Decorated kickboxer and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Israel Adesanya, will square off with knockout artist, Paulo Costa, this Saturday (Sept. 26, 2020) at UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Adesanya fought 80 times as a professional kickboxer, and he seems to be looking to maintain that level of activity even as the belt-holder. It’s really astounding to consider that Adesanya went from relative unknown to champion in little more than one year, and he hasn’t slowed down much. It’s been less than a year since Adesanya dethroned Robert Whittaker for the undisputed crown, and he’s already looking for his second title defense.
It comes, however, against a real threat in undefeated Costa, who has served as a perfect foil to the slick “Stylebender.”
Let’s take a closer look at the champion’s skill set:
Aside from the obvious physical gifts that make him rangy as hell, Adesanya is an athlete who thrives due to his feints. His constant arm and hip feints enable him to both lead and counter extraordinarily well, as he convinces opponents to trip over themselves trying to keep up with his layered offense.
Whether he’s looking to initiate or counter, Adesanya starts at kicking range, where he’ll be showing lots of feints and scoring with kicks. On the whole, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters feint with punches fairly often, and the good ones show takedown feints too. However, few have learned the value of a good feint with the hips.
Adesanya hip feints constantly, quite literally thrusting his hips at opponents to give the impression that a kick is coming. It’s low energy and safe, often a setup for counters. Should his opponent take the bait and attempt to throw a punch, Adesanya is likely too far back and in perfect position to counter. Once Adesanya lands a hard kick, it’s difficult not to respect the hip feint.
After his foe respects the feint, Adesanya will build from it. He’ll feint with his hips, draw out a defensive reaction, then blast the kick. In a confusingly similar manner (for his opponents), Adesanya can actually lift his leg to show the kick and instead take a big step into the opposite stance, where he’ll rip a hard kick or stab a one-two combination.
Overall, Adesanya is not a fighter who works in long combinations. His feints are strong enough that Adesanya’s stiff jab or 1-2 lead often land. Adesanya will often follow his short combo of punches with a hard kick, but if he doesn’t, “Stylebender” is always ready to roll or slip following his offense.
Adesanya is able to get away with throwing shorter combinations because he feints and reads opponents so well. He understands how they’re moving and where they’ll be, which also makes it easier to land a flashy techniques like a jump spinning back kick or question mark kick.
One of the common ways Adesanya scores is to present his foe with a seemingly easy target, pull back, and counter. By leaning forward (sometimes with his hands by his waist), Adesanya brings his head forward but keeps his legs back. The second Adesanya see his foe’s shoulder twitch, “Stylebender” can yank his head back out of range, watch his opponent come up short, and return fire.
Notably, Adesanya always retreats without breaking stance, which makes it easier to fire back a counter right hand. This was most visible opposite Whittaker, as Adesanya repeatedly blocked the wide swings of the Australian without losing his footing. As a result, he was able to fire back hard uppercuts from either side while his opponent attempted to regain his positioning (GIF).
Outside of the left hook/block he used stop Whittaker, there are a couple other habits to note from that bout. For one, Adesanya’s complete faith in his distance: Whittaker tried to capitalize on Adesanya’s aforementioned pull counter by sending high kicks up after his combinations. That’s smart strategy, but thanks to Adesanya’s range control, the kicks came up just short.
Secondly, Adesanya showed some real slick preparation against Whittaker’s stabbing side kick to the lead leg. At one point, Whittaker went to dig into the quad, but Adesanya brought the leg back (removing the target) and fired a snapping high kick that Whittaker just managed to block (GIF).
Adesanya’s back-and-forth war with Kelvin Gastelum was also hugely informative. It highlighted a pair of pretty invaluable traits: the ability to adjust and smart strike selection.
The first round did not go well to Adesanya. His strategy seemed to be to focus mostly on counter punching, but Gastelum is incredibly fast. It’s difficult to counter punch a faster man — Gastelum was able to score his heavy left hand too consistently, and one even hurt Adesanya.
