex Pereira – someone he would become very familiar with in later life.

Popular Fighter

Adesanya is not just an incredibly talented fighter; he is also one of the most popular on the circuit. He has combined his MMA skills with a winning personality that makes it very easy for fans to like him. A glance at his social media platforms proves that point. He has over nine million followers in all, with six million on Instagram alone.

Thanks to his ability to connect with the 18-35 demographic, he is regarded as one of the most important fighters in UFC. They are keen to market the organization to that group and see Adesanya as the perfect face to do that. But recent results have meant that his future in the octagon is unsure.

Middleweight Champion

Adesanya made the move to mixed martial arts in 2012 and soon became a hit in a number of organizations and promotions. He ended up winning his first 11 bouts and signed a contract with the UFC in 2017. His first fight under the banner came in February 2018, when he beat Rob Wilkinson at UFC 221 and was awarded the performance of the night.

Over that calendar year, Adesanya won three more bouts, winning the performance of the night on another two occasions. He had started to really announce himself to the UFC crowd and won the interim middleweight championship in April of 2019 – still boasting an unbeaten professional MMA record.

It was in the October of 2019 when he won the title and unified the UFC middleweight division, beating Robert Whittaker in front of a packed arena in Melbourne, Australia at UFC 243.

Defeat and Revenge

Adesanya defended his middleweight title five times over the next two years and even made the jump up to light heavyweight in an attempt to claim that title. He went the distance with Jan Blachowicz but lost on a unanimous decision. That didn’t stop him from keeping the middleweight belt though. Until that is, he faced Alex Pereira once again.

The Brazilian fighter had also made the move to UFC after a successful kickboxing career and met Adesanya for the middleweight title at UFC 281 in New York at the end of 2022. After almost five full rounds of intense action, Adesanya was beaten by a TKO and lost to the same fighter for the third time in his career across all disciplines.

But just six months later, Adesanya reclaimed his title in a ferocious two rounds of punching, beating Pereira at UFC 287 in Miami, Florida. It seemed as though the Last Style Bender was back – and up next was the unfancied Sean Strickland.

Shock Loss

It is still not entirely clear how Adesanya lost his middleweight title to Strickland in September. The American was a big underdog for the fight and had never really shown he had too much power. But the fight was nearly over in the very first round and Adesanya never really recovered.

In the end, Adesanya managed to make it through to the end of the five rounds. But the officials had seen enough and scored the bout with a four-to-one margin in favor of Strickland. Adesanya will now have to work out how to come back from defeat for a second time – if that is what he really wants.

Comeback Fights

Since that shock defeat to Strickland, Adesanya has been quiet about his plans for a return to the octagon. It was initially thought that he would demand a rematch, but that hasn’t been the case. He has seemingly been more interested in taking some much-needed time off.

Adesanya’s fight record in recent years has been incredible, competing in far more championship bouts than any other fighter. It is understandable that he wants a bit of a rest. A number one contender clash with Dricus Du Plessis, or a light heavyweight rematch against Blachowicz are both possibilities. But, for now, the Nigerian-born fighter has a lot to think about where his career goes from here.

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