Israel Adesanya has had his way with the UFC middleweight division for four years running. Eleven fights, 11 wins, the last 10 coming either in championship fights or against currently-ranked 185ers.
Well, there’s one that doesn’t fit into either box: middleweight GOAT Anderson Silva. That looks nice on the résumé, too.
So when the current champion at 185 pounds says Jared Cannonier, his upcoming opponent in the UFC 276 pay-per-view main event on Saturday (10 p.m. ET) from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, isn’t the greatest challenge of his career — it comes across less as trash talk and more as analysis.
“I’ve had bigger challenges, I feel, in life and also in fighting,” Adesanya (22-1, 15 finishes) told The Post in a recent phone interview. “I’m not overlooking him, but at the same time, I’m not overestimating him. I just know what he brings to the table, and I really don’t believe he has anything that can match with me.”
In turning away so many middleweights currently among the top 15 contenders in the UFC’s promotional rankings — six, including two of the top three twice each — legitimate challengers to his throne are harder to spot. There’s no backlog of threats waiting for their shot, as is the case in some of the lighter weight classes. Outside of Cannonier and Sean Strickland, who also competes on the main card Saturday against former Adesanya kickboxing rival Alex Pereira, the champion has beaten four of the top six.
At least Cannonier’s middleweight run has the look of a deserving challenger and not simply a default option for the 32-year-old Adesanya, who represents both his birth place (Nigeria) and his home since adolescence (New Zealand). The Dallas native, originally a heavyweight and light heavyweight before settling at 185, is 5-1 at this weight with four finishes. The latest manifested as an emphatic knockout via elbows of Derek Brunson on the same February evening when Adesanya last defended his title against Robert Whittaker — the second time “The Last Stylebender” topped the former champ.
Adesanya had tabbed Cannonier (15-5, 12 finishes) as his preferred next challenger if he was to beat Brunson, and he does respect the path his upcoming opponent walked to get to this point, agreeing he is a deserving challenger. But Cannonier also turned 38 since the Brunson KO. In all likelihood, he won’t work his way back to a second chance at Adesanya if he comes up short. And the champion knows it.
“His back is against the wall,” Adesanya said. “That’s why I have to respect him. This is his only shot at greatness, so I have to respect that.
“And I know,” the champion continues with a slight chuckle, ”this is what I do. I’ve taken that away from a lot of men, and he’s going to be next.”
If Adesanya has an idea of when he’s aiming to get Cannonier out of there, he isn’t saying. A gifted technical striker, the champion arrived in the UFC with (T)KOs in each of his first 11 fights. But he’s secured just two finishes in eight fights since stopping Brunson inside of a round at Madison Square Garden in November 2018.
Rather than make a bold prediction of how the fight will end, Adesanya stuck with a simpler suggestion for how Saturday’s headliner would look.
“I’m just gonna f–k him up,” Adesanya said. “That’s my main goal: to f–k him up badly in front of everyone.”