Adesanya adjusted in the second by shifting into a more offensive strategy. He began really stepping forward with power kicks, smartly ripping his right kick into the Southpaw’s lead leg and mid-section. He shifted back to his fundamentals, relying heavily on the right kick to do damage. As a result, his counter punches began to land with better consistency, as Gastelum’s speed was diminished by the body/leg work. Plus, Gastelum was more likely to lunge forward when getting blasted by kicks, whereas earlier he was able to slip his way into the pocket.
As for the Yoel Romero fight, well ... there’s not a lot to analyze there unfortunately. Adesanya noted he could largely kick his opponent’s lead leg without fear, and so he did that and little else.
Another range tactic in Adesanya’s arsenal that is more common among excellent kickboxers is hand trapping. He’s quite willing to reach out and jam up one of his opponent’s hands, which can lead to a lot of different offensive opportunities for Adesanya. Often, he’ll occupy a hand then blast a kick, but he’ll commonly grab the wrist and use that moment to take an angle. Against Brad Tavares, Adesanya repeatedly used hand traps to land elbows (GIF), a favorite strategy of Jon Jones.
Defensively, Adesanya is hugely confident in his range control. His usual reach advantage largely limits his foe’s options, meaning he only has to be prepared to defend against a handful of techniques. It’s much easier to pull off beautiful slips and rolls (GIF) when his opponent can only hope to reach him with straight punches and maybe a kick. 4 oz. gloves mean that it’s always a risk to fight with hands low, but Adesanya’s defense is still pretty great.
Adesanya’s wrestling abilities have grown with remarkable speed. His first two UFC fights showed some decent fundamentals and the correct scrambling mentality, but he was still taken down multiple times by fighters nowhere near as talented as Kelvin Gastelum and Derek Brunson, neither of whom found any success trapping Adesanya on the mat.
Adesanya fights tall, and as such, it’s easier to get deep on his hips, which is generally a very bad sign for takedown defense. However, Adesanya has proven to have very strong hips, one of those invaluable assets that’s difficult to explain technically. It’s quite noticeable though, as Adesanya was able to circle his hips back and sprawl even when Gastelum secured a strong grip below the butt.
Length helps quite a bit in lots of regards. It may be easier to get on Adesanya’s legs, but he’s going to bounce on one leg and be difficult to pick up into the air. Plus, he’s likely punching his opponent in the face mid-takedown attempt, which complicates things plenty.
When Adesanya has been put on his back, he’s shown the right mentality, which can largely be boiled down to, “don’t stop moving.” As his technique has improved, that’s resulted in better scrambling and submission attempts against Gastelum, but even his debut showed the foundation of such skill. Against Rob Wilkinson, Adesanya successfully forward rolled out of the back clinch. That’s an actual technique, one that counters the opponent’s forward momentum and attempt to hang on by throwing them forward, and Adesanya showed real guts to pull it off (GIF).
Adesanya hasn’t done a ton of jiu-jitsu inside the cage, because his focus has been on defending takedowns and scrambling back up quickly. However, the bulk of his mat work came against a talented wrestler in Gastelum in the fifth round of a crazy war — and it was still strong technique (GIF).
In one prolonged exchange, Adesanya first countered a takedown attempt with a high-elbow guillotine, forcing Gastelum to fall to his back to defend. Adesanya did fall victim to Gastelum’s excellent arm roll and wind up on his back soon after, but he immediately threw up a triangle choke. He was able to secure a good angle, but his lock was over his own foot rather than shin, which does alleviate the pressure a bit. He wasn’t able to finish the submission, but forcing Gastelum on the defensive with submissions late in the fight was still a promising sign for Adesanya’s overall grappling ability.
Up until the Yoel Romero fight, Adesanya has been largely perfect inside the Octagon. Fortunately, his first title defense being a bit of a stinker will hardly matter if Adesanya handles Costa in style, as there’s almost no chance this bout is boring.
A win puts Adesanya further on the track to stardom and super fights.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 253 fight card this weekend RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN 2/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance (also on ESPN 2/ESPN+) at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.