Israel Adesanya can relate to some of the disappointment that was felt with his most recent championship performance.
“The Last Stylebender” recorded his fifth straight defense of the undisputed UFC middleweight title at UFC 276 this past July, winning a unanimous decision over Jared Cannonier that drew criticism from fighters and fans for a lack of thrills. Overall, Adesanya was pleased with the victory, but knows that he could have done more and allowed himself to acknowledge that he could have done more in the immediate aftermath.
“I don’t hold onto things,” Adesanya said on The MMA Hour ahead of his headlining bout with Alex Pereira at UFC 281 this Saturday in New York. “I let myself feel them. People try to deny things and block it, if you fight your emotions they’ll get you later on. So I feel it.
“I cried backstage. Me and [coach] Eugene [Bareman] hugged it out and he told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’ I was like, ‘Just give me a bourbon, I’ll be fine.’ So I expressed it, feel it, and I let it go. It’s a good way to release emotions… it relaxes you. It’s just a normal human function, I don’t know why we shame it.”
Adesanya was coming off of a pair of lopsided title defenses against Robert Whittaker and Marvin Vettori that were similarly criticized for not being entertaining, even as they cemented his spot as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
For his UFC 276 walkout, Adesanya made an elaborate entrance in homage to WWE legend The Undertaker, the grandiosity of which only contrasted further with the relatively uneventful fight itself.
“[I was] upset at myself for what I wanted to do,” Adesanya said. “People mistake it. This is not about other people. This is about me. I did the Undertaker walkout and I had this Miyamoto Musashi mentality like I’m going to make him wait, because I don’t think it’s going to last long. Then I get there and I’m a little bit frustrated during the fight trying to figure out how to take this guy. I’ve said it many times, his corner, wow, MMA Lab beautiful, because they saved him. They’d see things I was setting up and call it and I’m just like, ‘F***, OK, they can see that coming.’ So they saved him a lot and he’s a good student for listening to them as well.
“For me, it was just the pressure I put on myself because it was International Fight Week, I’m like, ‘Damn, I want to f****** take this to the next level after I smoke this guy.’ And I felt like I didn’t smoke this guy, but I beat him quite easily. Easily. So for me, it’s the expectations I put on myself, that’s what.”
Much of the criticism of Adesanya’s title fights have been directed at him as opposed to his opponents, an aspect of the business that he understands even if he doesn’t agree with it.
“I think so,” Adesanya said when asked if the criticism is unfair. “It takes two to tango, so if you want to blame me, you’ve got to blame the other guy. Like I said, you look at the fifth round, how it went, I was pressing the action. I was trying to fight. I was touching him always.”
“[I was criticized] because I’m the champ, I’m the great one,” he continued. “I’m the one that-and I’ve talked to everyone about this, even our boy Georges [St-Pierre] … we talked in-depth about this kind of stuff and it happened to him, it happened to Silva, even Jon Jones it happened to him. In boxing, it’s happened to a lot of greats, when you’re just so great and you keep winning, people want to shake the snow globe a little bit so they just start throwing s*** and look at what sticks.”
Adesanya used St-Pierre and Anderson Silva — a pair of MMA legends who authored two of the most memorable title runs in UFC history — as an example of great fighters who occasionally came under fire from fans for playing it safe. “GSP” was known for employing a wrestling-heavy style that kept him out of danger as he racked up championship win after championship win while serving as one of the UFC’s most proven pay-per-view draws.
Silva also received criticism for going the distance with inferior opponents, though he also authored some of MMA’s most memorable finishes.
“[St-Pierre is] a guy that—not many people in this life has ever been in my position and would understand,” Adesanya said. “You might see it, you might watch it on TV, but not many have been in this life in my position. He has. I was there, I was a fan when people were like, ‘He’s so boring. He just takes people down.” I’m like, ‘Bro, this guy’s messing people up.’
“Same with Silva, I was there as a fan when people were talking s*** about the Thales Leites fight, UFC 97. I was like, ‘Did you see the first three rounds? Did you see the styles he used? Are you not watching what I’m watching? Yeah, the last two rounds, maybe he coasted, but did you not enjoy the show?’ People who were there live should be blessed that they watched an artist like that perform live, but we’re in the Tik Tok generation now. You know how it is.”
On paper, Adesanya has an ideal style matchup to create fireworks this Saturday when he fights Pereira at Madison Square Garden. Pereira owns two kickboxing wins over Adesanya, who looks forward to not just avenging those losses, but engaging Pereira in a “bloody” battle.
Adesanya knows he has the chance to win the hearts of fans back with an exciting win and that they could just as quickly move on.
“This is the generation we’re in,” Adesanya said. “I smoke this next guy, ‘He’s the greatest of all time!’ Two weeks later, some other pay-per-view happens and then [mimics excited roar]. So I never really attach myself to other people’s opinions. Like I said, I’m human, I listen to them, but I don’t hold onto them. I just hear them and I’m like, ‘Hm, OK, cool.’”