Brad Lewis: Israel Adesanya on verge of global superstardom

OPINION: A year ago, the claim that Israel Adesanya could become New Zealand's highest-profile global sporting star would have been ridiculed. 

Flash forward 12 months and Adesanya is one win away from being exactly that - if he isn't already.

'The Last Stylebender' makes the first official defence of his UFC middleweight title against former Olympic wrestling medallist Yoel Romero in Las Vegas on Sunday (NZ time).

Adesanya's rise to the summit of combat sports has coincided with the explosion of mixed martial arts as a mainstream sport in New Zealand.

Aside from those who still regard the sport as glorified prison violence, MMA is now at the forefront of most sporting minds in the country - both the public and the media.

Yes, it's violent and it's not for everyone, but you can't deny its popularity with a generation clamouring form entertainment beyond rugby, cricket, tennis or netball. 

And that's exactly what Adesanya provides - pure entertainment. The Nigerian-born Kiwi is confident, but humble... flashy, yet extremely technical... powerful, but precise. 

Adesanya has the tools to be the greatest combat sports athlete ever, in the mould of Muhammad Ali, Ronda Rousey, Mike Tyson or Conor McGregor. He's that good - both in the cage and out. 

The guy has the charisma of pro-wrestling great Hulk Hogan and the fighting IQ of Floyd Mayweather. He ticks all the boxes. 

NBA basketballer Steven Adams, rightly considered by most as New Zealand's highest-profile athlete, was giddy during a charity event in Auckland last year, when he reconnected with Adesanya. The pair grew up together in Rotorua.

That's the global appeal of the UFC and its middleweight champion. 

Keeping the winning momentum is key 

But the reality for the City Kickboxing standout is he must keep winning in a sport where you're only as good as your last fight. Rousey is a great example of that. 

The former Olympic bronze medalist was the talk of the sporting world, when she was dominating the UFC's women's bantamweight division.

Rousey scooped the 2014 ESPN Female Athlete of the Year award, moments after claiming the ESPY for Fighter of the Year, beating out Floyd Mayweather and Jon Jones. 

Rousey was a pop culture phenomenon - until she wasn't. The 33-year-old suffered a shock loss at the hands of Holly Holm in Melbourne and was then brutalised by Amanda Nunes in her final MMA fight in 2016. 

As quick as she had arrived, Rousey retired and put the UFC and all that spotlight behind her.

'Rowdy' has since gone on to carve out a successful career in sports entertainment with the WWE, but Adesanya is eyeing more than a cup-of-coffee run as the most dominant athlete in combat sports. 

Ronda Rousey has carved out a successful WWE career post-UFC run
Ronda Rousey has carved out a successful WWE career post-UFC run Photo credit: WWE
Conor McGregor is the biggest name in combat sports
Conor McGregor is the biggest name in combat sports Photo credit: Getty
Yoel Romero is Adesanya's next challenge
Yoel Romero is Adesanya's next challenge Photo credit: Getty

Middleweight domination before global domination 

He has a bucket list of Octagon achievements that begin this Sunday, when he faces his toughest-ever challenge in the form of Romero.

The 2000 Olympic wrestling runner-up is a legit threat to Adesanya's reign. The Cuban possesses fight-finishing power in both hands and feet, and has the best wrestling credentials of any opponent Adesanya has faced. 

But you would expect yet another flawless gameplan, devised by coach Eugene Bareman, who is fast earning the reputation as one of the best minds in the sport. 

Brad Lewis: Israel Adesanya on verge of global superstardom
Photo credit: Getty/Newshub.

Should Adesanya have his hand raised on Sunday, his mystique will grow, along his bank account, but more importantly, his stock will rise as he positions himself for a marquee fight against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in 2021.

But before that, he will try to conquer the middleweight division, with potential fights against contenders Paulo Costa, Darren Till and Jared Cannonier in the next 12 months.

Who knows - by then, we could be talking about Adesanya in the same breath with McGregor, LeBron James and Tiger Woods. 

Don't laugh - Adesanya has a history of laughing last.