Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero headlines UFC 248 this March 7, 2020 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.
One sentence summary
Phil: Some comic book shit
Record: Israel Adesanya 18-0 | Yoel Romero 13-4
Odds: Israel Adesanya -250 | Yoel Romero +230
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Adesanya is at the top of MMA’s layer cake. Not only is he a technical marvel — something the UFC has rarely been able to advertise when going back the days of Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Tim Sylvia — but he’s a strong personality who doesn’t use obnoxiousness as a substitute for charisma (see Sonnen, and to a lesser extent, McGregor before he became a caricature of himself). Nor is at war with himself, like Jon Jones. He’s one of MMA’s rare gifts. This weekend, he’s not exactly getting one.
Phil: Israel Adesanya has had a fairly similar trajectory to Weili Zhang in the co-main event: a blue-chip prospect who has performed as well as humanly possible over a short and extraordinarily impressive UFC run. A loss to another phenom in Alex Pereira in kickboxing was the end of his time in that sport, and since then he has been flawless over the course of his MMA career. He hails from City Kickboxing, which also produced Alexander Volkanovski and has a serious claim to being the best gym in the world right now. While Adesanya hasn’t been quite the star that the UFC wanted (let’s be real, they wanted another McGregor), he’s still one of the most exciting men to watch in the UFC today.
David: Romero’s current record looks bad in terms of optics. “He’s won one fight in his last four!” True. But numbers can be deceiving. Not only should Romero be replacing his hip, but he stuck in Paulo Costa and Robert Whittaker in a meat grinder; two of the division’s absolute best (I case could easily be made for Romero in some of these; especially the Costa fight IMO). Somehow he’s doing it the Young Man way, forcing his opponents into warzones. It’s kind of insane, really. Kind of like Romero.
Phil: Yoel Romero continues to look like he is simply from another planet to the rest of us humans. When he first came into Strikeforce, it was reasonable to assume that we were watching the last embers of a furnace of athleticism. It’s possible to get into MMA later in life than a lot of other sports, but mid-30s seems like it’s pushing it in the modern era. That was 8 years ago, and Yoel is 42 now, and somehow looking better than ever. If he falls short again, then there’s always a career as a motivational speaker waiting. Utterly terrifying and inspirational is a fairly unique blend.
What’s at stake?
David: Their health.
Phil: Middleweight championship of the world. Romero is only getting the shot because Paulo Costa is injured, but this is one of those fights like Condit-Lawler where it’s hard to care about the rankings or the legitimacy or whatever, because the fight itself is so fantastic.
Where do they want it?
David: There’s not much to add here. Adesanya is simply a rare talent. Remember how Rose Namajunas put Joanna in a punch casket by entering the zone with feints and head movement? Now times that by 11, crank the volume to Pantera, and set the speed to Tachyon. Every part of Adesanya’s game flows into the way he moves, shifts, and anticipates. He manages to execute a game with blue and white collars. While the Gastelum fight is often seen as an example of Adesanya being vulnerable, it’s actually a highlight of his informal strengths. Once Adesanya began learning more, and anticipating better, Gastelum got absolutely thrashed. Gastelum has one of MMA’s great chins, and Adesanya was seconds away from putting him down. I would love to write an essay on Adesanya’s strengths but let’s just leave it at that.
Phil: Adesanya has become, as my co-host Connor puts it, one of the best builders in the sport. He’s a extremely handsy fighter, a natural proclivity which I think has helped him to accelerate his development in MMA- he likes to reach out, grab, parry, prod and redirect. This in and of itself is kind of interesting, because when we used to think of crossovers, the classic example was Machida with a style based around complete risk mitigation and total distance. Instead, Adesanya has developed a powerful technical game which fits into the grimy physicality of MMA like a glove. He’s an excellent clinch fighter and a natural counter wrestler who fights grips and scrambles quickly back to his feet, and his lack of fear in getting up close means he can leverage his technical edges all the more effectively. The difference between the two men is profound: whereas Romero seems to construct himself wholesale during a fight, Adesanya instead sculpts his opponent into the shape that he wants with padding, poking jabs, and hard low and body kicks.
David: Romero is a blight on the phrase “wrestle-boxer.” I call him a Boxler. It’s a word that has zero meaning except to me, since I uncreatively just coined it: Romero doesn’t even use his wrestling as a defensive tool so much as a Jedi mind trick. His striking isn’t even offensive or defensive. It’s the chaotic neutral. Or something else. To paraphrase Deleuze, ‘Yoel Romero constantly presents the brashest performance as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes the individual against one another, and runs through each, dividing both men from within.’
Phil: I will never figure Yoel Romero out. His second fight against Robert Whittaker honestly looked like one of those bouts that both men might never recover from- not only due to the insane damage that Whittaker soaked up, but just due to the absolute insanity of Romero’s approach, where he essentially allowed Whittaker to bury him under a barrage of front kicks and jabs for a full two rounds before surging in the third. Then he had that fight with Paulo Costa where he actually outlasted the hulking Brazilian and ended up on the upper side of an insane brawl. The main question to consider is how to parse what Romero can do with what he is going to do. The only thing that is ever-present is his defense: he’s hard to hit clean, maintains distance well, and bounces shots off his arms and elbows. On offense he can vacillate between the stiff, ambidextrous jabs he was busting Costa up with or just huge lunatic swings. Romero is of course an absurd wrestler, but he has struggled to really make it count against anyone except Brad Tavares.
Insight from past fights
David: It’s hard to say. Both fighters are legit versions of one of those cliched Roganisms: “it’s impossible to train for a guy like that because nobody’s like him.”
Phil: Who is the closest analogue to each of these men on their recent records? I think Romero is still just about close enough to Anderson Silva to be illustrative: a crafty, weird old southpaw with a tendency to burst out of a deceptive torpor with horrifying speed. The main difference is of course that much of Anderson’s explosion is now a bit of an illusion, and Romero’s is anything but. The other one is, I think, Romero-Rockhold. The former champion did fairly well in leading Romero around the cage and landing jabs, and it was only his own horrendous defense on the back foot which undid him. Essentially,there’s things to find with either man.
David: Who knows. Let’s just get this damn thing started!
Phil: I’d suggest “age” for Romero if I didn’t think that entropy was scared of him. I guess for me it’s really just whether he decides to go for his wrestling.
David: Zero clue. The safe pick is obviously Adesanya. But Romero is a smart fighter despite all the eccentric gruff. Age seems just as interesting in getting in his way as his opponents, and the fight will get even more interesting in the later rounds. Despite Romero’s gifts, his losses all have the same thing in common; Romero doesn’t lose his temper until it’s time to lose his temper. Unlike his past opponents, Adesanya is good enough defensively to avoid anything crazy. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 2.
Phil: What a fight. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be edge-of-the-seat, fascinating stuff, and potentially absolute madness. I have to pick Adesanya- he’s the more consistent round-winner, and I suspect Romero will give him too much runway. If I picked Romero, it’d have to be by finish, and I think the more likely outcome is Israel Adesanya by unanimous decision.