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One of my first articles for this site discussed the difficult, capricious choice of paths fighters must tread to get a crack at a title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a feat that is often harder than winning a single match against the champion. Broadly summarized, one path is a grappling-based approach that is good for long winning streaks, reducing the chances of being knocked out by a random strike, but upsets Dana White, who is often reluctant to grant “boring” fighters opportunities, especially at the title. The other is a more exciting, crowd-pleasing approach, rooted in toe-to-toe striking battles. It's a lot riskier, but far more exciting for White, the former boxercise instructor, and usually requires fewer wins to get a title opportunity. (Well, unless your name is Tony Ferguson.)
Call this second path the “Vicente Luque approach.” On the one hand, many are taking him seriously as a contender after his win over Michael Chiesa at UFC 265. On the other hand, he was thoroughly dominated and crushed by Stephen Thompson less than two years ago and won a surprisingly close split decision over Mike Perry right before that. But hey, White just branded him a “killer” in a recent interview, so I guess he is in the mix at 170.
However, there is a third way, one which had already been adopted by a champion and a rising contender when I wrote that article. It is a cautious, risk-averse approach which is predicated mostly on striking, not grappling. I call it the Adesanya-Gane style, after the two fighters who best exhibit its qualities, although you can see elements of it in both Leon Edwards and Jon Jones.
This style has significant physical prerequisites of its users. They must be tall for their weight class, with very long reaches: Adesanya's 80-inch reach is by far the most of any top middleweight, and Gane's 83-inch reach is tied for second among heavyweights with Francis Ngannou, trailing only the 84.5-inch reach of 7-foot Stefan Struve, and actually surpassing the taller Alexander Volkov's 81.5. They must have good footwork, move well, and possess sharp reflexes. If those requirements are fulfilled, than rather than going for risky striking exchanges, or grappling, a fighter can simply sit back and pot-shot his opponent with the occasional jab or kick, while avoiding any retaliation. This will either be good enough to win an easy decision, or, if the opponent starts gambling too much, a potential knockout from effective countering. Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker was a fine example of the latter scenario.
This approach to fighting is wildly effective. It minimizes the risk associated with most striking battles, and White seems perfectly happy with it. He absolutely loves Adesanya and hypes him at every opportunity, and while part of the recent praise for Gane is a way to punish and diminish Ngannou, part of it is genuine favor. As a measure of success, Adesanya is still the UFC middleweight champion and Gane is the No. 1 contender at heavyweight. (I refuse to call his fight against Lewis anything more than that. The “interim title” is a pure farce. Ngannou is the one and only champion.)
As a fan of the martial arts and their traditional ethos, I like this new approach. Not only is it a significant evolution to the sport, but it embodies the spirit of martial arts far better than brazenly trading blows to the head, among striking routes. At its core, the Adesanya-Gane style is very simple; hit and avoid being hit in return, but prioritize the latter. I can count on one hand the number of hard connects Lewis had against Gane in the main event of UFC 265.
However, it has drawbacks. If the opponent is equally patient, and doesn't come forward aggressively, it can make for very boring contests. While one can appreciate the skill and tactical prowess, I doubt anyone was riveted by Adesanya's fights against Yoel Romero — which I thought he lost; more on that below — or Jan Blachowicz. Similarly, Gane's victory over Jairzinho Rozenstruik was a masterful technical demonstration, but it was also dull. So was the win over Lewis, right up until the ending sequence.
However, I don't consider this style degenerate. This is not an approach that I see large swathes of fighters adopting, leading to a slew of interchangeable bouts where both stay at range, throwing an occasional, testing blow. The requirements mentioned previously — height, reach, footwork, movement and reflexes — are too strict, and only a small percentage of fighters in a weight class will ever be able to fulfill them. And as fighters get better, those requirements for reach, movement, and reflexes will increase as well, capping how many martial artists can employ this style.
Moreover, the style is beatable. Not only did Blachowicz soundly defeat Adesanya, but in my opinion and that of many journalists and fans, so did Romero in a razor-thin contest. Even Kelvin Gastelum did quite well against Adesanya. With another crack at Adesanya where he is less overtly aggressive, I can see Whittaker possibly winning, too. As for Gane, take it from me, who stated on Sherdog’s UFC 265 preview show that Gane would dominate Lewis by pelting him with kicks and jabs from distance, knock him out, and should have been an even bigger favorite: Ngannou should still be the rightful favorite against Gane. In fact, the Lewis triumph reinforced that more than ever, as I saw a few traits of Gane that the UFC heavyweight champion can exploit. And if a lowly writer like me saw them, you can be sure Ngannou's coaches have, too.
Overall, the Adesanya-Gane style is a new, developing wrinkle to MMA at the highest level, and I look forward to seeing which other top fighters adopt it. And whether you like or hate it, remember that as with anything else in martial arts, there is always a counter!