At UFC on Fox: Poirier vs Gaethje, a young man named Israel Adesanya announced his presence to the MMA world. In a scorching three-round kickboxing clinic against the stocky Italian Marvin Vettori, Adesanya showcased a level of striking rarely seen outside of the elite levels of K-1 kickboxing and Muay Thai, ducking under kicks and landing strikes with disdainful ease. Eyes were suddenly drawn to the TV, not for any particular strike landed but for the pure grace of the New Zealander’s movements. There was something uncommon there.
Stepping in again and again against the lanky kickboxer, each time Vettori found himself intercepted by a fist or a shin or the point of an elbow. A look of animal confusion grew on his face, the expression of a man who does not understand how or why he is being hurt. Adesanya danced around him, landing blows at will, unworried by Vettori’s slow swings and heavy breathing.
The 28 year old Adesanya moves in a way that seems destined to elicit the comparison of a predatory cat, or Light-Heavyweight GOAT Jon Jones. Except unlike Jones, he’s not a rough, self-taught striker who showed up to the sparring class at Jackson-Wink’s after having just spent the night giving himself a crash course in boxing via Muhammad Ali youtube videos. He’s a razor-sharp kickboxer who has spent the majority of his life training in Auckland, New Zealand’s City Kickboxing gym, home to legends like Ray Sefo and UFC lightweight Dan “The Hangman” Hooker.
Even in kickboxing, Adesanya stood out for the grace of his movements. Inside the UFC cage, he looked loose around the shoulders; calm and collected and professional. No octagon jitters for the young Nigerian-born Adesanya.
Perhaps his pace was too casual after all, because the kind of highlight reel knockout Adesanya seems destined to accumulate evaded him in this fight. Towards the later rounds Vettori, with the sort of yanked-from-the-gut effort that seems like it must shave some later years off a fighter’s life, was able to take Adesanya down. But after the pummeling of the earlier rounds, the Italian seemed drained. Adesanya was able to quickly work back up to his feet, showing the basic framework of anti-groundfighting know-how. After three rounds, the judges gave a split decision to Adesanya, but it was the kind of split decision that seems like it should require the dissenting judge to get an eye test. Adesanya had arrived.
Adesanya has a long way to go before he penetrates to the upper echelons of the division, but one has to wonder how he will deal with a true wrestler who will target his lack of grappling. Adesanya currently trains his ground game with a small brown-belt led gym in his native Auckland, which seems insufficient if he wants to be a contender in a division run by ferocious wrestlers like Cuban Olympic standout Yoel Romero and former champ Chris Weidman. In the era of “complete fighters” who can shoot a double as easily as they can throw a head kick, Adesanya’s one dimensional skill set is a liability.
However, even before he debuted in the UFC, he had drawn eyes for his style, which seemed in some respects better suited to MMA than to the kickboxing bouts where he cut his teeth. In kickboxing, Adesanya was a “handsy” fighter, who shoved and checked his opponents in between punches and kicks in order to create and preserve distance.
This tendency is often the mark of a striker who will adapt well to MMA, as exhibited by fellow kickboxers like Joanna Jedrzejczk, as it indicates a capacity for managing the middle distance which is important when dealing with an opponent who wants to bring things into grappling range. Adesanya shifts stances and throws feints constantly, making him extremely difficult for MMA fighters whose striking is built on a more straightforward Muay Thai template to deal with.
The question then, is Adesanya’s grappling. The lanky kickboxer has demonstrated some basic know-how: shrugging a diminished and undersized Melvin Guillard off his back and responding with his own back takes and mount transitions during their fight in July 2017, and working his way back to his feet against Rob Wilkinson and Marvin Vettori. However Adesanya has also shown some major holes in his grappling game, crossing his feet once he had taken Guillard’s back leaving himself vulnerable to an ankle lock, and seemingly overly relying on his upper body strength to get back to his feet in his fights with Wilkinson and Vettori.
As of this writing, Adesanya has a little less than a month to prepare for his upcoming bout with UFC veteran Brad Tavares. Tavares is not the wrestler archetype who would be the obvious rock to Adesanya’s scissors, but he is a tough striker in his own right who has spent the last 8 years of his career in the UFC, and seems bound to have picked up some legit takedown skills in this time. It also seems intuitive that Tavares, while a dangerous striker in his own right, would be wise to try and take the fight to the ground in order to expose Adesanya’s lack of grappling skills.
The question then becomes whether a fight camp spent training at Adesanya’s small brown-belt led gym in Auckland, New Zealand will be enough to bring the lanky kickboxer to the level where he can hold his own in grappling against experienced opponents like Tavares. It seems a prodigious talent like Adesanya should be training at a larger camp with high level wrestlers for him to work with, but perhaps there is something to be said for building him up slowly and close to home. On July 6th, we will have to find out.
Writers Edit: As of 7PM EST, Dana White has publicly stated that Tavares is out of the fight with a broken foot, indicating that Ultimate Fighter alumni and powerful striker Thiago “Marreta” Santos is a possible option as a replacement. However, MMA journalist Ariel Helwani was reporting as of 4:27 PM EST via his twitter that sources close to Tavares were denying that he was pulling out. Updates to come.