Israel Adesanya stepped onto the UFC 259 scale in a mask and sweatpants. After weighing in at several pounds below the limit for his light heavyweight title fight, he gestured to his cornerman, who handed him a pizza box.
Few fighters love a little extra cheese more than Adesanya, whose charismatic flamboyance is as much fun as his otherworldly fighting skill. Adesanya’s attempt to join the UFC‘s most exclusive champions’ club tops the long list of reasons to be curious about UFC 259 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Only four fighters in UFC history have accomplished the feat being attempted in the main event of this pay-per-view show by Adesanya (20-0), the mixed martial arts promotion’s 185-pound middleweight champion for nearly two years.
The Nigeria-born New Zealander is moving up 20 pounds - well, only about 15, give or take a slice - to take on Jan Blachowicz (27-8) for the light heavyweight belt.
The only fighters to hold two UFC titles simultaneously are Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and current two-belt holder Amanda Nunes (20-4), whose latest featherweight title defense against Megan Anderson is the co-main event at UFC 259. None of those double champions was undefeated at the time, as Adesanya will remain if he beats Blachowicz.
“It’s a very elite, exclusive club, and I’m going to be the fifth one to join that club,” said Adesanya, who has torn up the middleweight division with nine consecutive wins in three years since joining the UFC.
One of the deepest, most intriguing UFC cards in recent years also features Russian bantamweight champion Petr Yan’s first title defense against Aljamain Sterling in a bout with no clear favorite. The undercard features former champion Dominick Cruz, veteran Joseph Benavidez and rising Chinese bantamweight Song Yadong.
Adesanya was a competitive dancer before picking up kickboxing and then MMA, and few opponents have been able to touch him during his perfect run through the UFC‘s top 185-pound competition. He is firmly established as the heir to Anderson Silva in the middleweight division, yet Adesanya craves the historic accomplishments and paydays that prompted him to take the risk of moving up.
“This is what I’ve always predicted I would do in this game, and that’s change the game, change history,” Adesanya said. “I came in here just over three years ago, and look what I’ve done. And I’ve got a long way to go.”
In his path is the 38-year-old Blachowicz, who punctuated a tenacious MMA career by knocking out Dominick Reyes last October to claim the vacant 205-pound belt long held by Jon Jones.
Adesanya’s highlight-reel knockouts and overall athletic dominance have been too much for all of his 20 previous opponents. But Blachowicz is a powerful puncher with a significant weight advantage on Adesanya, and the smaller octagon used at the Apex could put the Polish champion in position to crowd Adesanya, minimizing the impact of the middleweight champ’s striking skills.
“I’ll try to knock him out and defend myself the best I can,” Blachowicz said. “I’ll try to use my power, (or) my wrestling to take him down, or I’ll knock him out. But he’s a great striker, and I have to be careful.”
Adesanya’s name recognition and celebrity are growing with each victory, and two title belts would amplify that status. The UFC and its international broadcast partners crave a boundary-crossing superstar to succeed McGregor, and Adesanya welcomes the opportunity to ascend.
“It’s inevitable, but I just have to get used to it,” Adesanya said. “I have to accept it and not hide from the role I’m in, the platform I’m on. I have to be who I am, and I don’t run from it.”
The first title fight on the card appears to be the least predictable, with Yan’s impressive standup skills and Sterling’s strong ground game presenting a clear contrast. The bout could hinge on Yan’s takedown defense against his Long Island-born challenger, who wrestled in college while starting MMA.
Nunes is a solid favorite in her first fight in nine months, and her first since her wife, fellow UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff, gave birth to their first child. Nunes’ 11-fight winning streak over the past 6 1/2 years is the longest by a woman in UFC history, yet her last two opponents took her to decisions - although Nunes lost just one round combined in those two fights.
At least the 6-foot Anderson is a significant physical challenge to Nunes, who is a good four inches shorter than the Australian challenger.
“I’m just ready to put on a show,” Anderson said. “Everyone is invincible until they’re not.”
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