Israel Adesanya Extends U.F.C. Reign, and the Money Follows
After successfully defending his Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title in Houston on Saturday night, Israel Adesanya arrived at the post-fight news conference ready to analyze how he had outclassed Robert Whittaker for a second time.
Adesanya had also won their first bout, but by second-round knockout. This time, in the main event of U.F.C. 271, he won by judges’ decision after five hard-fought but tactical rounds. It was his fourth successful defense of the title he won from Whittaker in October 2019 in Melbourne, Australia.
“We’re just two guys trying to be the best in the world,” said Adesanya, a former kickboxer who is 22-1 as a mixed martial artist and undefeated as a middleweight. “But tonight I’m the best in the world.”
Adesanya, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in New Zealand, was also prepared to discuss money.
The fight card generated $4.3 million in ticket sales, according to Dana White, the U.F.C.’s president. As the headliner, Adesanya’s guarantee, according to published reports, was $1 million.
Adesanya said he signed a new contract with U.F.C. last Monday. His management team made the news public on Wednesday. While the U.F.C. heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou, has lobbied in public for a richer contract, Adesanya succeeded in keeping his deal private.
Adesanya, who calls himself a “company man,” nevertheless expressed solidarity with Ngannou’s campaign to wring bigger payouts from the U.F.C., which is owned by the Endeavor Group, an entertainment conglomerate with a market capitalization of more than $8 billion.
“Every case is different,” Adesanya, 32, said. “In Francis’ case, he needed to bring that forward because it was atrocious, and I respect him for that.”
The main event on Saturday unfolded mostly on Adesanya’s terms, with the champion using his long limbs, quickness and cunning to chip away at Whittaker and earn a decision win.
Each fighter’s game plan was apparent from the first moments of the bout. Whittaker, an Australian who was born in New Zealand, wanted to fight at close range. Adesanya wanted to use his fast hands and high-impact kicks to keep Whittaker at a distance.
Whittaker successfully took Adesanya to the mat four times, according to the U.F.C.’s statistics. Adesanya landed 98 strikes, compared with 74 for Whittaker, who also sported a bright red welt on the inside of his left thigh, where Adesanya had kicked him repeatedly.
Two judges scored the fight, 48-47, and the third had it, 49-46, all for Adesanya.
“I wasn’t really looking past Robert; I took him really seriously,” said Adesanya, who has gone to decision in four of his last five bouts. “All the way to the last bell, I knew he was dangerous.”
Whittaker, 31, accepted the decision, even if he didn’t agree with it.
“I thought I beat him to every punch,” Whittaker said. “I got takedowns. I thought I did enough.”
Immediately afterward, Whittaker began campaigning for a third bout with Adesanya, calling it “inevitable.”
But Adesanya and White have targeted Jared Cannonier, a Dallas native and middleweight contender who scored a knockout of Derek Brunson on the U.F.C. 271 undercard.
“The division is filled with killers,” Adesanya said. “I’m looking forward to fresh meat.”
Late in the fight on Saturday night, a few fans booed, apparently looking for more violence. Adesanya’s bout with Whittaker did seem pedestrian next to the other main bout, between Tai Tuivasa of Australia and Derrick Lewis of the United States, power-punching heavyweights who traded takedowns and heavy blows for two hectic rounds. The bout ended when Tuivasa landed an elbow to Lewis’s face, knocking him unconscious and sending him to the mat face first.
But even when Adesanya doesn’t deliver action, he often serves up entertainment. He has donned costumes and performed choreographed dance routines on the walk to the Octagon. Those clips land on sports highlight shows and the personal screens of Adesanya’s 5.9 million Instagram followers.
As a New Zealander who spent the first 10 years of his life in Nigeria, Adesanya is also well positioned to help the U.F.C. gain and retain traction in two big overseas markets. At the news conference, White reiterated his hope to stage an event in Africa at some point.
All of it adds up to make Adesanya an ideal champion for the social media era.
“Attention is the currency,” he said after the fight. “You’re not going to pay money to watch my pay-per-view, but you’re going to pay attention. You’re going to be on my social media, running up numbers, and that helps.”
For his part, White suggested that Adesanya’s payouts would continue to grow.
“He’s the champ — he continues to win, and that’s how it works,” White said. “The more you win, the more you do, the more you make.”