UFC 281 Editorial: Israel Adesanya is still a ‘must see’ fighter, but the reasons he changed

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It wasn’t too long ago that fight fans were looking forward to a fight against Israel Adesanya, and the feeling was like preparing for another legendary UFC middleweight champion’s clash: Anderson Silva. There was anticipation of seeing something spectacular happen inside the Octagon.

Over time, however, it seems that the suspense has been replaced for many by a sense of foreboding.

Today it seems much more regular to see fans describing Adesanya as “boring” and “safe” rather than “electric” and “dynamic”. However, I would argue that those who believe watching 2022’s Israel Adesanya is more of a tedious than thrilling endeavor are missing the point.

Instead of considering what Adesanya isn’t doing against the best fighters in the UFC middleweight division, instead consider what so many of his opponents are unable to do and why. Adesanya has taken his time at the top to hone his skills, training and fight IQ to take down the best competitors the UFC has to offer.

Adesanya has held the UFC middleweight title since 2020 (2019, for fans who want to count winning the interim crown as the start of his reign). With that — and his five title defenses — the top of the UFC middleweight roster had ample opportunity to study him and his style. They watched the whole tape. They trained for his strengths. They relentlessly searched for weaknesses to exploit. In the end, every middleweight fighter the UFC threw its way was left behind.

Adesanya has been carrying a target for over two years. Every time an opponent hits the target, they not only miss the golden ring, but almost all of them fail to hit the outermost circles of that target. This is what makes the “Last Stylebender” a unique and standout fighter at this point in his career.

Instead of looking at Adesanya and asking for high-flying action, maybe it’s time to expand the UFC champ’s vision. Instead of focusing on what it doesn’t do, examine what it does. He makes the fighters who have trained specifically for him over the past few years look overwhelmed and bewildered, essentially like they don’t deserve to be inside the cage with him in a title fight.

I don’t know if that will change on Saturday when he takes on Alex Pereira in the main event of UFC 281. Still, I won’t be the least bit surprised if Adesanya and his City Kickboxing team defuse what we call the most difficult. test of his UFC title reign by many. A man who had the answers he needed to beat Adesanya in the past.

If the Nigerian-born New Zealander can come out once more and turn Pereira into a cautious or clumsy opponent. If he can surpass “Po Atan” and become the 8th champion in UFC history to collect more than five consecutive title defenses, it will be a fantastic achievement worth celebrating. Even if the combat itself isn’t the kind of all-out war many hope to see.

UFC 281 takes place on Saturday, November 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The main card streams on ESPN+ pay-per-view after prelims on ESPNews and early prelims on ESPN+. Catch all the PPV action with Bloody Elbow on fight night.

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