UFC 259: The carefully constructed rise of Israel Adesanya

When Israel Adesanya made his UFC debut in 2018, he did so as a prospect who already had many mixed martial arts fans excited about his potential.

He showed a glimpse of why people were excited about him with a second-round TKO on debut.

The UFC took notice, and in just his third fight with the promotion Adesanya was booked to headline a card against a top-10 ranked fighter. Since then, Adesanya has been a pay-per-view-only athlete – fighting six times behind the paywall of the pay-per-view, with five of those bouts headlining the card.

On Sunday (NZ time), Adesanya (20-0) headlines another pay-per-view card when he tries to capture the UFC light heavyweight title and become a two-division champion against Jan Blachowicz (27-8) at UFC 259 in Las Vegas. Adesanya’s teammates from Auckland’s City Kickboxing gym Carlos Ulberg and Kai Kara-France will also compete on the UFC 259 card, on the early prelims and the preliminary card respectively.

Adesanya’s has been a monumental rise, but it’s one that was carefully constructed.

Speaking before the team left for Vegas, City Kickboxing coach Eugene Bareman admitted he had held Adesanya back earlier in his career in order to get the best out of his athlete.

“I definitely held him back for a long time,” Bareman said.

“You would have to say, in terms of building Israel up, I would probably have the most conservative approach out of anybody, if anybody was in that same position. I believe if any of the top, world-class coaches had Israel under their wing, they would have pushed Israel into the UFC much earlier.

“But I believe Israel would not have achieved the heights he achieved in such a quick amount of time as he did if they had done that, which is why I stuck to my plan, and the way I progressed him and now we are where we are because it was the right approach.”

On Sunday, Adesanya will have the opportunity to become the first UFC star to hold the promotion’s middleweight and light heavyweight titles at the same time, and just the fifth athlete to hold two division titles simultaneously.

Normally fighting in the 185lbs (83.9kg) middleweight division, Adesanya steps up to a bigger opponent, with the light heavyweight mark being 205lbs (93.4kgs). Adesanya has not gone out of his way to bulk up for the challenge, but has instead approached the bout as he would any other. It’s not the first time Adesanya has fought up in weight, having competed in kickboxing above his own weight class.

While Adesanya is the more skilled of the two, Blachowicz’s knockout power is well documented and is well utilised with his awkward, forward-pressure style of fighting.

On paper, it’s the kind of fight Adesanya and his team have been expecting for some time but has never materialised.

Bareman said that’s the mentality they’re taking into the match up as Adesanya looks to make history.

“Every single fight, we anticipate that one opponent that is going to be able to close that gap and put us into territory that we haven’t necessarily been in much. We prepare for that; we expect that but it never happens because Israel is just too good at controlling that distance.

“This fight, we have that same expectation; that Jan’s going to be the guy, with his physicality and size, finally there’s going to be someone that’s going to close that distance, push Israel against the cage, maybe even take Israel down, and we definitely have prepared for those facets of the game.

“This is uncharted territory. This is something that came up and is something that when I think about it, it bewilders me a little bit. This is massive; this is absolutely massive.”

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