One of the most dominant champions in the sport, Israel Adesanya, will seek to defend his title once more opposite knockout artist, Jared Cannonier, this Saturday (July 2, 2022) at UFC 276 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s been a while since Adesanya has really had to show us anything new. At 185 pounds, he’s proven largely impossible to take and hold down. As a result, everyone is forced to deal with his lanky kickboxing, and “Stylebender” knows a thing or three about how to use his reach to punish opponents without taking much damage in return. When it’s working, why do anything different? Adesanya is beating world-class opponents from within his comfort zone. And that’s a special feat at this level of competition.
Let’s take a closer look at the champion’s skill set:
Adesanya has great physical tools and technique, but it’s his feints and intelligence that make him a champion.
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 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.
In his most recent win versus Robert Whittaker, Adesanya employed all the usual tricks to win a decision. In the first round, however, he knocked Whittaker down in a really brilliant display of feinting to freeze an opponent. Showing the power kick feint two or three times, Adesanya closed distance while his opponent waited for the blow to come. Instead, Adesanya sent a crisp cross straight down the middle, stunning the Aussie (GIF). Again, this is a tactic he uses often, but you won’t find a much cleaner example.
In the rematch versus Marvin Vettori, Adesanya used the threat of his right leg to set up the low kick against the Southpaw. After establishing his right leg as a weapon with couple solid digs to the body, Adesanya would raise his right knee, step into Southpaw himself, then cleave an left kick direct to the outside thigh. Often, Southpaws are less accustomed to having to defend outside low kicks, and the strikes are more damaging as a result.
On the whole, 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 technique like the 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 in the first fight, 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. Four-ounce gloves mean that it’s always a risk to fight with hands low, but Adesanya’s defense is still pretty great.
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.
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.
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. In his rematch vs. Vettori, Adesanya had few issues stopping the vast majority of Vettori’s shots along the fence, getting a wide base to stymie his foe’s attempts.
Whittaker found decent success in off-balancing Adesanya with his takedowns in the rematch. Adesanya again proved very difficult to hold down, however, as jumping the back of such a lanky fighter can be a tricky proposition.
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).
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 former Light Heavyweight champion, but Adesanya’s inability to create space from his back really cost him any chance at rallying late in the fight.
Back at Middleweight against Vettori, Adesanya was never held down for long. At one point, Vettori did manage to put in hooks from back control, but before he was able to really lock down the position, “Stylebender” managed to switch his hips and spin into top position.
Adesanya is as savvy a kickboxer as they come, and he’s rarely forced to do much else as the 185-pound champion. Maybe Cannonier can stun the champion and force him to show something new to his game, but otherwise, there’s a reason Adesanya is such a wide favorite.
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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