A prizefight, like any sporting contest, is about telling a story. The back and forth, the ups and downs of a story are what make it compelling, dramatic. In the combat sports world, we talk a lot about “momentum swings,” but what we’re really talking about are thrilling twists, heartbreaking turns, and climactic moments of heroic triumph. The more treacherous the journey, the more satisfying the destination.
UFC 236 gave us two of the greatest stories ever told in the sport of MMA. Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier went to war for five savage rounds, neither able to overwhelm the other. As far as stories go, it was the war movie to end all war movies. But it was the co-main event that captured me.
Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum represent two very different approaches to the fight game. Gastelum, a phenom when he upset The Ultimate Fighter 17 tournament, seemed to have hardly changed in all that time. His style is defined by power, speed, and durability. At middleweight, Gastelum’s athleticism is a formidable skillset unto itself. Coupled with the determined confidence he has cultivated over the years, and—on a good day—the right gameplan, it has been enough to keep him among the aging upper echelon at 185 for the past two years.
Israel Adesanya is a different sort of animal. The Nigerian native has been training kickboxing since he first saw Ong Bak 11 years ago. Over the course of some six years, he established himself as one of the best in that game, before MMA called him. While he had dabbled in it all the while, Adesanya’s MMA career did not take off in earnest till 2016. In the space of three years since then, he has sliced his way through the middleweight ranks, overcoming tougher challenges with each outing.
There was no clear consensus on how the meeting between the two would go. Some expected Gastelum, as they had the five or six men before him, to teach the erstwhile kickboxer a thing or two about the ground game. Others expected him to take on Izzy in his element, and knock him out on the feet. Others still expected Adesanya to take Gastelum apart, more or less piece by piece—I was one of these.
Only those who predicted an instant classic were correct. Adesanya and Gastelum proved perfectly matched for one another, and together they put on a show that will not soon be forgotten by those who watched it live. They went back and forth. Each round ratcheted up the tension, as one violent little victory was answered with another. The momentum, like the fighters, started out swinging and never stopped.
The story of the fight is written in these singular, dramatic moments, and today we’re going to study them. Without further ado, let’s jump into round one.
It all began with lots of nervous tension. Gastelum kept Adesanya wary with flashes of speed. Adesanya maintained his pressure despite this, refusing to leave the fringes of Gastelum’s punching range. Right from the beginning, though, Kelvin was coming close.
Even if this were not an entirely transformed Kelvin Gastelum, it was clear that he had molded his style around an intelligent gameplan. No doubt coach Rafael Cordeiro had something to do with it. There are more than a few historic upsets bearing his fingerprints. And while Gastelum would drift away from his strategy at points, he remained a present danger right up until the final seconds of the fight.
Two minutes into round one, he surprised everyone—especially Adesanya—with a string of rapidly executed techniques.
1. Gastelum enters range with some aggressive defense. He traps Adesanya’s left hand with his right, thwarting an attempt to jab.
2. He slips to his right to get inside, parrying Adesanya’s extended left arm aside as he moves past it.
3. Now Gastelum changes levels and rolls to his left. Adesanya takes aim...
4. ...but he trouble with the moving target of Gastelum’s chin. His cross glances off.
5. Now Adesanya is in a compromised position, while Gastelum’s head movement has allowed him to close the distance.
6. Gastelum lands a glancing jab. Adesanya has just wasted a punch with his right arm, so he uses that hand in an attempt to keep Kelvin at bay.
7. Adesanya wants space, but he has to turn away to get it. Gastelum gets a grip on his outstretched arm as he retreats, inhibiting his movement.
8. Gastelum looks for the obvious left hand over the top, but Adesanya is retreating too quickly.
9. He abandons the punch before it lands, and instead feeds Adesanya’s wrist from his right hand to his left.
10. There is just enough resistance at the end of Adesanya’s arm to keep him from getting away. Gastelum leaps in with a right hook, touching Israel on the point of the chin.
11. Adesanya pays for his sloppy footwork. With no base to absorb the blow, he tumbles into the fence, barely staying off the ground.
While Adesanya is a little susceptible to pressure
Gastelum’s game has always seemed a little... crudely bolted together. The examples of his potential are many. He’s shown effective head movement in the past, yet he never seems to consider moving his head while doing anything else. He shows slick creativity in scrambles on the ground, but never on the feet. His hands are split-second quick, and they connect with that shotgun-blast power that opponents are never prepared for till they feel it; yet he spends about 90 percent of his time hopping forward to throw the same one-two combo over and over. The man has skills. It’s the consistency and connection between those skills he usually lacks.
