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Michael Zarrilli/Associated Press
UFC 253: Adesanya vs. Costa was one of the most hotly anticipated fight cards of the year, and it delivered the goods on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.
But now that the event is over, the MMA world has begun to ponder the meaning of everything it just witnessed. Was UFC 253 middleweight champion Israel Adesanya’s star moment? Is he the new Anderson Silva? Is he the best fighter on the entire planet? And what should happen next for the UFC’s new light heavyweight champion, Jan Blachowicz?
To help sort through all those things, Bleacher Report’s MMA team assembled on a Sunday to provide our input on each of the most important questions that need to be answered following UFC 253.
Click through to read our takes, and be sure to leave your own in the comments, too.
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Andy Brownbill/Associated Press
Adesanya’s second-round knockout of previously unbeaten Brazilian hulk Paulo Costa was mesmerizing. He’s truly a striking savant, one who appears to be smackdab in the middle of an epic run toward greatness. The thing that amazes me most about Adesanya, at least at UFC 253, is how much better he appeared to be than Costa, a dominant force who had clearly earned his shot at the title. Adesanya didn’t just beat Costa. He destroyed and humiliated him. If that isn’t a superstar moment, I don’t know what is.
I think Adesanya has been a superstar since his title-winning defeat of Robert Whittaker—perhaps even since he beat Kelvin Gastelum to win the interim title. He’s no Conor McGregor, but when I talk about MMA with people who don’t follow the sport closely, he’s one of the guys who tend to come up. Considering this is still something of a fringe sport, that’s a pretty good indicator that a fighter is catching on. The UFC 4 cover spot, the sponsorship deal with Puma, and the 3 million-plus Instagram followers are also good indicators that he’s already a big deal.
At this point, the real question is how much bigger he can get.
The truth is, removed from the excitement of the moment, Costa was a relatively modest opponent. Sure, he had a shiny undefeated record. He was, however, unknown outside the MMA bubble. He had never headlined a UFC event, let alone a pay-per-view and to many fans was most definitely the “other guy” in the fight. A massively muscled B-side to be certain—but a B-side nonetheless.
I think we’re long past Adesanya’s ascension to superstar status anyway. That occurred when he styled on the great Anderson Silva or knocked Bobby Knuckles off the throne and straight into the agate type of the history books.
This was, rather, an affirmation of his greatness.
Adesanya was already a star. But, to quote the great Biggie Smalls, if somehow you didn’t know—now you know.
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Andy Brownbill/Associated Press
Whoa, there. That’s a huge ask. Adesanya looks great and could be on his way to matching or even eclipsing Silva’s excellent run someday soon, but I’m not sure the comparison is valid just yet. The reason is simple.
Just about every time someone starts to look dominant in their division, there’s a rush to compare that fighter to a fighter from a previous generation. It’s fun fodder for message boards and such, but Adesanya has a long way to go before he can reasonably be compared by historians to Silva beyond the obvious stylistic similarities.
If you press me on the matter, I would guess Adesanya won’t reach Silva’s level of greatness, but that is mostly because Silva is considered by most to be one of the very best MMA fighters ever. That’s a super rare thing to achieve.
Adesanya seemingly has all the tools to emulate Silva’s success in the middleweight division, and at 31 years old, he also seems to have plenty of time to make it happen.
That being said, it seems like people have forgotten just how dominant Silva was in his heyday. The man defended the middleweight title a ridiculous ten times, and most of those defenses came against the best opposition available at the time. Adesanya, on the other hand, just defended the belt for a second time. It’s certainly possible that he’ll rival or even surpass Silva’s success, but the reality is that it’s going to take a bunch more wins and a lot of time to do so.
As good as he’s looked, it’s too early to be comparing him to Silva.
It’s easy to talk about equaling Silva’s historic levels of greatness. After all, just eight years removed from the final victory of his record-setting 16-fight winning streak, his excellence already exists in the cloudy haze of history.
Worse, he’s lost six of his last eight fights, further obscuring his accomplishments in the ultimate “what have you done for me lately” sport.
There’s a reason Silva’s name was spoken only in a whisper for years. His dominance was so thorough he all but sleepwalked through his division’s best fighters, eventually testing himself against elite light heavyweights just to get his pulse above normal. Even his one close fight, a nail-biter against Chael Sonnen, culminated in unforgettable final-round heroics.
