UFC 248: Israel Adesanya proves his gumption in taking on toughest challenge available to him

Should the remaining accomplishments in middleweight champion Israel Adesanya's UFC career mirror his incredible two-year advent into the Octagon, the narrative entering Saturday's UFC 248 card in Las Vegas might one day undergo retellings soaked in mythology. 

This might not be on the level of a fearless David slaying Goliath with a single stone or George Washington coming clean after chopping down a cherry tree. Just the same, it's hard to avoid the level of romanticism attached to Adesanya's brash choice of matchmaking and the deeper reasoning within why he's so willingly chasing the 185-pound division's boogeyman. 

Less than six months removed from his dethroning of middleweight champion Robert Whittaker thanks to the brutal precision of a single punch, Adesanya (18-0) met the news of unbeaten top contender Paulo Costa's fight-delaying injury by telling UFC brass he'd prefer the toughest challenge available to him -- a 42-year-old freak of nature named Yoel Romero, who is known just as much for his explosive finishes as he is for missing weight ahead of his biggest fights. 

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By so forcefully challenging the unwritten rule that "no one goes out of their way to fight Romero" while bucking fears that one is never the same after doing so -- despite Whittaker's recent fall following 10 brutal rounds against Romero serving as potentially damaging evidence -- Adesanya is attempting the kind of takeover-by-force of the sport only previously seen by the legends (think Anderson Silva and Jon Jones) he is so often compared to.

"[Romero] is the guy that no one wants to fight. He's the 'oogey-boogeyman.' Even Darren Till said he would fight anyone except Yoel. Why?" Adesanya said during last week's press conference in his adopted home of Auckland, New Zealand. "I've seen him get rocked, I've seen him stopped. I've seen him get bloody, I've seen him cry. I'll make him cry. He's human like anyone else and everyone likes to make this myth about how he's like kicking steel and when you hit him and he doesn't fall. I'll touch him enough times and eventually he'll crumble like the Twin Towers."

If Adesanya's off-color postscript -- which was hedged seconds later with a devious retort of "too soon?" -- makes the native of Nigeria seem like a villain, it's far from easy to distinctively label him as such. Like the many complicated personas found within previous combat sports stars who went on to earn crossover appeal, "The Last Stylebender" resides within a gray area of brashness and humility soaked within a cologne of unwavering confidence. 

Just as quick as he can be to label Costa a "juice monkey" or Romero a "cheater" whom he's prepared to "dance on the grave" of after finishing him, the former kickboxing phenom can switch gears to give praise and remind just how magical and unlikely his rapid journey from UFC newcomer to burgeoning breakout star has been. 

"I'm just a fan to be honest. This is surreal to me," Adesanya said. "You might see me and think, 'Oh, look at him. He's the UFC champion.' But I'm just a fan. Two years ago I was sitting right here [during teammate Dan Hooker's knockout of Ross Pearson at UFC Auckland in 2017] screaming my face off. I'm just a fan."

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Adesanya cheers on his teammate, Alexander Volkanovski, during his title fight in December. Getty Images

Despite the somewhat infamous realities of Romero's recent run, having gone 1-3 since 2017 and twice missing weight in title bouts, the fact that the former Cuban Olympic silver medalist came upon the losing end of so many disputed decisions mixes with his unavoidable danger to make this a compelling and important fight. 

Not only is Adesanya delivering upon the old adage of attacking the toughest guy in jail on your first night considering this is his maiden voyage as champion, he'll be taking on a fighter whose decorated background in amateur wrestling presents such a challenge to his one perceived weakness. From Adesanya's perspective, it's a common tale that has never been proven true. 

"I don't really prepare for someone specifically until the fight is announced but we've been getting ready for a guy like this since my UFC debut," Adesanya said. "Everybody thought, 'Oh, he's just a kickboxer from New Zealand. Take him down, you'll be alright.' Yeah, eight have tried and eight have failed in the UFC so he's not going to be different."

Adesanya said he prefers scoring a decision win against Romero, hoping for the kind of "clean sweep" he did against Brad Tavares in his first headlining role in 2018. Asked what he would do if a finish presented itself similar to the Whittaker fight, Adesanya dipped back into his swagger to respond. 

"If he dies, he dies. It's not really my problem," he said. "After I knock him out, I'm going to do a backflip into the splits and say, 'You got served bitch.'"

The truth is that a victory of any kind, given the circumstances and the threat of Romero, would make a commanding statement as to whether Adesanya might be able to live up to the promise he has shown as a flashy fighter who appears poised to take over the sport. 

Although he finished just short in most fighter-of-the-year ballots to the amazing 2019 authored by Jorge Masvidal, it's hard to argue with how important the last 12 months were in preparing Adesanya for this level of breakout. He outpointed his hero Silva in his first pay-per-view main event, co-authored the fight of the year by edging Kelvin Gastelum and then toppled Whittaker in brutal fashion to take over the middleweight throne.

Should he get past Romero this weekend inside T-Mobile Arena, Adesanya's future aspirations only become bolder. A public feud on social media with light heavyweight champion and G.O.A.T. Jon Jones (whom Adesanya believes is "washed up") could materialize into a 2020 showdown that could make him the face of the sport should he win. His coaching staff at City Kickboxing in Auckland have also talked publicly about the idea that he might challenge for the UFC's heavyweight title sooner than later -- a claim seemingly bordering on insanity until Adesanya jumped in to reference his success in both professional boxing and kickboxing as a heavyweight. 

None of that matters, of course, if he doesn't get past Romero first. 

"[Romero] is a veteran, he's an explosive guy. He likes to lull people into a false sense of relaxation and then he explodes on them," Adesanya said. "When I say a veteran, he has certain [illegal] moves he likes to do like stool gate and grabbing the fence. All facts, check the resume. I just have to keep the same energy. 

"Every fight I had in the UFC has been the biggest fight I have ever had. This is no different, this is the biggest fight of my career by far." 

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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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