In March of 2017, Israel Adesanya stepped into the kickboxing ring for the last time. The opponent was Alex Pereira, and Adesanya spent much of the first two rounds picking him apart. He was too fast, too fluid, too accurate—until he wasn’t. 42 seconds into round three, Adesanya left an opening. A small one. Countering inside of Pereira’s looping right with a straight left, he pulled back, and promptly received 185 pounds of Brazilian left hook on the point of the chin.
It was the first and only time Adesanya has ever been knocked out, and it may have had something to do with Adesanya’s renewed efforts to pursue his MMA career, a process which led him here, to the UFC middleweight title, and a fight with one of the most dangerous and durable fighters on the planet—a man with a penchant for sudden, third-round knockouts.
Meet Yoel Romero, the scariest man in MMA.
One of Yoel’s greatest strengths is arguably his greatest weakness. He is a masterful tactician, able to pick up on tiny nuances of timing and position and punish patterns with unmatched violence. But the other side of the tactical coin is strategy, and when it comes to winning rounds, Romero has always been inconsistent at best. While he is measured and savvy enough to avoid going full Brian Ortega, the remarkable thing about many of Romero’s finishes (eight out of 11 of which came in the third round) is that he may not have won without them. Tim Kennedy, Chris Weidman, and Derek Brunson were all headed to a close decision before Romero dispatched them; all but one of his four defeats came from the scorecards.
A slim majority of fans argue that Yoel deserved the decision in his second fight with Robert Whittaker, but alongside the two rounds in which he delivered life-changing knockdowns are another two in which he stoically suffered something in the neighborhood of ten billion jabs to the face. Were it not for the superhuman toughness of Robert Whittaker, the fight may very well have ended in the ninth third-round finish of Romero’s singular career. Were it not for those knockdowns, however, no one of right mind would dare dispute the decision.
How does a man so susceptible to being outmaneuvered and outworked find so many knockouts? Power would be the easy answer, and Romero has plenty of it, but so does Derek Brunson, and yet—quite opposite to Romero—Brunson is usually done for if he can’t put his opponent away in the first few minutes. Why do Romero’s knockouts always seem to sneak up on his victims, and why so often in the third round?
Yoel Romero is a remarkably calm fighter—a trait he shares with Adesanya. At range, his movements are fluid and deceptively slow, almost hypnotic. He loves to establish a sort of gentle, undulating rhythm in his opponent’s mind, which makes the sped-up ferocity of his attacks that much harder to anticipate.
Infrequency can be an asset as well. While MMA is a sport increasingly defined by volume, Romero averages only about 7.4 strikes per minute. That’s less than the approximately nine per minute that Adesanya puts out, but even those numbers fail to really capture the difference between these two fighters.
Adesanya’s average is surely dragged down by his usually slow starts, balanced against the high number of strikes he throws in later rounds. He threw 44 strikes in the first round against Whittaker, but 51 in the minute and a half it took to finish him in round two—in other words, he went from nine strikes per minute to a staggering 20 over the course of two frames. Against Kelvin Gastelum, he went from 32 in the first to 57 in the fifth, nearly doubling his output.
Romero’s output also differs from round to round, and it would also be fair to describe him as a slow starter—virtually the only sense in which the word “slow” can be applied to the man. Yet Romero’s starts are far more measured; Adesanya tends to throw a lot in the second round, for instance, aggressively testing the first round’s reads, whereas Romero rarely establishes any kind of pace till the third. Even within rounds, Romero’s pacing is unique. His bursts of offense are more dramatic, and far, far fewer between, with long periods of almost total inactivity in nearly every fight.
Romero’s physique surely has a lot to do with this. Built like a superhero on a juice cleanse, he can only afford a few murderous explosions over the course of a fight. Adesanya’s lithe frame, requiring so little cutting to make the middleweight limit, is a stark contrast. Then again, some of it is technical. Romero tends to throw everything he has into every action: he simply cannot maintain the kind of pace enabled by Adesanya’s smooth, effortless striking. Some of it, too, is a matter of style: Adesanya only wants to strike, but Romero is often keen to use his world-class wrestling.
But for all that Romero’s body dictates his style, his mind has adapted to those limits. Romero is a keen, intelligent fighter. None of that downtime is wasted. Rather, Yoel spends his periods of inactivity studying his opponent, making reads that bear fruit later in the fight. And while his lulls leave him prone to being outworked (though his defense is quite good), he can still frustrate his opponent. Romero specializes in making reads while giving his opponent very few. Better than that, in fact, he gives his opponents only the reads that he wants them to have, by way of that unique, snake-charmer’s rhythm.
Take Romero’s fight with Chris Weidman from 2016. After doing very little and losing the first round on volume, Romero began feinting for Weidman’s legs in round two. Because a lower base means superior leverage, many fighters will change levels with their opponent to balance the position. Weidman, however, repeatedly pulled straight back in response to these feints. Three minutes into round two, Romero decided to lend some weight to the threat: he shot on Weidman’s hips.
