Mixed Martial Arts: Kiwi UFC champ Israel Adesanya's camp unveils title defence plans for 2021

Kiwi UFC megastar Israel Adesanya has no plans to abdicate his middleweight throne, despite his historic dual-division title bid next month.

On March 7, the undefeated champion will attempt to become the fifth fighter to hold simultaneous titles over two weight classes, when he squares off with Pole Jan Blachowicz for the light-heavyweight strap at UFC 259.

Of those fighters to become 'champ champs', only Amanda Nunes has returned to defend their original belt, with the common trend to remain at the new weight class and vacate the previous title.

But according to City Kickboxing head trainer and longtime mentor Eugene Bareman, Adesanya's next step after taking on - and beating - the Pole would be an immediate return to middleweight to defend his belt for the third time and enter an elite club.

"After this fight, he will quickly turn around and fight at middleweight," Bareman tells Newshub.

"At the moment, our  focus is Jan, but I know after that, he's going to go back and defend the middleweight crown."

Now the question becomes - against whom? 

Darren Till in action against Robert Whittaker last year.
Darren Till in action against Robert Whittaker last year. Photo credit: Getty

As far as rankings are concerned, no clear-cut candidate exists to challenge for the Kiwi-Nigerian's middleweight crown.

The reigning Halberg Sportsman of the Year hasn't completely cleaned out the division just yet, but he's certainly given it a decent spring clean, with wins against six of the current top 15 fighters since his promotional debut almost precisely three years ago.

He already has comprehensive wins over both No.1 and No.2 contenders Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa, who are tentatively scheduled to square off at Las Vegas next month.

Third-ranked Jared Cannonier was tagged by Adesanya as next cab off the rank, until Whittaker dealt with the American handily on ‘Fight Island’ in October to pour water on his title prospects.

As it transpires, the fresh challenge that Adesanya and his team are most interested in next is fourth-ranked Englishman Darren Till.

Adesanya and jovial Liverpudlian Till have been open about their mutual admiration of each other's fighting styles and their shared belief that they're destined to meet in the Octagon.

That time may come sooner rather than later, if Adesanya gets his way and Bareman believes the two would make ideal dance partners.

"Till seems to have a slightly higher level of stand-up than a lot of the other middleweights," he says. "I think that's appealing. 

“We've always fought guys who emphasise the wrestling or jiu-jitsu part of their game, but I don't think Darren will do that.

"I think it'll be a good clash of two fighters who both have really good stand-up and I think people are excited to see that."

Till employs a fleet-footed, karate style of striking that differentiates him from most of his contemporaries and, pitted against Adesanya's movement, makes for an intriguing showdown.

After coming up short in a welterweight title shot against Tyron Woodley in late 2018, Till chose to move up to middleweight, where he's since earned a closely contested win over Kelvin Gastelum, before dropping a marginal unanimous decision to Whittaker that appeared to have temporarily derailed his title ambitions.

But in a sport where recency rules, an impressive performance against surging Italian Marvin Vettori in April could convince UFC matchmakers that he's a worthy adversary for Adesanya.

Bareman and Adesanya after the win over Costa.
Bareman and Adesanya after the win over Costa. Photo credit: Getty

American Kevin Holland also looms as a potential challenger. The 28-year-old won all five of his bouts - often in spectacular fashion - in 2020 to put himself in the conversation for Fighter of the Year.

But Bareman thinks they need to see more against higher calibre opponents from the 10th-ranked Holland.

"I like his prospects, but that's exactly what he is - he's just a prospect," he notes. "You've got to beat people and bide your time and earn the right to fight the champion. 

“You can't talk yourself into that position. That's just not how the game works."

Bareman describes the opportunity to fight for a second title as an unexpected "curveball" that he believed would amount to little more than a brief flirtation.

But he admits Adesanya doesn't share that outlook. 'The Last Stylebender' already has sights set on other potential tests at 205lb (93kg) and Brazilian Thiago Santos lies at the top of that list.

"We used to see him walking around the hotel and stuff, and Izzy would get excited and say, 'Man, I'd really love to fight that guy'," says Bareman.

"I think he just thinks he's a really good challenge - an aggressive and strong fighter."

After pushing incumbent champion Jon Jones to the limit in a razor-close decision loss in July 2019, Santos fell to Glover Texeira in November. 

A powerful striker with inordinate athleticism for his size, Santos also features on the undercard of UFC 259 against Aleksander Rakic, where he'll have a golden opportunity to state his case as the most worthy challenger for whoever walks away with the belt in the evening's headline act.

"Because I know [Adesanya] so well, I can tell the kind of matches that excite him a little bit… usually where it's a really big physical guy that he thinks he can overcome with his skill.

"He loves that contrast - ‘my skill vs your brawn’."

Adesanya won't add any extra bulk to his frame to step up in weight class, which makes cutting back down to the 185lb (84kg) middleweight limit much more feasible.

Alternating between the two divisions could be a possibility, but just how much time Adesanya commits to light-heavyweight has yet to be seen and even Bareman - who normally  "meticulously plans" out their calendar - confesses he's still unsure how they might manage the two belts.

Of course, Adesanya needs to first have his hand raised against Blachowicz, before any such plans can be enacted.

Thiago Santos looms as a favoured light heavyweight opponent for Adesanya.
Thiago Santos looms as a favoured light heavyweight opponent for Adesanya. Photo credit: Getty

The hard-hitting Polish veteran won the belt vacated by Jones with an upset second-round KO of Dominick Reyes in September to register his fourth-straight win.

While they have the utmost respect for Blachowicz's power, Bareman is confident Adesanya's fight IQ - particularly in the stand-up aspect - will see his more complex striking arsenal prevail.

"It's more to do with the way [Adesanya] processes the fight on the go," Bareman says of his fighter's advantage. "The adjustments and the small subtle things that he does in relation to what Jan is doing.

"He just computes things at a faster rate than Jan can dish them out."

Bareman has been encouraged by what he's seen from Adesanya through the early stages of preparations, noting the 31-year-old is showing that he's learned valuable lessons from the recent past about what constitutes a quality camp.

He singles out two contrasting examples - the camp for his much-maligned bout against Yoel Romero, where he edged a unanimous decision win, then the build-up to his spectacular dismantling of Paulo Costa in his most recent fight in September.

"The truth is the worst fight we've ever had also correlates to the worst camp we've ever had - the Yoel Romero camp," Bareman reveals. "In terms of his motivation, his attitude, his professionalism at training, his attention to detail, all of those things.

"But we turned it completely around for Costa and now I think it's flicked the switch in him, where he doesn't want to lapse back into that kind of mentality again.

"What I'm seeing from this fight camp is what I saw through the Costa camp.

"We needed that correlation to happen - evidential proof that ‘OK, I need to be 100 percent focused on my camp for me to be successful'.

And on the horizon remains the 'super fight' against undefeated Jones, who - despite his well-documented troubles - is the fighter considered by many as the most talented to ever step foot into a cage.

'Bones' is adamant that heavyweight will be his new home and UFC boss Dana White has cautioned fans not to hold their breaths, given the two fighters' differing trajectories.

But try telling Bareman and Adesanya that.

"Ultimately, it looks like that is where all the roads are heading."