Kelvin Gastelum vs. Israel Adesanya co-headlines UFC 236 this April 13, 2019 at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.
One sentence summary
David: Hurl, Interrupted
Record: Kelvin Gastelum 15-3-1 NC | Israel Adesanya 16-0
Odds: Kelvin Gastelum +160 | Israel Adesanya -170
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Adesanya is the closest thing the UFC has to someone who can end up a star. He’s a brilliant striker. He’s fun to watch. And he’s an easy listen. Even when he’s complaining about PC culture — or just breaking down his anime-inspired tattoos — I still find him intoxicating. Now the question is whether or not all of that can lead the UFC to the promised land of marketable yet dominant fighters. After all, beating Tavares and Brunson is nice. Beating Anderson Silva is more of a detour. None of these names protect the top. That’s where Adesanya belongs, but it’s not yet where Adesanya has proven his worth.
Phil: Israel Adesanya has had the most impressive debut run in the UFC since Conor McGregor. While he hasn’t ignited the same level of furious debate (McGregor was sidelined for a full year after his Holloway fight and still managed to monopolize every featherweight callout and online comment section), Adesanya has cruised up through the middleweight division, showing (largely) more impressive performances every time out. He can talk, he can meme and he can fight. His podcast with Dan Hooker is also good fun, I will add.
David: Gastelum has more or less solidified his place in the division. He’s a top contender; just not a champion. He’s coming off two big wins. One over Michael Bisping, who he killed. And one over Ronaldo Souza, who both put on a heck of a show. It was a nice run after his win over Vitor Belfort got overturned for something called marijuana. Gastelum is no longer a fighter ‘on the cusp.’ He’s also not champion material (double checks notes: forgot this was for an Interim belt). That doesn’t make these fights any less exciting.
Phil: Kelvin Gastelum made his way from the last pick on his season of the Ultimate Fighter, to one of welterweight’s hottest prospects, to being a title contender at middleweight. The whole thing has gradually developed a somewhat surreal air- Gastelum wasn’t a large welterweight, and at middleweight he’s downright stumpy. However, his absurd durability and excellent cardio have carried him through against the aging contenders at 185, with fighters like Tim Kennedy and Jacare exhausting themselves on him. The belt gimmick for Adesanya-Silva was incredibly cheesy, but it looks like it’s done its job.
What’s at stake?
David: Technically there’s some gold on the line, but it’s the kind of gold on the line that rich halfwits use to line their food hoping that no one notices how half-baked it all is.
Phil: On one level this is a particularly stupid interim, as Whittaker fought about a year ago. On the other, at least it’ll actually serve its purpose as a de facto title eliminator. The winner won’t be getting leapfrogged like Covington was, or the Poirier-Holloway winner has a good chance of being.
Where do they want it?
David: Adesanya is all about turning posturing into positioning. I don’t think “swagger” helps you win a fight, but it’s an intangible that has value. Israel like to creep, and inch his way toward punch entries. This accomplishes one of two things: 1) it baits out a counter or 2) allows Adesanya to creep further into the red zone. Adesanya’s offense doesn’t come from rote mechanics, or even eccentric outbursts. He’s a unique halfbreed, quietly suffocating his opponent’s stance with his own switching of foot movement, and turning that posturing into the optimal positional for a kick to the body from the orthodox stance, a bricking jab, or going southpaw to sneak in a right hook to punctuate combinations. Despite his reputation, Adesanya isn’t a crazy, balls to the walls striker. He’s much more intentional with his movements, and his knowledge of counter reactions doubles as its own takedown defense. Watching his fight against Brunson again, and I was struck by how easily he anticipating the takedown attempts. The ability to anticipate is a trait that translates across multiple actions.
Phil: Adesanya is one of the best strikers in MMA right now. Arguably the greatest mark against him is that he’s not a particularly phenomenal athlete, being both somewhat undersized for the division and without being visibly powerful. Despite this, he is rangy and high-paced, with a striking style which has translated exceptionally well from kickboxing. He’s very handsy, lingering patting shots on his opponents to blind and manipulate, which has fed through to an instinctive understanding of how to break grips on takedowns and fight in the clinch. While he doesn’t appear to be a deep grappled, and like Silva before him has a tendency to hold on for standups, it’s been very hard for even excellent wrestlers like Derek Brunson to get him down.
David: Gastelum hasn’t changed much. He has a powerful jab that he can change from flicking, to bricking, to sweeping. From there he kind of crashes in with different attacks: a classic two-piece, a takedown, clinch, etc. Gastelum is like a wrestle-boxer transitional fossil. He’s better than his peers, but the difference is in his cardio and toughness. Gastelum can do a lot, or very little, but one thing he’s not — a pushover.
Phil: Gastelum is straightforward to a fault. He hops in and out, and looks to either spear with a jab or pull back, and tries to get his opponent’s timing in order to crash with the one-two or three-two. That’s sort of it...? He has great strength, durability, cardio, and speed (particularly handspeed), and that has fuelled this minimalist approach. Fighters who strike with him risk his power, and grappling with him leads to exhaustion. He’s also a tremendous opportunistic submission threat, able to leap on the back and attack with the RNC in a heartbeat, but doesn’t really have the wrestling to make that a consistent threat.
Insight from past fights
David: It’s hard to say with Adesanya. People talk about his fight with Anderson as if it made him vulnerable. I think it was a calm, steady performance against a tough stylistic matchup. And he more or less shut Anderson down (keep in mind this is not the same as saying the fight wasn’t competitive: only that it wasn’t close). The Brunson fight didn’t teach us much either. Brunson was absolutely terrified. Gastelum won’t be terrified, and won’t play the standup game.
Phil: Gastelum’s fencing, hopping, in and out style has had a consistent vulnerability, namely lateral movement and reach. Chris Weidman and Neil Magny are not masters of defensive footwork, but by circling and sticking out jabs, they managed to frustrate Gastelum into walking into takedowns.
David: Depends on if Adesanya is willing to wear a more offensive shirt at the airport.
Phil: Nothing springs to mind. Perhaps Gastelum was inspired by his time with Cejudo’s belt.
David: The biggest problem for Gastelum here is that while I believe there’s an out here — stepping in for a quick, strong, overhand left — it’s also primetime for Adesanya to crack him with a knee. Israel Adesanya by Decision.
Phil: This is a tough matchup for Kelvin. Adesanya represents the elements that he’s struggled with, and Izzy won’t exhaust himself going strength for strength with Gastelum. While Gastelum’s chin and Adesanya’s comparative lack of power mean that a knockout seems unlikely, it’s hard to see Gastelum winning without a real lightning in a bottle moment. Israel Adesanya by unanimous decision.