Sherdog’s 2019 Fighter of the Year

By Brian Knapp Dec 24, 2019

World-class physical tools and magnetic charisma melded together with focused ambition to create the 2019 “Fighter of the Year.”

Israel Adesanya—who beat out Jorge Masvidal, Henry Cejudo, Patricio Freire, Kamaru Usman and Alexander Volkanovski for FOTY honors—was not even on the mainstream radar when he entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship as an undefeated but unproven prospect a little less than two years ago. In the 22 months that have elapsed since, the City Kickboxing star has rattled off seven consecutive victories, pushed his overall record to 18-0 and captured the undisputed UFC middleweight championship.

Adesanya completed his meteoric rise to the top of the 185-pound weight class on Oct. 5, when he disposed of Robert Whittaker with second-round punches in the UFC 243 headliner at Docklands Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. Whittaker became the latest victim of “The Last Stylebender” 3:33 into Round 2, as he suffered his first defeat in more than five years.

“Everything is falling into place like I’m in ‘The Matrix,’” Adesanya said afterward. “I blew the roof off of this place tonight. I said I was going to shock the world and rewrite history. Look what I did.”

The 6-foot-4, Nigerian-born Adesanya probed for openings from the start, bided his time and waited for a misstep from “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner. Whittaker was the busier and more aggressive fighter in the first round, but a right hook floored him just before the horn and altered the direction of the bout in a blink. Adesanya wobbled “Bobby Knuckles” with another right hand early in Round 2, attacked the body and countered beautifully during a wild exchange in the center of the cage. A devastating left hook caught Whittaker on the chin, sent him to the canvas and left him in no condition to defend himself. After a few more punches from Adesanya, referee Marc Goddard called for the stoppage.

“I like to create moments in this game,” Adesanya said. “I’m here to do moments and iconic moments. I gave you a show. We are going to the next level. I have told [UFC President] Dana [White], I have told the whole UFC, you don’t know what you are dealing with. Now you can see. I’m a bona fide star. I know I am. I know I’ve got the it factor.”

Before he dethroned Whittaker, Adesanya laid claim to the interim middleweight title with a unanimous decision over “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum in an electrifying UFC 236 co-main event on April 13 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. “The Last Stylebender” swept the scorecards with 48-46 marks from all three judges and emerged as the last man standing in one of the clear frontrunners for “Fight of the Year.”

Their 25-minute engagement was marked by wild shifts in momentum. Gastelum drew first blood in the first round, where he had the New Zealand-based kickboxer reeling with a sneaky but powerful right hook. Adesanya answered in the second, first with a chopping right hand that resulted in a knockdown and later with a spinning back elbow that revved the crowd’s engines. As they headed to the championship rounds, it appeared to be anyone’s fight.

Gastelum opened a cut under Adesanya’s right eye and staggered him badly with a head kick, driving forward with punches in a bid to finish late in Round 4. Still, “The Last Stylebender” refused to wilt. He did his best work over the final five minutes, as he threatened Gastelum with a standing guillotine, transitioned to a triangle choke and scrambled to his feet. Adesanya knocked down the fading Kings MMA export three times in the last half of the fifth round and was closing in on a stoppage when the horn sounded, an audible buzz rippling through the audience.

“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.”

Adesanya touched off his career-defining 2019 campaign on Feb. 9, and though it lacked the finality for which many had hoped, he cleared the final hurdle standing between him and a shot at the middleweight elite with room to spare. The Lagos, Nigeria, native poked, prodded and outmaneuvered the great Anderson Silva for the better part of three rounds and took a unanimous decision from the future hall of famer in the UFC 234 headliner at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.

All three judges sided with the heavily favored Adesanya: 29-28, 30-27 and 30-27. Silva made headway in the second round and showed flashes of his former self before his younger, faster adversary reclaimed control. Adesanya doubled up “The Spider” in the significant strikes landed department and found another gear when it mattered most. He outlanded Silva, a man he idolized, by a 25-5 margin in the third round and wiped away any thought of an upset.

“The best way I could describe it was like being in the Twilight Zone,” Adesanya said. “That was cool as [expletive]. Even when he caught one of my kicks and I tripped, I was like, ‘All right, here comes the flying knee because I’ve seen this too many times,’ so I just slid to the left. He tried so many tricks that I’ve seen. Even when I would feint and make him reach and then he’d bring back his hands and do all the kung fu s---, I’m like, ‘My man, I’ve seen this too many times.’ That’s how Bisping got caught with an upkick. I’m not stupid. I may look stupid, but I’m smarter than I look. It was just a cool experience. Everyone else plays it on EA Sports, but I get to play it real life.”
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