Adesanya, of course, has all the tools to equal Silva’s accomplishments. At 31, he already has a head start—Silva was just winning the championship when he was Adesanya’s age. But there is a lot of ground to cover between here and there and plenty of ways for things to go horribly wrong. The grind of competing against only the best in the world has worn many great men down to nothing. How Adesanya will stand up to the challenge is an open question that only time can answer.
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Mahmoud Khaled/Associated Press
There’s no better fighter in the UFC than Jones until Jones loses a fight. Some people like to point to Jones being in a competitive fight against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 earlier this year as evidence that he’s no longer the best fighter in the world, but Jones having to work hard for a win for basically just the second time in a decade shouldn’t knock him down on any reasonable person’s list. To me, Jones is easily the best fighter in the UFC right now, and I would put Khabib right behind him and Izzy behind both.
In my book, it’s still Jones. Yes, he’s had some close victories of late, but he’s still winning at the highest level of the sport, just as he’s been doing since long before Nurmagomedov and Adesanya even made their UFC debuts.
Until he starts losing or he retires, his status as the best fighter on earth is untouchable. He just has too much of a head start on everyone else—Nurmagomedov and Adesanya included.
Because of the diversity of techniques and strategies contained underneath the umbrella of mixed martial arts, proclaiming one fighter better than another is a questionable bit of business. Who is better on a given night depends on a dizzying array of factors. Styles, as someone once so elegantly said, make fights.
A great fighter might win easily against seemingly excellent competition when his strengths match up well with his foe’s weaknesses. Likewise, a middling fighter standing across the cage might give our hero fits by perfectly filling the holes in his game.
When you add in the gulf between weight classes, this theoretical game of “who-is-better-than-whom” becomes even trickier. Absent common foes or, better yet, actual competition, there is little to rest an opinion on that doesn’t boil down to personal preference.
Adesanya, Khabib and Jones are all among the best fighters to ever step inside the UFC’s Octagon. None have tasted the bitter sting of defeat at an opponent’s hand. All have copious virtues and few faults. That’s a given considering their respective records and long climb to the top of the heap.
If Adesanya has an advantage, it’s in his apparent love of the game. Nurmagomedov often seems indifferent to the sport, almost embarrassed to be in a cage pounding another man into pulp. Jones, at this point in his career, appears actively bored and has for years.
Only Israel, at the precipice of his greatness, seems to truly love what he does. It’s this minor advantage that makes him the best in the world—and will ensure he stays there for years to come.
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Michael Wyke/Associated Press
No way. Jones has already won 15 title fights in the light heavyweight division, and that’s a UFC record. Jones moved up to heavyweight, so it’s time to hunt for the biggest possible fights there. Jones is 33, so time is of the essence if he hopes to capture gold at heavyweight or compete in potential superfights.
Meanwhile, Blachowicz has plenty of work cut out for him as the new light heavyweight champion. First up for the Polish powerhouse should be the winner of the upcoming battle between Thiago Santos and Glover Texiera. Santos, by the way, is the last person to beat Blachowicz inside the Octagon.
That’s a hard no from me. Jones vacated the light heavyweight throne because he’s leaving the division and hunting for new challenges at heavyweight. If he returns to the light heavyweight division to challenge Blachowicz right away, then his vacating the title was entirely pointless.
Even without fighting Blachowicz, Jones has done all there is to do at light heavyweight. It’s time for him to move on from the division and attempt to cement his legacy by making some noise in a second division. Blachowicz, meanwhile, can turn his attention to one of the many light heavyweight contenders currently awaiting shots at the title—Santos, Teixeira, Jiri Prochazka, etc.
Just a few years ago it would have seemed ridiculous to suggest that Blachowicz could present Jones a legitimate challenge in the light heavyweight division. The Polish warrior had lost four of five fights and was hanging desperately onto his UFC contract.
A title fight was the furthest thing from his mind as he focused on simply surviving.
But something happened one October night in 2017 in his native Poland. Blachowicz beat Devin Clark by submission and took home a performance of the night bonus to boot. Seven more impressive wins followed, with only a single setback on the other side of the ledger.
His win against Dominick Reyes on Saturday piqued Jones’ curiosity in a way few fighters have managed since he dispatched Daniel Cormier three years ago. In February, Jones muddled his way through five competitive rounds with Reyes. Blachowicz made the same opponent look like easy work.
Patience, however, is a virtue. A match with Jones would be a big fight if it happened tomorrow. It would be a megafight if it happened next year with both men attaching a couple of new scalps to their belts in the meantime.
Right now a Jones-Blachowicz fight is a solid double. But why not wait for the right pitch and swing for the fences instead?