Israel Adesanya was supposed to win at UFC 230. Even though he entered the match against Derek Brunson ranked ninth in the middleweight to Brunson’s sixth, he was a sizable favorite, made such by those in the know who have witnessed his singular brand of striking.
Adesanya goes by the apt nickname of “Stylebender,” an ode to his slick standup style, in which he seems to glide and dance around the cage while snapping off hands, elbow, knees and kick from unorthodox setups and angles.
We already knew he was good. On Saturday we needed to see if he could take his game up a notch, if he had an answer for the problem most likely to vex him as he climbed up to the unforgiving rungs of the divisional ladder. For most standup stylists, the challenge is to close ground on the wrestlers who will almost certainly try to exploit any perceived weakness in that discipline. To date, Adesanya’s matchups have been fairly favorable in this regard. Rob Wilkinson, Marvin Vettori and Brad Tavares aren’t the types to regularly dive in for blast-doubles.
But the Brunson pairing was different. A three-time Division II All-American wrestler, Brunson has made the craft a key weapon in his arsenal. Against Adesanya, he went 0-for-7 in takedowns. A shutout.
It’s one thing to carry expectations; it’s another to eclipse them completely. That’s what Adesanya did on Saturday night, stopping Brunson inside of the first round in spectacular fashion. Bing, bam, boom, done; four minutes and change. It was the kind of in-competition je ne sais quoi not seen in Madison Square Garden since the heyday of Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
The outcome alone was something of a statement; better yet was the striking Adesanya flashed in open space. Adesanya did a bit of everything. Question-mark kick. Step-in knee. Stance-switching lead left. Flying knee. Which way was up? Poor Brunson couldn’t tell.
“I don’t throw and hope, I aim and fire,” Adesanya said after the fight. “Down the barrel.”
The performance was reminiscent of a fighter that Adesenya has been compared to recently, Anderson Silva, when Silva debuted in the Octagon against Chris Leben back in 2006. “A different kind of striker,” UFC commentator memorably said at the time.
A generation later, the middleweight matrix has been rebooted. Both tall, wiry and powerful, Silva and Adesanya resemble each other as fighting silhouettes.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Adesanya can even begin to approach Silva’s accomplishments in the cage, which include a UFC-record 16 consecutive victories and 10 straight title defenses as middleweight champion, but while he has a long way to reach such heights, he’s off to a flying start. With 15 straight wins to start his professional career, and a 4-0 start to his UFC run (all coming during 2018), he has the fight world’s attention, as well as that of the contenders within his division.
Now comes the hard part. With his MSG success, he can no longer hide among the division’s masses. He is now a capital-G “Guy.”
“Israel is a guy who has been on the rise here for a minute, but I really felt like tonight was his first big test,” UFC president Dana White said after the event. “Obviously his opponent hits like a truck and wrestles really well. Madison Square Garden and opening the show, and man, did he deliver. Many people including me think this kid is the future. And he went out and put a stamp on it tonight.”
Adesanya is a perfect example of taking time to refine the product. He was pursued by the UFC prior to his December 2017 signing, yet he rebuffed them in order to round out his game with more experience. Upon his arrival, he considered himself close to a finished product.
That’s vastly important because last night’s matchup served as a particularly useful gauge of Adesanya’s standing at this moment in time. Here’s the verdict: after stopping Brunson, there isn’t much standing between him and the division’s elite. In the post-fight press conference, White spoke of slowing down Adesanya’s career progression, but when the new rankings are released early next week, it’s possible he’ll crack the top five. Then who stands between him and current champ Robert Whittaker? Those names include Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold, Kelvin Gastelum and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, but the list gets short after that. There are speed bumps in the Stylebender’s path, but only a few of them. And who knows if he even sees them as such.
“He has his ideas,” he said, a glint in his eye. “But I know Dana can be persuaded.”
That he can. The Stylebender has been taking notes, it seems, and the division better be doing the same of him. After Saturday night, they do so at their own peril. The best middleweights in the world are now officially on notice that Israel Adesanya is coming, gliding and dancing his way toward them all.
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