After hearing “and new,” a freshly minted champion experiences many emotional moments, from the affirmation of accomplishing their ultimate goal to bringing the title belt back to their friends and family. Israel Adesanya experienced that when he defeated Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 and secured the interim middleweight belt.
“The Last Stylebender” wore his emotions in the Octagon that night, but the experience of bringing his belt back to his home country washed over him in a different way. In mid-May, Adesanya traveled back to Lagos, Nigeria, and the days spent there left a memorable impression that he called “inspiring.” The trip included a visit to his old primary school, and what happened when Adesanya approached with his belt was unforgettable.
“As I was walking by with my belt, it seemed like, f***, it was just so cool,” he told UFC.com in July. “They were sticking their arms through the bars just trying to just touch the belt, touch me, say, ‘What’s up,’ and it just made me feel blessed. That moment right there - I’ll never forget that, ever.”
Not that he needed any more reason to unify his middleweight title, but seeing the impact of his championship stature surely doesn’t hurt.
That unification battle with Robert Whittaker, now officially going down on October 5 (October 6 locally) in Melbourne, Australia, has the potential to stand as a historic event in the region and the sport.
“This is going to be the biggest fight event – boxing, MMA, wrestling, judo, anything – the biggest fight event in history in Oceania,” Adesanya said. “I’m honored to be a part of that moment. From a guy who is just a fan, who just likes to watch the UFC amongst all these guys that I’ve watched for years - come on, man. It’s crazy.”
Marvel Stadium will surely be packed and buzzing in anticipation of the main event. While Whittaker hasn’t engaged in too much pre-fight trash talking, Adesanya got his chance to confront the reigning champion when they were at the seasonal press conference in July.
“(Whittaker) doesn’t talk in person,” Adesanya said. “He likes to do it online, and in interviews, and I don’t know if anyone writes his s*** or he has the same one-liners, but f***, whatever. In person, he can’t even want that smoke.”
Asdesanya believes “you pick everything up” during faceoffs and exchanges like the ones had at the press conference, but he also said he won’t get too ahead of himself with so much time to go before the fight takes place.
When it is time for the middleweight belt to definitively wrap around the waist of either man, six months will have passed since UFC 236, which is the longest gap between fights for Adesanya, who has made it a point to stay as busy as possible since entering the UFC in February 2018. Six fights, six wins and five performance bonuses later, Adesanya’s star-power has skyrocketed in what feels like a blink but is actually the culmination of meticulous building. There was the lengthy and decorated kickboxing career as well as an 11-0 start to his professional mixed martial arts record over the course of five-and-a-half years.
What came from that is the composed, charismatic and confident fighter that people see today, that the kids at his primary school pressed themselves against the gate reaching out for, and the one who will walk into Marvel Stadium in October taking part in what could be the most-attended UFC event of all-time.
“Shows you I’m Player One,” Adesanya said. “I’ve been playing this game however I wanted to, and it took me a while to get to this point because I had to do the work outside the UFC, and no one saw all that, so they kind of underestimated me and think, ‘Oh, he’s just some guy that got hyped and pushed.’ No, I’ve been working outside the UFC, so yeah.
“I’m grateful, and I’m honored to be a part of this here.”
Zac Pacleb is a writer and producer for UFC.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacPacleb.