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UFC 230: The subtle striking of Israel Adesanya

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch takes a look at the ins and outs of UFC 230’s Israel Adesanya, one of the very best strikers in MMA today.

This Saturday, Israel Adesanya will fight for the fourth time under the UFC banner. And watching him develop on the big stage has been an absolute treat. Especially if you, like me, are particularly fond of skillful strikers. Still just 29 with over a decade of Muay Thai and kickboxing experience, Adesanya represents that rarest breed of MMA import: an elite, professional striker, still smack dab in the middle of his prime.

Thus far, the man they call the ‘Stylebender’ has notched quite an impressive record in the UFC. Wary of his nonexistent wrestling background, plenty of folks (like me) expected Adesanya to get out-grappled by Rob Wilkinson in his UFC debut. Despite spending a few minutes with the Australian’s arms wrapped around his legs, Adesanya nonetheless dispatched Wilkinson with ease in the second round.

Next, he was slated to face Marvin Vettori, a better athlete than Wilkinson with a more physical style and a better record. Again, analysts like me were pretty sure that Adesanya’s fighting career simply hadn’t prepared him for such a rugged mixed martial artist. The fight was close, but once more, Izzy’s dazzling striking was enough to nullify Vettori’s wrestling.

Most recently, Adesanya took on Brad Tavares. “Surely,” I thought at the time, “this will turn out to be Adesanya’s ceiling – at least for now.” There are (hashtag) levels to this sh-t, after all. And Tavares is a technical striker, a strong wrestler, and a perfectly capable grappler. He is also a seasoned veteran, having spent the last eight years in the UFC, compiling an impressive 12-5 record under that banner. But instead of controlling Adesanya with his striking en route to a wrestling-based victory, Tavares spent the better part of 25 minutes getting absolutely pantsed.

Israel landed almost exactly three times as many significant strikes (119 to 40) and stuffed all but one of 12 attempted takedowns. He sliced Tavares’ eye open with an elbow, battered his leg with an endless salvo of kicks, and smashed his nose with jabs, right hands, knees, and at least one kitchen sink. He landed more than half of the 215 strikes he threw, while limiting Tavares to a measly 22%. In other words, against his best opponent to date, Adesanya nonetheless managed to turn in the greatest performance of his MMA career.

In the prizefighting business there are, indeed, levels. Thus far, however, it has been Adesanya who has eclipsed his opponents, and not the other way around. At UFC 230, the man will take yet another step up, to face powerhouse wrestler and first-round knockout machine Derek Brunson. Like those before him, Brunson’s style seems like it should be able to test Adesanya in new and more violent ways. And yet, having witnessed Adesanya’s rise thus far, I know of at least one writer who is starting to wonder whether even a fringe top-fiver like Brunson can stop his momentum.

What has made Adesanya so effective in the cage? Doubtless, his wrestling has improved by leaps and bounds since his kickboxing days. A few years ago, Tavares at least would have taken him down with relative ease, and probably done all sorts of foul things to him on the ground. Even so, Adesanya’s striking – developed far, far beyond the usual MMA standard – remains the core of his fighting style. It was his striking that compelled Tavares to shoot in the first place. Striking, not wrestling, forced those shots to come from too far away –enabling the kickboxer to time his sprawls more easily. Kickboxing legend Ray Sefo taught Tavares everything he knows, but Israel Adesanya’s scintillating striking made it all too clear how much he has yet to learn.

Below, we’ll examine just two of Adesanya’s favorite tricks, and the subtlety that makes them work. The kind of striking nuance that few other MMA fighters will ever be able to match.

“Pawing” Jab

Everything always starts with the jab, doesn’t it? Doubtless the MMA gyms of the world are chock-full of young fighters sick to death of their boxing coaches prattling on and on about the godforsaken jab.

Still though, everything in striking really does start with the jab, and that is why people are constantly going on about it. Whether boxing or tussling in the Octagon, a fighter’s lead hand is useful beyond measure. With it, he can deliver precise, punishing blows, or wear an opponent down over the course of several rounds; he can gauge the distance between himself and his foe; he can throw it once, twice, three, four times in a row if he likes. Or simply rely on all of the ones he has thrown previously to effectively sell a feint. An educated lead hand allows a fighter to feel, control, frustrate, distract, and blind his opponent. As much as everything else starts with the jab, the jab can do almost everything on its own, as well.

There are a multitude of ways to throw the jab or, if more precisely, many different kinds of jab to choose from. Each of which emphasizes different aspects of the punch’s utility. One of Adesanya’s favorite variations is the pawing jab; a punch which deliberately lingers in front of the opponent’s eyes after being thrown.

Click to enlarge. Watch the GIF

1. Adesanya leans forward, testing Brad Tavares’ sense of range.

2. In one simultaneous movement, he steps forward at an angle and rams Tavares in the face with a stiff jab (blue arrows indicate distance covered).

3. Now, he adjusts his whole body, lining himself up for the next punch. Adesanya leaves his jab in front of Tavares’ eyes so that he cannot see the footwork.

4. Finally the jab retracts, giving Tavares just enough time to see that Adesanya has positioned his right hand directly in front of his face...

5. ...before said right hand connects with his face, nearly putting him down.

The thing with pawing jabs is that they are generally... well, pawing in nature; more annoying than damaging. Israel, however, paws with his claws out. The first punch in this sequence is as much a power jab as anything else. Because Adesanya’s weight starts on his front foot, there is a lot of potential energy built up when he finally persuades that foot to step forward. When it moves out from under him, he falls as much as he lunges forward, letting his body weight drive the blow. This is a “falling step,” one of the key ingredients behind Jack Dempsey’s famously heavy hands.

