UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya has long targeted 2021 as the year he would move up and try to become a double champion, but the plan was always to challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title.
But with Jones pursuing his first heavyweight bout, Adesanya will instead take on Jan Blachowicz on March 6 in UFC 259. After Jones vacated the title, Blachowicz stopped Dominick Reyes in the second round on Sept. 26 to win the belt. Blachowicz was a heavy underdog against Reyes, proving he shouldn’t be overlooked against Adesanya, who will likely be the betting favorite.
Is this the right move for Adesanya?
Adesanya will retain his middleweight title as he tries to become only the fifth fighter in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously. But would that be good for either division or would it slow down the momentum as the champ moves from one weight class to another?
Speaking of stalled momentum, Leon Edwards hasn’t fought since July 20, 2019, as several bouts have fallen through, mostly due to the pandemic. He was scheduled to fight the surging Khamzat Chimaev on Jan. 20, but Chimaev came down with COVID-19. And that’s after the fight was canceled when Edwards contracted the virus. Should the UFC move on from this bout or keep rescheduling it?
ESPN reporters Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi take a look at those topics, as well as Anthony Pettis joining the PFL, to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Jan Blachowicz proved what happens when he’s overlooked on Sept. 26 as the heavy underdog stopped Dominick Reyes in the second round. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC
Real or not: This is the right move for Israel Adesanya
Okamoto: Absolutely. Right now, the next challenger for Adesanya’s middleweight title is Robert Whittaker, who he took the belt from in 2019. Personally, I’m higher on that rematch than most. I want to see it, and I give Whittaker a real shot at reclaiming the belt. But if Adesanya prefers the bigger fight, which is the chance to add “champ-champ” to his already sterling résumé, no one can blame him.
I’ve always admired Adesanya’s tendency to seek a challenge; from fighting so frequently early in his UFC career to demanding a defense against Yoel Romero when no one was really asking for it, this guy fears no one. And I do view Blachowicz as a very, very difficult fight. In my opinion, a perfect 2021 for Adesanya involves a move up to fight Blachowicz; a move back to middleweight for the Whittaker rematch; and then, perhaps, a move back to light heavyweight to face Jon Jones.
Conor McGregor was the first to hold two belts simultaneously after he knocked out Eddie Alvarez on Nov. 12, 2016. But it didn’t take long for the UFC to strip him of one title for inactivity. Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Real or not: Double champs are bad for the sport because they slow down the divisions
Raimondi: In some cases, this might be true. It’s really a case-by-case basis. But I’m going to say not real. There have been four fighters in UFC history who held two titles concurrently: Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and Amanda Nunes. I can’t really say any division ended up worse off after someone was a double champion. In some cases, the divisions got better. Since Cejudo was flyweight champion, the 125-pound weight class has been red-hot. There more than likely wouldn’t even be a women’s featherweight division now if not for Nunes.
One of the reasons why having double champions hasn’t slowed divisions is because the UFC has been very good at pulling the trigger on asking those titleholders to relinquish their belt. It did that with McGregor in 2016 after he beat Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title. Jose Aldo was promoted to undisputed champion after he won the interim title by beating Frankie Edgar at UFC 200. Max Holloway ended up beating Aldo to become champion, and a new star was born. The same thing happened with Cejudo, who vacated the belt in advance of a bout between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez in January. Figueiredo missed weight but stopped Benavidez, only to stop him again in a rematch in July. Figueiredo has been a revelation at flyweight, the best finisher in division history.
In other words, those divisions don’t have to slow down if the UFC doesn’t let them. If Adesanya beats Blachowicz to win the light heavyweight title, he’ll have options on what to do next. And so will the UFC. If it makes sense, the promotion will do what it has to in order to give way for a new potential standout in a title fight.
Should the UFC wait for Khamzat Chimaev, right, to get well and rebook his bout against Leon Edwards, or has Edwards waited long enough and needs to fight sooner? Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Okamoto: One million percent they should rebook the fight, and it looks like that will happen after news broke late Wednesday that the Michael Chiesa vs. Neil Magny bout was being elevated to the Jan. 20 main event.
This is a compelling — and unusual — matchup between a highly ranked contender — Edwards is ESPN’s No. 4-ranked welterweight — and someone who has just three UFC fights. But those three wins, all stoppages, put Chimaev on a fast track, and it’s possible the winner of this bout would get a title shot next.
I would have been fine seeing the UFC find Edwards an opponent because he needs a fight. We haven’t seen him in more than a year. But this fight is so good, I understand the UFC wanting to preserve it.
Anthony Pettis will get a shot at becoming a champion in two different promotions as he joins the PFL. Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Real or not: Anthony Pettis will become a PFL champion
Raimondi: Real. On paper, Pettis has to be considered the favorite to win the PFL lightweight season and the $1 million prize at the end. PFL has some solid names signed to its 155-pound division for 2021, guys such as Marcin Held, Clay Collard and, of course, defending two-time champion Natan Schulte. While a fight with Schulte would be very competitive — Schulte is very underrated — Pettis has a skill and experience level above all the others. If you want to say Pettis is a bit past his prime and not the same fighter he was as UFC lightweight champion in 2013 and 2014, fine. You can argue that. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a championship-level fighter.
Pettis could even be in for a Jorge Masvidal-like resurrection in the back half of his career. “Showtime” has cleaned up his partying and become more of a family man, and he has found a new love for Brazilian jiu-jitsu with highly touted coach Robert Drysdale in Las Vegas. Pettis looked great in a win over Alex Morono on Dec. 19, and Pettis also owns a win over Donald Cerrone earlier this year. I mean, this is the same guy who knocked out a much bigger Stephen Thompson in 2019. Pettis is capable of beating almost anyone in the world at lightweight. When he is at his best, the Milwaukee native is still elite. It will be very interesting to see him outside a UFC/WEC cage for the first time in 13 years. It would not be a shock to see Pettis carrying around one of those huge $1 million checks about one year from now.