UFC 248: Israel Adesanya not afraid to take risk vs. dangerous Yoel Romero


LAS VEGAS — When a UFC champion calls out a challenger, it’s typically for one of two reasons: money, or because they view that challenger as a very beatable opponent.

In a perfect world, it’s both. The biggest name with the least amount of risk.

You can’t blame them. Being a champion in the UFC is really hard. Yes, the company will occasionally swerve its rankings for the sake of making a big fight, but generally speaking, the best fight the best. Titleholders are expected to face the next killer in line.

So, if a champion sees an opportunity to demand a money fight — or a favorable matchup — by all means, they should do it.

And that’s what makes Israel Adesanya‘s decision to call out Yoel Romero so fascinating. Because fighting Romero offers Adesanya neither a huge payday nor a very favorable matchup.

The mere fact Adesanya, 30, is defending his middleweight title against Romero at UFC 248 on Saturday tells us a lot about the champion. Adesanya is a star, on the cusp of becoming a superstar. He has been in the UFC for only two years and he’s already 7-0 — the fastest to accomplish that feat in UFC history. He is attempting to become only the fourth middleweight in UFC history to begin his career 8-0, joining Anderson Silva, Chris Weidman and — wouldn’t you know it — Romero.

Outside of Romero, Adesanya has two potentially massive bouts lined up: against an undefeated slugger in Paulo Costa and a very popular Brit in Darren Till. Adesanya has already gone from nothing to something seemingly overnight in his UFC career, but those two fights are the kind that could really spill over into the mainstream and turn him into a legitimate superstar. Those are the fights you expect him to want.

But rather than wait for either of them, Adesanya wanted this one for his own satisfaction. And believe me, it is for his satisfaction and his satisfaction alone, because even if Adesanya smashes Romero this weekend, his celebrity will not be much bigger than it is going in. He has so much more to lose than to gain.

Romero has arguably been one of the top 20 pound-for-pound fighters in the world over the past five years, but he’s not a household name, and this fight is not a big draw. No one was asking Adesanya to take this fight. He could have easily chilled in early 2020 and fought Costa later this year after he fully recovered from biceps surgery. Even UFC president Dana White was surprised Adesanya was calling out Romero.

“Israel Adesanya wants to fight Yoel Romero, how does that make sense? It doesn’t make sense,” White said at a news conference ahead of UFC 246. “You know what makes sense? Israel is such a badass, he wants to fight the guy nobody wants to fight.”

Why don’t people want to fight Romero? Former champion Robert Whittaker compared the feeling of punching Romero to hitting steel. Luke Rockhold said kicking him felt like kicking a cinder block. When I asked Adesanya if he felt any apprehension by this, he said, “I kick the very bottom of the heavy bag. Try that. See how that feels.”

To be clear, Romero is not favored to win this weekend. Adesanya is a solid favorite in Las Vegas at minus-280, according to Caesars Sportsbook. But the point is, Romero is more than capable of derailing all the momentum Adesanya is bringing into 2020. And a win against Romero doesn’t significantly add to that momentum.

So, why risk it?

None of this is to say Adesanya is better than any other UFC champion. If you’re a titleholder in the UFC, you have the hardest job in MMA. There is a massive difference between being a champion in the UFC and not — in pay, sponsorship opportunities, status. And the belt is a very hard thing to hold on to, because every great fighter in the world is starving to get it.

It’s natural to do everything in one’s power to preserve it.

But Adesanya demanding this fight as his first title defense does not suggest preservation. It speaks to the legacy he’s trying to create. And it makes me think twice about dismissing his talk about eventually moving up in weight to challenge light heavyweight king Jon Jones or even heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic. Those fights seem like unnecessary risks to his record. But, so is this one.

This week, during the first episode of the UFC’s web series “Embedded,” Adesanya described a scene from the movie “Troy,” in which a young boy tells Brad Pitt’s character, Achilles, the man he’s about to fight to the death is “the biggest man I’ve ever seen” and admits, “I wouldn’t want to fight him.”

Achilles responds, “That’s why no one will remember your name.”

Adesanya obviously wants us to remember his name when it’s all said and done. And I, for one, will remember this decision to fight Romero at UFC 248.

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