Up until UFC 236, Israel Adesanya’s professional mixed martial arts career had been defined by the type of show he would put on in the cage. Opponents were often highlight fodder and adversity was, by and large, a foreign concept.
“The Last Stylebender” blew through the majority of his opposition in short order, winning 13 of his first 16 bouts by knockout or technical knockout. Adesanya was coming off a three-round verdict over idol Anderson Silva at UFC 234 that was more mutual admiration exhibition than prize fight, but by then, many critics were more than ready to see the flamboyant striker get his hands dirty in the Octagon.
The Nigerian-born Kiwi’s foil at UFC 236 was Kelvin Gastelum, a stocky wrestler who shocked the world when he defeated the heavily-hyped Uriah Hall -- a fighter once dubbed as the next Silva -- to win Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Gastelum began his UFC tenure as a welterweight but struggled on the scale, prompting a transition to 185 pounds. The move proved fruitful, as he earned high-profile victories against the likes of Ronaldo Souza, Michael Bisping, Tim Kennedy, Johny Hendricks and Vitor Belfort (the win over Belfort was changed to a no contest due to a positive marijuana test).
With reigning middleweight champion Robert Whittaker sidelined since June 2018, Adesanya and Gastelum would vie for an interim 185-pound belt and the right to face the Australian at a later date. What transpired in the UFC 236 co-main event on April 13 at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta transcended temporary championship hardware. It was a bout that provided Adesanya with the type of crucible he needed to solidify his standing as one of the top talents in the sport today. Gastelum, meanwhile, showcased heart in spades as he nearly ended Adesanya’s undefeated run.
Thanks to wild momentum swings, tense drama and action galore, Adesanya vs. Gastelum is the runaway winner for Sherdog.com’s 2019 “Fight of the Year," easily outpacing the welterweight slugfest between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington at UFC 245. As Conor McGregor proclaimed on social media after the event, it’s "how fighting should be.”
Gastelum didn’t take long to establish that he could navigate the considerable reach advantage of his opponent, as he connected with a well-timed right hook that had Adesanya stumbling and reaching back for the fence in order to remain upright. While Adesanya was able to largely avoid his foe’s power for the rest of the frame, the threat had been clearly established. Gastelum’s power was no secret: Adesanya just narrowly avoided becoming the sixth consecutive opponent that the Arizonan had knocked down in UFC competition.
Adesanya answered in Round 2, as he countered his adversary’s constant forward pressure with a right hand that put Gastelum on his seat. That seemed to embolden “The Last Stylebender,” and he later connected with a spinning back elbow that prompted Gastelum to change levels out of desperation. With 10 minutes in the books, the stage had been set for a classic.
After a closely-contested third stanza, things really intensified in the championship frames.
Gastelum moved to put his stamp on the fight when he opened a cut under Adesanya’s right eye and then wobbled the kickboxer with a high kick late in Round 4. Gastelum swarmed to secure a finish, but Adesanya survived the onslaught to make it to the final frame.
“That is the most hurt we’ve ever seen Israel Adesanya,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said when the horn sounded. Still, Gastelum would come to regret not further capitalizing on his opportunity.
“I was hurt,” Adesanya said. “He took my feet from under me. Later on, I’ll be glad I went through this because I know why people break. I know why people get wilted and they get weak mentally. They want a way out and I’ve done that to many men. I could see that he was trying to do that to me, but he couldn’t and he was starting to get discouraged. But that was some movie sh*t, me coming back from adversity. I wanted to finish him. I was ready to die because I was willing to kill.”
With the outcome hanging in the balance, Adesanya displayed some serious championship mettle with one final momentum swing. “The Last Stylebender” showcased some different elements to his game in the first half of the round, threatening his opponent with a guillotine and a triangle from his back, a display that drew a roar of approval from the crowd.
While Gastelum escaped the submissions, he had no answers for the Kiwi’s pinpoint accuracy down the stretch. Laser right hands began to connect with more frequency, and Adesanya dropped Gastelum a whopping three times within the fight’s final 1:30. Only sheer will allowed Gastelum to survive until the horn.
“One of the greatest title fights you will ever see,” said UFC play-by-play man Jon Anik.
That final burst gave Adesanya a 10-8 round and allowed him to sweep the scorecards by identical 48-46 counts. Heading into the fifth, all three cageside judges -- Michael Bell, Ken Coffey and Anthony Maness -- had the fight tied.
“In that fifth round, I found something deep,” Adesanya said. “I went to another level. I’ve trained for this, but I found another level. That darkness. I was thinking, we are going to die right here; you and me. He’s a tough dude, but he couldn’t put me away.”