Israel Adesanya can relate to some of the disappointment felt with his most recent performance in the championship.
“The Last Stylebender” recorded his fifth straight defense of the undisputed UFC middleweight title at UFC 276 last July, winning a unanimous decision over Jared Cannonier that drew criticism from fighters and fans alike for the lack of emotion. Overall, Adesanya was pleased with the win, but he knows he could have done more and allowed himself to acknowledge that he could have done more immediately afterwards.
“I don’t cling to things,” Adesanya said in MMA time ahead of his main event with Alex Pereira at UFC 281 this Saturday in New York. “I allow myself to feel them. People try to deny things and block them out, if you fight your emotions they will catch you later. So, I’m sorry.
“I cried backstage. I and [coach] eugenio [Bareman] He hugged him and 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, felt it, and let it go. It is a good way to release emotions… it relaxes you. It’s just a normal human function, I don’t know why we’re ashamed.”
Adesanya was coming off 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 place as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
For his exit from UFC 276, Adesanya made an elaborate entrance in tribute to WWE legend The Undertaker, whose grandiosity only further contrasted the relatively quiet fight itself.
“[I was] upset with myself for what I wanted to do,” Adesanya said. “People confuse it. This is not about other people. This is about me. I did the Undertaker strike 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 kind of frustrated during the fight trying to figure out how to take this guy. I’ve said many times, the corner of him, wow, MMA Lab beautiful, because they saved him. They’d see the stuff he was setting up and they’d call him and I was like, ‘F***, OK, they can see it coming.’ So they saved him a lot and he is also a good student for listening to them.
“For me, it was just the pressure I put on myself because it was International Fight Week, and I was like, ‘Damn, I want to take this to the next level after smoking this guy. ‘ And I felt like I didn’t smoke this guy, but I beat him pretty easily. Easily. So for me, it’s the expectations that I put on myself, that’s what it is.”
Much of the criticism of Adesanya’s title fights has been directed at him rather than his opponents, an aspect of the business he understands, even if he disagrees with it.
“I think so,” Adesanya said when asked if the criticism was unfair. “It takes two to tango, so if you want to blame me, you have to blame the other. Like I said, look at the fifth round, how it went, I was pressing the action. She was trying to fight. She was always touching him.”
“[I was criticized] because I am the champion, I am the great one”, he continued. I’m the one, and I’ve talked to everyone about it, even our boy Georges. [St-Pierre] … we talked about this kind of thing in depth and it happened to him, it happened to Silva, it even happened to Jon Jones. In boxing, it’s happened to a lot of greats, when you’re that good and you keep winning, people want to shake the snowball a little bit so they start throwing shit and see 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 were occasionally criticized by fans for going play it safe “GSP” was known for employing an intense style of wrestling that kept him out of harm’s way as he racked up championship wins after championships while serving as one of the most proven pay-per-view draws in the UFC.
Silva also drew 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 have been in my position and would understand,” Adesanya said. “You can see it, you can see it on television, but not many have been in this life in my position. He has. I was there, he was a fan when people were like, ‘He’s so boring. He just knocks people down.” I’m like, ‘Brother, this guy is screwing people up.’
“Same thing with Silva, I was there as a fan when people were talking bad about the Thales Leites fight, UFC 97. I was like, ‘Did you see the first three rounds? Did you see the styles he wore? Aren’t you seeing what I’m seeing? Yeah the last two rounds, maybe he slipped, but didn’t you enjoy the show? The people who were there live should be blessed to have seen an artist like that perform live, but we are now in the Tik Tok generation. 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 victories over Adesanya, who hopes to not only avenge those losses, but also face Pereira in a “bloody” battle.
Adesanya knows he has a chance to win back the hearts of the fans with a thrilling victory and they could move on just as quickly.
“This is the generation we are in,” Adesanya said. “I smoke this next guy, ‘He’s the greatest of all time!’ Two weeks later, another pay-per-view happens and then [mimics excited roar]. So I never get attached to other people’s opinions. Like I said, I’m human, I listen to them, but I don’t cling to them. I just listen to them and say, ‘Hm, okay, great.’”
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