Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the Florida of sports.
I don’t just mean in the sense of its general lunacy, although having a title fight canceled at the last second because the champion knocked himself unconscious against a low-hanging pipe or seeing the sport’s biggest name chuck a dolly through a bus window are definitely feats worthy of Florida Man. I also mean that it’s sort of a retirement home for athletes whose time in their sports of choice have come to an end.
Whether from an initial inability to compete at the highest levels, like would-be footballers Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione, or no longer being capable of staying at those levels for one reason or another, like the infamous Greg Hardy and James Toney, they’re drawn to MMA under the admittedly accurate assumption that they can get decently far by just being a way better athlete than most of the people they’ll fight.
Few of them make it onto the big show, and those who do tend to struggle without favorable matchmaking to compensate for their inexperience. Sometimes they struggle even with said matchmaking, as in the case of Gokhan Saki.
On this Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to the guy who bucked all of these trends.
Israel Adesanya didn’t come to MMA because he couldn’t hack it as a kickboxer anymore — he was still in the GLORY Top 10 rankings and was 18-3 in his previous 21 fights, two of those losses coming to a pound-for-pound great in Alex Pereira. He didn’t get favorable match ups — his first four Octagon opponents were known for having grappling attacks, and though Anderson Silva was years past the point of being a genuine threat, fighting the red-hot Kelvin Gastelum immediately afterward more than made up for it.
And then, this year, he flattened a man in Robert Whittaker (watch it) whom MMA’s greatest freak, Yoel Romero, had failed to put away in nearly an hour of heated combat. The whole saga, from struggling underneath a gassing Mike Wilkinson to knocking out a legendarily tough champion, took less than 24 months.
There’s plenty more to appreciate about Adesanya beyond his resume and eye-pleasing style. Indeed, his cocky attitude may not be to everyone’s taste, but he’s infectiously genuine. A man willing to bust out moves from Naruto and Death Note is not a man to be trifled with, though his taste in shows can be questioned (One Piece for life). It’s a refreshing change of pace from the inept tough-guy personas hastily crafted by Colby Covington and other aspiring stars.
If that still doesn’t sell you, his busyness should. We’re usually lucky to see our favorites in action twice a year, but here’s Adesanya entering the cage seven times since 2017.
In a sport rife with fake beef, inactivity and a tendency by promoters to protect their investments, Adesanya is a breath of fresh air, and I hope he keeps giving us things for which to be thankful for years to come.