One sentence summary
David: Somebody’s O has got to show (...or else middleweight will be boring again)
Phil: “Please fight dumb, Brad Tavares” the UFC brass prays.
Record: Brad Tavares 17-4 | Israel Adesanya 13-0
Odds: Brad Tavares +100 | Israel Adesanya -110
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: I feel like Tavares gets heavily underappreciated. 85 percent of his career has been UFC-bound, and he’s faced competitive competition since jump street. Part of it’s style. He’s kind of a rote fighter, and he doesn’t Florian-finish bouts, but he’s a tough kid who stays active, and engaged. I don’t know if that’s a diplomatic way of describing a good journeyman, but whatever the case, I get the impression he’ll close out his career in the UFC as a stout gatekeeper. That’s not what you want to hear describing a main event, but in an era of botched contracts, and sideshow injuries, consistency in this sport has value for fans and observers alike.
Phil: I actually like Tavares quite a lot, and feel like he has actually gotten a lot more fun to watch in recent years. His only really bland match of late was against Theodorou, and with all due respect to Elias, everyone has boring fights against him. Other than that, he beat the crap out of Thales Leites and knocked out Jotko. It seems like a basic, meat-and-potatoes game has finally been starting to develop into a toolset which can put a stamp on a fight. Solid fundamental striking and an underrated ground game was a style which was inevitably going to get better over time.
David: Adesanya has risen the ranks the way most kickboxers-turned-mixed martial arts do: with more hype than is warranted because kickboxing is a sexier foundation than wrestling. But...there’s good reason to believe Adesanya is not a run of the mill kickboxing prospect trying his hand at a different sport. He hasn’t faced stiff competition, but he’s been challenged in enough pockets to see where he’s headed with the right focus, and polish. I don’t know if that’s a diplomatic way of describing a prospect with enough flaws to miss his ceiling, but whatever the case, I get the impression Israel will get his fair share of high profile fights.
Phil: As our colleague Chris Rini has pointed out, Adesanya has been doing *almost* everything right. He’s brimming with confidence, and great on the mic. The one thing he’s missing at the moment is a really eye-opening performance. Both of his UFC fights thus far have been a little scrappy, and not quite the kind of unearthly brutality that anyone who has glanced at his kickboxing career knows that he’s capable of. Is this the time?
What’s at stake?
David: The hype train either derailing, or accelerating. I think most discerning fans recognize how tough this matchup is though.
Phil: The card is being massively overshadowed by UFC 226, but it’s still a big enough stage that if Adesanya can really show off then he’ll raise some eyebrows. Unfortunately for Tavares, a win probably doesn’t really put him anywhere he wasn’t before.
Where do they want it?
David: Tavares is a straight man of MMA. He has a plan that he sticks to, and doesn’t deviate. I’ve always said I felt like Brad’s power is underrated. Like a hockey player who has a good shot, but prefers to pass. Tavares has strength. He muscled, bruised, and bladed Tim Boetsch in the clinch (where Boetsch excels). And he has a determined takedown game that is light on creativity, but heavy on persistence and power. Tavares is a decent puncher, but he never commits from a distance. He’s more about using tactical strikes, like teep kicks and a left jab, to set up clinch entries and takedowns. Once there, a more dynamic pressure game opens up, allowing him to dominate on the ground. He doesn’t do anything stupid either — see “hello Japan!” or Chael Sonnen’s spinning elbow for the other thing — which will be key against a fighter like Israel.
Phil: A consistent weakness to left hooks aside, Tavares has been the kind of buttoned-up, disciplined kickboxer that is very hard to exploit in any consistent way. He works consistently off the jab, tenderizes leg kicks from the inside and outside, and is defensively responsible. He’s tough to take down, and has a genuinely underrated ground game. Outscrambling Theodorou on the ground (including locking up a fairly deep RNC) is not an easy task.His consistency is often his enemy, as he can be rhythmically exploitable. The main thing I’m interested in here is, unsurprisingly, his offensive wrestling. He can hit trips and throws from the clinch, but it’s never something that he’s really looked for. Curious to see if the most stylistically consistent middleweight actually chooses to mix it up.
