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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 263’s Israel Adesanya

UFC 248 Adesanya v Romero Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Former professional kickboxer, Israel Adesanya, will attempt to defend his Middleweight crown opposite former foe, Marvin Vettori, this Saturday (June 12, 2021) at UFC 263 inside Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona.

Adesanya is a man who takes chances. He leans back to duck high kicks by inches, accepts fights on a much more active basis than most anyone else, and had the nerve to crossover from kickboxing in the first place! All this risk had to bite him at some point, but considering his first professional mixed martial arts (MMA) loss came in pursuit of a second title rather than costing him the belt (watch highlights), that’s a rather mild consequence. “Stylebender” is still undefeated at Middleweight, and his last title defense was as brutally dominant as it gets.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

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Striking

Aside from the obvious physical gifts that make him rangy as hell, Adesanya is an athlete who thrives because of 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.

UFC 243 Whittaker v Adesanya Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

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 set up 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 one-two 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.

UFC 259: Blachowicz v Adesanya Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

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.

Second, 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.

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.

The Ultimate Fighter Finale: Tavares v Adesanya Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Blachowicz bout didn’t exactly expose any major weakness in Adesanya’s kickboxing, but Blachowicz did exploit some of Adesanya’s preferences. Notably, Blachowicz — who was better able to match Adesanya’s reach and range than most Middleweights — was patient in the face of feints. He was willing to disengage, rather than try to force a counter.

Blachowicz didn’t have to worry about closing distance like many Adesanya opponents, not when he could keep up with Adesanya’s kicks through his own left kick and counter combinations. On the whole, the two traded at a fairly even rate, but Blachowicz did well to capitalize on Adesanya’s relative lack of combinations by occasionally flurrying into the clinch.

Wrestling

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. Against Blachowicz, this is where his trouble really began, as Blachowicz patiently waited for his opportunity to time the double. Adesanya was caught tall and off-guard, and at that point, it was too late to stop his drive.

UFC 259: Blachowicz v Adesanya Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

At Middleweight, 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 many ways. 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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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 first look at 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).

UFC 236: Gastelum v Adesanya Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

Against Blachowicz, Adesanya definitely made some mistakes. Notably, he spent a lot of time in half guard, tying up Blachowicz’s leg while remaining flat on his back. Essentially, he was trapping himself on bottom position. Now, it’s much easier said than done against a large and experienced grappler like the Light Heavyweight champion, but Adesanya’s inability to create space from his back really cost him any chance at rallying late in the fight.

Conclusion

Adesanya has to return to his home weight class and reassert his dominance here. The opportunity to quiet Vettori is a side bonus, but this bout is really about reestablishing control at 185 pounds. Light Heavyweight will still be there in a year or two, but first, “Stylebender” has to remind his division (and the world) that he’s the best.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 263 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 263: “Adesanya vs. Vettori 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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.

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