Through five fights in the UFC, Israel Adesanya has proved to be exactly as advertised. The only question left is whether he can win a UFC championship.
The 29-year-old former kickboxer will get that opportunity Saturday, when he meets Kelvin Gastelum for the interim middleweight title at UFC 236 in Atlanta. The winner is expected to move on to a title unification bout against Robert Whittaker later this year.
Adesanya (16-0), of New Zealand, has rocketed through the 185-pound division, recording five wins in a span of a single year. Gastelum (16-3), however, represents his toughest challenge on paper — and has a history of coming through in underdog moments.
Who has the edge at UFC 236? ESPN asked some of the brightest minds in the sport to break it down.
Henri Hooft, HKickboxing
I’ve known Israel for awhile — as a kickboxer, of course, but we also brought him in a couple years ago when Anthony Johnson was supposed to fight Jon Jones. He’s a talented guy. What he has is his fight IQ is really, really high. He thinks a step ahead. He doesn’t spend any energy when he doesn’t need to. He’s not nervous. He’s fought so many fights, he’s very comfortable.
In kickboxing, Israel didn’t lose many fights, but when he lost it was to pressure. He’s not a one-punch knockout guy. He’s like Jon Jones — he will break you down and do everything at the right moment. Kelvin has to take some risk and close distance, mix wrestling with striking. He can’t go out there, get hit by a couple punches, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to only focus on taking you down.’ No. Israel is a not a one-punch knockout guy. You can strike with him. He will be better than you, but you need to take a little risk in that way, and Kelvin doesn’t shy away from that.
It’s a hard thing, because it’s hard to do in the gym. When you get in the cage and fight a guy like Israel, there’s a lot of mental things to worry about. It’s very difficult when you have a guy where everything you do, that guy has an answer. Again, like Jon Jones. Every time you do something, he’s a little step better than you, or you just miss him — and when that happens, people get nervous. Something doesn’t work, and they abandon it. Whoever is going to beat Israel is going to need a couple scenarios of how to do it. Mixing it up.
I think Israel is going to win because he’s technically superior, but Kelvin has knockout power and a really good mentality.
Sayif Saud, Fortis MMA
I think Gastelum has some of the best boxing at middleweight. This new and improved trend of smaller guys cutting less weight and looking good, Gastelum is a perfect example of that. He can challenge Adesanya with his striking if he closes the distance.
And one thing that’s not being talked about enough is Gastelum has a wonderful back take and a wonderful choke. He’s got a really good back game that he used to utilize a lot more. Back in the day, he would take people’s back and choke them out. That was kind of what he did, that was who he was. He was always a tough Mexican kid who would come forward and throw, but he would take people down and choke them out.
Adesanya has experience and he’s good, but Gastelum has more experience. He has the wrestling advantage and the jiu-jitsu advantage. Now, Adesanya has shown that he improves, greatly, between fights — but I think over five rounds, with Gastelum’s ability to get the takedown, I favor Gastelum. If Adesanya can make him work to get inside that range and prevent that takedown, he can obviously hurt him, but if Gastelum boxes his way in, it could turn into a long night for Adesanya.
Gastelum is going to have to push, pressure, get inside. He hits hard and Israel hasn’t really been hit in MMA, but I know he can take a shot. I see Israel winning on points or Gastelum stopping him in the third round.
Gastelum’s striking isn’t as versatile as Israel’s, but as Bruce Lee said: I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. Quality over quantity. Gastelum’s left hand is solid. That crossover left hand he throws, it’s solid. He’s got good timing with it and power.
John Crouch, MMA Lab
Israel is too hard to catch. Kelvin will get in there and and land some shots, but Israel’s experience there is too much. I don’t think Kelvin can wrestle enough to change that. I have to pick Israel. I think it will be fairly boring — Kelvin chasing him around and Israel picking him off. Not boring, but more technical than some people would like to see.
Israel is good with his range, he can pick almost anybody apart. He just did it to Anderson Silva for goodness’ sake. He just has to be himself. This is right in his wheelhouse. Kelvin is shorter, smaller. He’s explosive and a good athlete, but Israel has faced that before. He’s fought skilled fighters in kickboxing. This fight will take place where he is comfortable and I’ll say Israel by decision.
Duke Roufus, Roufusport
Coming from my background, I really like Israel — his skill set, his mindset. He’s a beautiful fighter in there. But the one thing that sets him back in this fight is that he’s a volume striker. He needs to gain some more power to stop some of these beasts. I’ve coached against Kelvin and I have a lot of confidence in he and coach Rafael Cordeiro’s ability to make this fight offensive, grimy and dirty. He’s going to get right in the face of Israel.
The thing is, if you want to hit harder, you have to plant harder — but planting harder makes you more susceptible to getting taken down. It’s a double-edged sword. Israel has to have some stopping power to keep Kelvin off him. That’s what Anderson Silva had going for him during his run of greatness — he was dropping people. It makes you second-guess when to shoot on him.
I see Gastelum using a lot of wrestling, making it dirty, getting on top and wearing him out. It’s not going to be the strikers’ fight the fans want, but that’s what this sport is about, is taking what you’re great at and winning with it. Gastelum by decision.
Marc Montoya, Factory X MMA
The big question is whether Adesanya can stand in front of someone with the pedigree of Gastelum and stop the takedown. If he gets put on his back, it’s a big unknown whether he’ll be able to get up. I think that’s a question the fans and the UFC are after in this one: Can Adesanya get off his back against someone like Gastelum?
I don’t think it’s “if” Adesanya gets taken down, I think it’s “when” he gets taken down. I know he’s shown he can get back up in other fights, but there are levels to this and Gastelum is one of the best. If he can get back up, he has the ability to win big time. It’s just — he’s going to get taken down at some point. What does he do after that?
The other thing that happens when you have a wrestler against a high-level striker is that sometimes the grappler, his punches tend to land more frequently than if he was a striker — because the threats are different. And Gastelum has shown if he can hit you accurately, he can finish you. If I was to put money down, I would bet Gastelum.
I’m going with Gastelum. I think he’s just a real durable fighter, who mixed up his MMA very well. He can take it to the ground and he can stand. I don’t think Israel can get this one done. He’s a very dangerous fighter, but Kelvin Gastelum has more pros.
Gastelum is a lot more experienced. I know Israel has a lot of fight experience, but Gastelum’s résumé in the cage is way tougher. I believe if Israel has a hole, it will be on the ground. And that’s not because of anything I’ve seen him do wrong, I just haven’t seen him fight there and because he trains on the part of the earth he does, I can’t imagine his wrestling is going to be close to Kelvin Gastelum’s.
If I was Kelvin’s coach, I would have a similar game plan to what Kamaru Usman did to Tyron Woodley [UFC 235 last month]. Smother him, stay on top of him. I think his body type will help him smother Israel, and drain his arms. Get him tired, build up that lactic acid. I think Gastelum will finish it on the ground, late in the third.
John Kavanagh, SBG Ireland
Israel is the future of that division. I think he will stop Kelvin.