It was uncommitted, and unsuccessful, but Weidman soon retaliated with an attempt of his own, which let Romero hit one of his signature footsweeps, followed shortly by two more successful takedowns from the clinch. These may or may not have earned Romero the round, but they certainly established the credibility of his wrestling threat, and he ended the frame on top. Going into round three, Romero suspected that Weidman would have to take his feints a little more seriously.
It turned out that he was correct. Less than 20 seconds into the third, this happened:
1. Weidman presses forward, and Romero steps back, drawing him on.
2. A drop feint from Weidman cues Romero in on the fact that he’s thinking about wrestling.
3. Romero steps back again, encouraging Weidman to move forward.
4. Once the distance has closed again, Romero feints hard, dropping his level.
5. Weidman ducks down to match him.
6. The dip turns Romero’s legs into springs, propelling upward as he drives a knee into Weidman’s skull.
7. EA can’t match these ragdoll physics.
Weidman came out pressuring, and pulled out a low feint of his own. Reason enough to believe that he was in wrestling mode, and without wasting another second, Romero changed levels. Weidman dropped with him, and Romero’s knee met his chin on the way down.
This is the way Yoel Romero fights. He conserves his energy. He defends himself from the higher output of his opponent, and no-sells everything that connects. And all the while, he studies their habits, probes their defenses, and plots their violent demise. If there is any fighter who can replicate the success of Alex Pereira, a power puncher who survived two lopsided rounds only to deliver a crushing KO in the third, Yoel is surely that fighter.
Then again, ceding the initiative to Israel Adesanya might be the most dangerous thing Romero could do.
We have already noted the contrast in aggression between Yoel and Izzy. While Romero does little in the hopes of giving little away, Adesanya is far more concerned with drawing reactions out of his opponent early and often, and he does not wait nearly so long to start exploiting them.
Lacking Romero’s one-shot power, Adesanya is less concerned with creating single moments of catastrophic vulnerability. Rather, he is what I would call a “builder.” There is an uncanny flow to the way that Adesanya strings together feints and strikes, a constant simmering heat that allows him to create and punish one opening after another, in quick succession. Israel’s opponents often seem either totally defensive or recklessly aggressive; it all stems from the nerve-wracking pressure produced by his fighting style.
Here’s just one of the befuddling attacks he put on Brad Tavares in 2018.
1. Adesanya measures with an extended lead hand.
2. A strong hip feint from Adesanya. Tavares takes the weight off his front leg, preparing to check, and freezing himself in place for just a moment.
3. Adesanya capitalizes, throwing a tricky left straight that forces Tavares to bring his guard up high and tight, exposing his body.
4. After landing the punch, Adesanya keeps his fist posted in Tavares’ face, distracting him and obscuring his vision. At the same time, he hops forward to reset his feet for the next strike.
5. Izzy lashes Tavares’ ribs with the same kick he had initially feinted, sneaking the strike under Brad’s guard.
In a sequence like this, we can really appreciate the gulf between Romero and Adesanya’s respective styles. When Adesanya rotates his body to feint the kick, he takes power away from the hand on that same side. The straight left in frame three, above, is what you might call a “soft” punch: there is no coiled energy being unleashed from that position, one in which the right hook is the much more obvious weapon. In a sense, Adesanya attacks from the “wrong” side, sacrificing power, simply because that is the strike his opponent is least prepared for. It’s a strong contrast to Yoel Romero, who spent ten minutes preparing to load everything he had into the one strike that would end Chris Weidman’s night.
It’s hard to overstate the speed with which Adesanya makes reads like this. His decisions are so fluid as to defy the term; they are not thought out, but felt in the moment. Like Romero, Adesanya likes to start a fight cautiously, gathering information and doing little to capitalize on it. Unlike Romero, this phase is usually short, and followed by an almost continuous series of attacks. The cross opens up the kick; the kick opens up the jab; the jab opens up the wide right, which leads neatly into the clinch. Thrown or merely feinted, every single one of Adesanya’s attacks informs his next choice.
Yoel Romero’s style is one which hinges on make-or-break moments. Without his frightening power, his sharp eyes, or his unbreakable poise, his game would be patently ridiculous. And yet, most of the time, Romero does find the finish he needs. He hides his intentions behind a wall of deceptive swagger, holding himself back till he is sure he sees the knockout coming.
Israel Adesanya’s intentions, on the other hand, are concealed by many other intentions. Constantly feinting, touching, stabbing, armed with a bottomless bag of tricks, he gives his opponents no choice but to fall into an endless series of traps, with the springing of one acting as the set and bait for the next.
On Saturday, Adesanya will almost certainly take and hold the momentum through the first two rounds. Romero may attempt to use his wrestling advantage early, a strategically sound choice, but of his two fights with Robert Whittaker, the one in which he started out wrestling was the one everyone agrees he lost. More likely, Romero will do what he usually does: wait, watch, and let Adesanya dig his own grave. Can he still calculate when faced with Adesanya’s layers upon layers of lightning offense? Perhaps not. But a shot of early momentum may provide all the confidence Adesanya needs to leave himself open for the one punch that loses him the belt.
For more on Adesanya-Romero and the finer points of face-punching, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands.