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UFC 234, The Morning After: What did we learn about Israel Adesanya?

What you may have missed from last night

UFC 234 was supposed to set up an all-down-under middleweight title fight between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker. It still might have, except that Robert Whittaker’s hernia/twisted bowel cut out the middleman, Kelvin Gastelum, leaving us with only a 3-rounder between Adesanya and Anderson Silva to entertain us.

Fortunately, that fight delivered, a fascinating match up that saw Silva roll back the clock to turn in a surprisingly competitive fight against the Nigerian-born New Zealander. Adesanya dipped deep into his bag of tricks to set a fight-finishing head kick, only to find out that Silva’s lean-back game was a match for his own. He did buckle Silva’s knees with a right hook for a split second in the first round, but Silva’s 43-year-old chin, timing, and reflexes were still enough to keep him from getting embarrassed. He landed a couple nice check hooks as Adesanya came in — the benefit of years of the right-handed Silva fighting southpaw — and made Adesanya cautious. When Silva turned up the heat and went after Adesanya, though, he found he isn’t the only one who can be elusive; “The Last Stylebender“ slipped, pivoted, and weaved his way out of trouble.

What did we learn, then, about our undefeated prospect? Is Adesanya ready to jump Kelvin Gastelum in line to fight Robert Whittaker? Did Silva somehow expose Adesanya’s inexperience?

I don’t buy that argument. Silva is a strange fighter. At 43, he clearly is not what he once was, but he hasn’t lost what made him such a dangerous opponent. On the aging scale from Chuck Liddell (49) to Yoel Romero (41), Silva is still closer to the latter than the former. He made some tactical improvements, too, choosing to punch his way out of the Thai clinch instead of being the one punched. In other words, I’m more impressed with Anderson than I am at all disillusioned with Adesanya. Adesanya was still doing magic in the cage. No, he didn’t finish Silva, but he’s not one that forces a finish either, especially against a dangerous counterpuncher. Instead, while not abandoning the flash, he allowed the basics to get the job done, scoring with hard leg kicks whenever Silva tried his 52 blocks hand-waving nonsense.

Some were suggesting, conversely, that this fight was Israel taking it easy on Anderson, unwilling to kill his idol. Adesanya said beforehand that he wasn’t going to do that, but perhaps once in the Octagon, it was hard to pull the trigger. That’s not what I saw. Adesanya isn’t the highest volume striker- I’ve watched his bout with Brad Tavares perhaps half a dozen times- and he goes at the pace he is comfortable at. This can mean a lot of feinting and posturing before he lands that one-two. Moreover, Silva did make him pay a couple times with that check hook. Adesanya was rational to be careful. He had a lot on the line, and Silva brought his best. If there had been two more rounds, it is possible we would have seen a finish.

Is Adesanya ready for a title shot? Why not? Gastelum earned his shot off a highly contested split decision win over Jacare; two fights ago he lost to Chris Weidman. There is also the matter of his willingness to fight with a contagious staph infection, which McGregor rightly roasted. Adesanya’s recent body of work is impressive enough. He’s now 5-0 in the UFC, with three ranked wins. There is no chance a fight with Robert Whittaker is not entertaining. Will he win? It’s still impossible to say; that’s why we need to see it.

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