It is also just one of the many subtle tricks Adesanya employs in this short sequence. Only after the powerful blow connects does it start to resemble what we would think of as a pawing jab. Having snapped Tavares’ head back with the impact, Adesanya leaves his forearm hanging in front of the Hawaiian’s eyes. His goal is to turn that jab into the first part of a 1-2, but his feet need adjusting first. While Tavares is momentarily blinded, Adesanya bumps his whole body to the left, placing his right shoulder on a line with Brad’s chin, and taking weight away from the front foot, to load up the back hand.

The lingering jab only withdraws when Israel’s shoulders are already rotating into the next punch. As long as possible, he conceals his intent and position from his foe. When the right hand does come, it is more of a short overhand than a straight right. Yet another layer to Israel’s technique. The previous punch – the jab – was fired from the hip, arcing up towards Tavares’ chin from beneath his line of sight. Not only a pawing jab, and not only a power jab, this was a Frankenstein-punch: the rare pawing-power-up-jab. Now that Tavares has been surprised from that angle, however, Adesanya decides to throw a downward right hand, attacking from the opposite side. The only indication that Tavares sees the blow coming at all is the fact that it merely staggers him, instead of knocking him out cold. It’s a peach of a punch.

So, to summarize: a power jab lets Adesanya close the distance. Letting the jab hang out in front of Tavares’ face allows him to covertly re-position his feet and load up a right hand, which plays beautifully off the angle of the first punch. That’s an awful lot of nuance for just about one second of effort. Make sure to watch the GIF; it has to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated.

Sticky Punches

If Adesanya’s version of the pawing jab is subtle, then this variation is a little more insistent. Lots of great strikers use what can be called “sticky punches.” Floyd Mayweather, for example, used to let his hands linger on his opponent’s head after a strike; measuring, controlling, and obscuring the vision. Andre Ward did the same thing to great effect. MMA’s own Anderson Silva was known for his stand-up skills, but he was a truly fearsome finisher on the ground. He used to get double-duty out of his ground strikes; hitting his opponent and then leaving that same fist posted on the target, thus pinning the opponent and allowing himself to posture for the next blow.

Israel Adesanya’s hands are stickier than Winnie the Pooh’s. Take a look at this portion of his long, painful dismantling of Rob Wilkinson.

Click to enlarge. Watch the GIF

1. With Wilkinson cornered, Adesanya moves in, getting to jabbing distance.

2. He fires the jab, stepping into it for power, and forcing Wilkinson into a defensive shell.

3. As his hand slides off Wilkinson’s chin and comes to rest against his chest, Adesanya decides to use it. He steps in closer, stiff-arming Wilkinson, pinning him against the wall.

4. With the left hand put to work, Adesanya sends the right crashing into Rob’s exposed ribs.

5. Wilkinson folds up like a cheap deck-chair, and Adesanya immediately thinks about a clinch knee. Both hands move in for leverage.

6. Wilkinson rolls out of the double collar tie before the knee can be thrown. Showing off his Tai Chi, Adesanya keeps his forearm in contact with Wilkinson’s moving head, guiding and measuring.

7. As Wilkinson leans far to his right, Adesanya switches grips, now laying his palm on the back of the unfortunate man’s neck.

8. Another stiff-arm. Adesanya bends the hurt Wilkinson, awkwardly, into the chain-link.

9. Wilkinson has no way to see or avoid this short right hand to the temple.

10. Rob is still trying to be a moving target, but he is a target nonetheless. Adesanya keeps that left hand in contact with his head at all times.

11. Following his movement until he presents the same weak angle as before.

12. He stiff-arms again, and lands another blow to the ribs, this one a chopping hammerfist rather than a hook.

13. Suddenly, Adesanya realizes that there is now about as much downward pressure on Wilkinson’s neck as there is lateral. Maybe it’s time for that knee.

14. He adds his right hand to the mix, pulling Wilkinson’s upper body down with both arms...

15. ...and meeting his chin halfway with a brutal knee.

Israel Adesanya is a striker with remarkable feel. Not restricted by notions of rote technique, he is happy to let two ideas blend into one, or one idea transform into another. Fighters are taught to retract their punches quickly after throwing, and most mixed martial artists simply don’t have enough time in the day to probe the hows and whys. Adesanya, however, is endlessly inquisitive, and intuitive.

His approach to fighting is guided by principles, rather than a particular school or style of technique. For example, Adesanya knows that vision is useful – crucial, even – for a striker. Thus, he seeks to keep his eyes on his opponent at all times, while preventing them from doing the same. Whenever it makes sense to leave a punch hanging out in space, he does it without thinking. He knows, also, that a good striker is constantly aware of the changing distance. So, he seeks to control the space whenever he can, even if that means holding his foe in place while he goes to work with a free hand.

Israel Adesanya’s game is full of flash and bombast, but only a fool would think that nothing lies behind the facade. On the contrary, Adesanya’s eccentric side often serves to distract his opponents from the subtler ideas directing his every move. At UFC 230, it is eminently possible that the Stylebender will hit some kind of ceiling, at last. Derek Brunson is powerful and dangerous, and well-equipped to test Adesanya’s remaining weaknesses. On the other hand, his style seems almost painfully simplistic in comparison, and it is difficult to imagine Adesanya being befuddled by the simple choice between reckless aggression and overcautious patience. It feels sort of like comparing Michael Phelps to a kid thrashing around with his t-shirt on at the public pool.

Yes, Derek Brunson may beat Israel Adesanya. Or he may lose. But if he’s smart, he’ll ask him for a few pointers, either way.


For more on the techniques and strategies of UFC 230, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.