Call him Nostradamus. Because Israel Adesanya predicts these things.
Dana White has confirmed what the number five ranked middle weight in the UFC has been telling us since his debut; he will fight for the UFC middleweight title on April 13 at UFC 236. Well, the interim title, until Robert Whittaker has recovered from his injury and is ready to fight the winner of Adesanya and Kelvin Gastulem for the outright belt.
Just 12 months ago, the outspoken 29-year-old put the UFC’s middleweights on notice with his debut demolition of Rob Wilkinson at UFC 221. He punctuated that performance by symbolically pissing all over the cage, and has been on a five fight tear since, including his classy dispatching of former champ Anderson Silva just two weeks ago.
From the outset, Adesanya has been vocally selling White his dream of a fast-tracked run to the title and, despite White himself saying he wanted the Stylebender to slow down, his performances in the cage (three performances of the night and one fight of the night bonus) and appealing persona out of it, has sold the UFC President on his value.
In many ways, the fight gets White out of a tough spot. Robert Whittaker’s shock injury withdrawal on the day he was scheduled to defend his title against Gastelum at UFC 234 left White with two number one contenders, having promised the number one spot to the winner of Silva vs. Adesanya. This fight rids him of that predicament and, with Whittaker out until June or July, keeps the middleweight division moving. Commercially, it also makes plenty of sense as the credibility the winner banks will only build the hype for the showdown with Whittaker, adding dollars to the bottom line.
Stylistically, Gastelum brings a combative southpaw approach based on heavy hands, a long straight left and a very strong wresting foundation. At just 1.75m to Adesanya’s 1.93m, he will have to overcome a significant reach disadvantage. But he punches very long with his left hand and there’s no doubt he will use his heavy hands to set up takedowns, where he can put his state championship wrestling skills and 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu black belt to work.
Now 14 fights deep in his UFC career, the Mexican-American has a top tier MMA experience advantage, with two of his three losses being narrow split decisions (one to dominant welterweight Champion Tyrone Woodley) and the other a submission loss to former title holder Chris Weidman. Gastelum is also coming off a fight of the night win over J’acre Souza in Brazil, so there’s no doubting his credentials.
In just his sixth UFC fight and 16 – 0 in his MMA career overall, Adesanya has made every post a winner – but questions still remain over how he will deal with a top level grappler. Gastulem is the best all-round grappler he’s fought, but will be faced with the increasingly difficult proposition of dragging Adesanya to the canvas.
The Kiwi-Nigerian’s take down defence and scrambling is very good and constantly improving. As the fight progresses, if Gastelum can’t take him down he faces the very real prospect of being out struck at long range. The experience quotient also fails to account for Adesanya’s wider fight resume of 103 bouts with 97 wins in total. Within that impressive tally he’s shown a capacity to rise to the big occasion and to the level of his opponent – an intangible that is difficult to overlook.
If the five round fight progresses past round three, conditioning may also become a factor. Gastelum has tended to fade in the later rounds (Chris Weidman wore him down) while Adesanya’s gas tank has yet to look diminished. But this factor will very much depend on who is able to impose their game plan in the first half of the fight.
It’s an intriguing fight and a tantalising prospect for New Zealand fight fans. Coming off an historic kiwi three-win bonanza just two weeks ago at UFC 234 in Melbourne, they are now savouring something they’ve never tasted before, UFC gold.
Only Mark Hunt’s short notice challenge of Fabricio Werdum in 2014 has come close. Even then, the Super Samoan was on the wrong side of 40 at the time and arguably past his best.
The 29-year-old Adesanya’s star is still very much on the rise. He’s still, in fact, some way off his peak in the MMA game.
As Adesanya will tell you, he’s already seen his victory many times. He is now well on his way to convincing not only sceptical kiwi fans, but a global audience that he is the real deal; that the April 13 bout is just the beginning.