David: What separates Adesanya from your typical kickboxer is natural mobility. He’s no Lomachenko, but the way he twists his hips for feints, switch kicks, stance changes, and upper and lower work is the kind of thing we don’t see in MMA. His striking is like a jawbreaking game of rock, paper, scissors. Chambering a rochambeau of face melting artillery keeps him unpredictable in pressure and non-pressure scenarios alike. Tavares is not a counterpuncher, but he can be inert, which is just as foolish against what Adesanya can do. His punches don’t just snap forward, they whirl around, and he does it with both speed and power. It’s easy to see why he’s so hyped. If there’s a knock to all of this, it’s that his combinations are not maximum effort all the time. His raw velocity sometimes wanes, like he’s bringing Billy Blanks into the bout, and doing that in the middle of a combination can allow opponents to grab a double-knee while he’s upright and less dangerous. I kind of wonder if Adesanya’s style won’t need a modest makeover against the elite.
Phil: Adesanya’s game is one of the kickboxing crossovers which seems well-suited for MMA. Power and stability guys seem to struggle with planting their feet and then get hit by takedowns, but mobile outside potshotters have worked more effectively in the small gloves environment. In many ways he’s Tavares’ complete opposite despite both being nominally kickboxers: Rhythmically broken where Tavares is rote, a finish-oriented, creative sniper where Tavares wears the opponent down with basics. He’s a surprisingly good takedown defender on his initial sprawl- he yanks his hips back out and wrenches the shot down. This is complemented by a good fundamental clinch game. If gaps between the two are exploited, his ground game just appears to be straight up bad, where his only real option is to lock up and wait for the round to end.
Insight from past fights
David: Tavares seems to have a blind spot for the left hook. He drops his right hand a lot for kicks, jabs, and takedowns. It’d be one thing if Whittaker was the only one who caught him (twice, brutally), but Boetsch did too. It’s one of those flaws that’s minor in the grand scheme of things, but major in intervals. If Adesanya can keep his range, he’ll have a selection of strikes from different stances (straight left, left hook, etc) to attack Tavares from. Since Tavares is somewhat vulnerable at range in general, I wonder how that part will go.
Phil: For me the moment when Tavares really surprised me was against Lorenz Larkin. Larkin still had a good deal of hype back then, and I was surprised at how the typically underwhelming Tavares seemed incredibly comfortable against a blazing fast, creative striker.
David: Having Abubakar Nurmagomedov will help keep Tavares focused on not doing anything stupid. He’s here to chew bubble gum, and take Adesanya down. If he’s smart, he’ll be all out of bubble gum come fight night.
Phil: Conceivably jet lag from Adesanya, or the home town advantage for Tavares, but in general Tavares is too blandly straightforward and Adesanya is too confident for me to really point to anything.
David: I’m somewhat perplexed. On the one hand, Adesanya does a lot of things efficiently that project to take advantage of Tavares’ sometimes inefficient range management. On the other, Adesanya’s ability to get back on his feet, while efficient, isn’t mechanically sufficient. Tavares will need to grind out a win. He can certainly do that. He often does. But how many exchanges on the feet can Tavares survive for the full bout? I feel like this fight will be played with each other’s weaknesses on display more than their strengths. Tavares gets pieced up at distance for a little bit, then Adesanya gets pieced up on the ground for a little bit, rinse and repeat. In an attrition war of weaknesses, I favor the more dynamic fighter, but not without extreme reservations. In which case, the judges hands are the final hands. Israel Adesanya by decision.
Phil: It does seem like an odd one. Can Tavares deliberately turn this into an MMA match? Because it’s not something he’s done much before, normally relying on the other man to initiate the grappling. If he can get some takedowns rolling, how much offense can he really get off? As I mentioned, getting a good RNC on Theodorou is not easy, so Tavares is not without threats on the mat. That being said, though, Tavares has been an absolute picture of consistency in wanting fights contested on the feet. While I have some questions about Adesanya’s cardio in a five-rounder, that seems like it’s a bad look for the Hawaiian. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 3.