The ascension is complete; Israel Adesanya is the UFC’s undisputed middleweight champion.
Adesanya dethroned Robert Whittaker in stunning fashion, knocking him out in the second round to unify the division in front of a UFC-record crowd of 57,127 at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium.
The Nigerian-born Kiwi landed a right hand which floored Whittaker in the final seconds of the first round and officially ended the contest with a left hook 3:33 in the second.
“He threw everything we expected,” Adesanya said. “We had everything planned for plan A to Z. It’s unreal, they said I have no knockout power.
“He caught me with a nice one but I returned. I eat it but give it back two times. I hate to get hit. It’s stupid to get hit. I’m tough and smart. At the end of the day, my team and I were smart.”
Having won the interim crown in April, Nigeria-born Adesanya is now the first NZ fighter to win an undisputed UFC crown, capping a phenomenal rise that has seen him rise to the top of the division in seven bouts and less than two years since joining the promotion.
Despite the fact Whittaker was coming off a 16-month layoff, this was clearly the biggest test of the 30-year-old’s career.
Whittaker, who was born in Auckland but has lived most of his life in Sydney, won the title in 2017, rolling through the best names in the division, including prevailing in back-to-back wars against Cuban Yoel Romero in his last two fights.
But Adesanya was simply too skillful, too elusive and, ultimately, too powerful as he handed Whittaker his first loss in nine fights at middleweight, taking his overall record to 18-0.
“Hats off to Adesanya, a great striker,” Whittaker said. “I felt I was doing pretty well until you get caught.
“I’m only 28. I’ve still got a fight or two yet … I’m not going anywhere.”
‘The Last Stylebender’ has already built up a huge following over the last two years but this is expected to elevate him to a whole new level, with UFC president Dana White predicting the winner would become one of the organisation’s biggest stars.
He’s already set his sights on his first title defence, exchanging barbs with second-ranked Brazilian Paulo Costa, who was sitting cageside.
As he did all week, Adesanya exuded confidence from the moment he entered the arena, performing a routine with a group of dancers during his walk-in.
The challenge for Whittaker was always going to be finding a way around Adesanya’s six-and-a-half inch reach advantage and he immediately came out looking to close the distance with his explosive blitz.
He was the more aggressive fighter in the first round, unleashing a number of swinging shots. But Adesanya kept his composure, expertly staying out of trouble as he established his range.
Then just when the round looked to be over, Adesanya scored the first big moment of the fight, dropping Whittaker right as the bell went.
With Whittaker having time to recover, Adesanya didn’t try to force the issue at the start of the second but he was well in the groove by now.
The Aussie still had plenty of intent but he could barely catch Adesanya. When he did, Adesanya stunned him with a right-hand counter and followed it up with a left hook that dropped Whittaker once again.
Adesanya went to finish him off on the canvas but the referee quickly intervened to usher in his reign.
It was a tremendous result for New Zealand MMA, specifically Auckland gym City Kickboxing, whose three fighters on the card all left with victories.
In co-main event, Dan Hooker recorded a dominant unanimous decision over sixth-ranked lightweight Al Iaquinta, while Brad Riddell won his UFC debut against Jamie Mullarkey via split decision.
However, Hamilton’s Luke Jumeau was unable to make it a clean sweep for New Zealand-based fighters as he fell in a split decision to Dhiego Lima.