Rivalries: Israel Adesanya

By Brian Knapp May 1, 2020

Cut from the same cloth as Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya has all the characteristics of a generational talent: world-class skills, magnetic charm and a flare for the dramatic.

The reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder first appeared inside the Octagon at UFC 221, where he buried Rob Wilkinson with a volley of knee strikes and punches in the second round. Adesanya never looked back and rattled off seven more victories without a loss during his climb to the top of the 185-pound mountain. The Lagos, Nigeria, native now carries a 19-0 record with 14 knockouts, along with widespread regard as one of the sport’s 10 best pound-for-pound fighters. Perhaps most importantly, Adesanya made all the necessary moves to round out his skills—he was viewed as a one-dimensional kickboxer upon his arrival in the UFC—and close whatever holes remained.

As “The Last Stylebender” awaits his next assignment from UFC matchmakers, a look at a few of the rivalries that have fueled his ascent:

Adesanya beat Romero in an absolute snoozer. (Photo: Getty Images)

Yoel Romero

Crushing leg kicks and evasive, risk-averse movement carried Adesanya to a unanimous decision over Romero and allowed him to retain his undisputed middleweight championship in the UFC 248 headliner on March 7, 2020 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Scores were 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46, all for the City Kickboxing lynchpin, who remained undefeated amid a chorus of boos from a crowd disappointed by passivity from both men. The striking totals were anemic for a five-round fight: Adesanya was 48-for-132, while Romero went 40-for-89. Romero connected with more impactful head shots—they included an overhand left in the first round that stopped the champion in his tracks—but they were too few and far between to make a difference on the scorecards. Adesanya’s commitment to leg kicks took an undeniable toll on the 2000 Olympic silver medalist, providing him with the separation he needed to maintain his hold on the 185-pound throne.

Adesanya took over late against Gastelum. (Photo: Getty Images)

Kelvin Gastelum

Adesanya showed his quality in the UFC 236 co-main event, where he navigated treacherous waters, outlasted Kelvin Gastelum to a unanimous decision in the eventual “Fight of the Year” and captured the interim middleweight championship on April 13, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Scores were 48-46, 48-46 and 48-46, all for the supremely skilled City Kickboxing star. Gastelum had “The Last Stylebender” teetering on the brink on more than one occasion but could not seal the deal—a testament to the Nigerian-born kickboxer’s unshakeable resolve. Adesanya was credited with three knockdowns in the decisive fifth round, where he outlanded Gastelum by a 43-15 margin and appeared to be headed for a finish when the final horn sounded. By the time their 25-minute classic was over, the two men had combined to connect on 200 significant strikes.

There is considerable build-up for an Adesanya-Costa showdown. (Photo: Getty Images)

Paulo Henrique Costa

Armed with a chiseled physique and a perfect 13-0 record, the Brazilian stormed to the top of the contenders list at 185 pounds with consecutive victories over Garreth McLellan, Oluwale Bamgbose, Johny Hendricks, Uriah Hall and Yoel Romero. Only injury has prevented him from fighting for the title already. Costa kept his pristine resume intact, as he was awarded a unanimous decision over Romero in a crackling UFC 241 barnburner on Aug. 17, 2019 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 29-28 for the Costa, who went the distance for the first time in his 13-fight career. Both men were credited with knockdowns in a back-and-forth first round that seemed to lean Costa’s way. He dropped Romero to all fours with a clean left hook and managed to weather a flying knee from the American Top Team mainstay. The middle stanza saw Costa attack the body with kicks and hooks from both hands, only to concede a takedown in the closing seconds. Perhaps sensing the need for a finish, Romero found another gear in Round 3, where he continued to absorb body blows without so much as a deep breath and responded with a savage right uppercut, straight lefts, heavy combinations and an inside trip takedown. His efforts fell short, and Costa now finds himself next in line for a shot at Adesanya’s middleweight crown.


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