Just five months after he had lost his title in shocking fifth-round fashion to longtime nemesis Alex Pereira, former pound-for-pound ace Israel Adesanya regained championship footing with a second-round knockout defeat of Pereira atop the UFC 287 pay-per-view show in Miami.
It was the Nigerian-born and New Zealand-based operator’s first win over the Brazilian strongman in four tries after losing twice to him as a professional kickboxer and again by KO when Pereira seized control of the 185-pound ranks at UFC 281 last November.
It also puts Adesanya back into the rarified air he’d occupied for better than three years between winning the belt from Robert Whittaker in 2019 and defending five times prior to the upset defeat. He’d lost one other fight during that stretch via an unsuccessful challenge of then-light heavyweight champ Jan Błachowicz at UFC 259 in 2021.
Naturally, “The Last Stylebender’s” reascension got the B/R combat team to thinking about his next move now that he’s a two-time champion. They took a look at the competitive landscape at middleweight and beyond and compiled a list of four possible options.
Dricus Du Plessis
Sixth-ranked middleweight contender Dricus du Plessis is another graduate of the kickboxing ranks who’s made the crossover to mixed martial arts.
He’s 19-2 since turning pro a decade ago and has won five straight, all but one inside the distance, since debuting for the UFC on a Fight Night show in 2020.
That’s all well and good, but the South African ratcheted things up a bit with a verbal grenade lobbed toward Adesanya and Usman, both born in Nigeria, that suggested his African street cred is more legitimate than theirs.
Adesanya has lived in New Zealand and Usman in the U.S. since they were kids.
“Did those belts ever go to Africa? As far as I know, they came to America and New Zealand. I’m going to take a belt to Africa,” Du Plessis said prior to his appearance at UFC 285.
“I’m the African fighter in the UFC. Myself and (teammate) Cameron (Saaiman), we breathe African air. We wake up in Africa every day. We train in Africa, we’re African born, we’re African raised. We still reside in Africa, we train out of Africa.”
White has long suggested the company will produce a show in Africa, and it would be hard to imagine a more authentic main event grudge match.
“That’s an African champion,” Du Plessis said, “and that’s who I’ll be.”
It’s not an African grudge, but Khamzat Chimaev has still got plenty of heat to spare.
The Chechen-born and Swedish-based chatterbox has been a polarizing figure at welterweight and middleweight since his sensational Octagon arrival in the pandemic escape hatch known as “Fight Island” in the United Arab Emirates.
He finished two fights inside of 10 minutes across less than two weeks in the summer of 2020, returned two months later to dust off respected veteran Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds and hasn’t stopped promising mayhem toward any would-be foe since.
He upped his pro record with wins over Saturday pay-per-view participants Gilbert Burns and Kevin Holland last year and has had Adesanya’s name in his mouth in the past, suggesting to former UFC champ Henry Cejudo that he’d “take off his head” if they were to fight.
Adesanya took the verbal bait and said Chimaev was an intriguing possibility thanks in part to his unique ability to draw attention.
“He’ll bring in a lot of eyes,” he told True Geordie. “That’s how it all starts, those are the ones who are crazy enough to make it happen.”
Adesanya has shown a willingness to travel. He interrupted his initial middleweight reign with a leap to 205 pounds to take on then-champ Błachowicz with an eye toward earning rare dual-title status.
The effort failed via unanimous decision against the bigger and more ground-adept champion, but Adesanya has said repeatedly since that he’d re-entertain the idea.
The loss to Pereira stopped his momentum, but now that Adesanya has regained the belt—and considering he’s already a combined 6-0 against the fighters ranked 2-5 (he entered Saturday at No. 1) at 185 pounds—another outside-the-box challenge may be in order.
Enter Jamahal Hill.
The lanky American became the latest champion in a tumultuous few years at 205, punishing veteran Glover Teixeria over five brutal rounds at UFC 283 in January to win a belt vacated when Jiří Procházka (who’d beaten Błachowicz) stepped aside because of an injury.
He spent some of the run-up to Saturday’s fight insisting to Inside Fighting that he’d dominate Pereira if the Brazilian moved up. That fight may still happen if Pereira’s work at middleweight is done, but Adesanya might be first to put in a claim.
“I just like testing myself,” he said at UFC 281 media day.
“Again, there’s heavyweight. I’m not saying I can beat every 205 guy or every f–king heavyweight, but they’ll have problems with me.”
OK, unless White totally changes the game, Bo Nickal won’t be next.
But we get the feeling it won’t be long.
The highly decorated NCAA wrestler blew through two appearances on the Contender Series show in less than two combined minutes, then he made his official Octagon debut with a bonus-worthy squash at UFC 285 that lasted exactly two minutes and 54 seconds.
He’ll return to the spotlight at UFC 290 during International Fight Week this summer, and it would surprise precisely no one if the uber-confident Penn State product starts turning up the volume on the claims he’s already made that he’s ready for anyone in the elite class.
“I would be absolutely confident in that fight,” Nickal said on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani. “That’s a fight to me, I’ll say again styles make fights, and I would be extremely happy with that matchup right now.”
Yes. That’s a guy with four pro fights and one UFC win suggesting he’s a title threat.
But given the retread vibe emitting from the top contenders in the division, who wouldn’t want to see it just as a novel alternative to Adesanya-Vettori III?
“I’d like to see more,” Adesanya said on Morning Kombat.
“He’s only just got here, and I know he’s a decorated wrestler but this is not wrestling, this is MMA. There’s ways to exploit wrestlers in MMA.”