Here, however, Gastelum’s game was chugging along with smooth efficiency. Firstly, head movement is essential for closing on a lengthier fighter. Gastelum might have squared his feet momentarily, but he kept his head moving as he advanced, without ever taking his eyes off the opponent.
Gastelum has almost always been a one-two or three-two fighter. Everything he throws serves only to set up his killer left cross. Here, however, he quickly recognized that the left hand was not available. Had he committed to throwing it, he would have only lost his balance as Adesanya slipped away. Instead, he resorted to some truly innovative technique. How often have you seen a fighter grab hold of his opponent’s wrist from long range and, in the space of a split second, pass that wrist over to their opposite hand in order to throw a punch? Gastelum’s extended combination is uncharacteristic, as is the fact that he punctuated it with the right hook. The eagerness with which he leapt in to land, however, is true to his nature.
Round one went to Gastelum, no doubt about it. Yet for all of the newfound complexity in his attack, he could not put Israel Adesanya away. He had to keep striking with him, and by the end of round one, most of his shots were missing. The knockdown only seemed to sharpen Adesanya’s focus. Afterward, his mind was wholly trained on Gastelum. Adesanya has his weaknesses, but he is truly a master of striking. His technique is so automatic that he’s able to think about the fight in all directions. When something works, he notices, and adjusts.
Anyone could knock Adesanya down with a combination on the right night, but not many could get the same trick to work twice. At the start of round two, Adesanya was comfortable enough with Gastelum’s moves to start applying a few of his own. Three times in quick succession he laid his shin across Gastelum’s ribcage. He began to pressure more, and backed it up with more combinations of his own.
Gastelum knew he had to push Adesanya back again. But Israel was no longer content to sway around on the end of a drawn-out combination. He also knew that playing defense was not a viable option. If Gastelum was going to press forward, he needed to stop him.
1. Gastelum closes with a hard jab.
2. Gastelum uses some of his characteristic footwork. He hop-steps into the pocket, chasing his own jab. Adesanya tries a counter right, but misses the moving target.
3. Now Gastelum throws the two. Adesanya partially blocks it.
4. The two fighters reset.
5. Gastelum lurches forward to land another jab.
6. This time, however, Adesanya anticipates the forward rush. He takes a step back.
7. Gastelum begins to skip forward after his jab, again. His footing is awkward.
8. Adesanya’s outstretched arm helps off-balance Gastelum as he retreats.
9. Despite stumbling, Gastelum throws a searching left hand. It falls short, hitting Adesanya’s chest.
10. Adesanya’s partial retreat has left him in perfect position to counter. He cracks Gastelum across the jaw before he can pull back out of range.
11. Kelvin goes down in round two.
This sequence is a vivid illustration of the contrast between these two fighters. Kelvin Gastelum’s defining trait might be his toughness, not only physical but mental. There are more than a few shades of Carlos Condit in this man. He fights as if he believes himself unbreakable, and maybe he’s right.
Confidence and determination are powerful weapons, but they can be treacherous. Like Adesanya, Gastelum notices when something works, but he is far more focused on his own actions. When he found some success with a staggered one-two, he was sure to try it again. And even if he lost his footing in the pursuit, he was always going to reach for Adesanya with the hardest punch he could muster. That confidence is essential to Gastelum’s style, just as adaptation is essential to Adesanya’s.
As for this particular adaptation, there are a couple of interesting details. Initially, he retreats with a simple backward step. As Gastelum barrels forward, however, Adesanya hop-steps to create more space. This time, instead of turning away and getting out of position, he angles to face Gastelum from an angle. Just as Gastelum’s left hand misses the mark, Adesanya uses the hand on his head to line him up for the left hand. Note that Adesanya continues to adjust his position as he strikes. He takes a small step with his left foot while his right is winding into the cross. This opens his hips and gives him more leverage to punch straight through the target. Gastelum’s positioning is a funhouse mirror’s reflection of Adesanya’s, so he cannot withstand the blow.
Check back for part two of this article, in which we’ll take a look at the last three rounds, each more action packed than the one before.
For more analysis like this, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.