Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya headlines UFC 259 this March 6, 2021 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.
One sentence summary
David: Phil’s favorite fighter gets to become a sacrificial lamb for a middleweight footnote
Record: Jan Blachowicz 27-8 Israel Adesanya 20-0
Odds: Jan Blachowicz +200 Israel Adesanya -220
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: I admit it. I’ve doubted Blachowicz every step of the way. Even when it was clear this was not the same lovable man who lost to Patrick Cummins and Jimi Manuwa. ‘Some losses just don’t wash’ I said. And yet now, not only is the man who owns the Light Heavyweight throne, but he’s the man who could single-handedly derail Adesanya’s legend train. Is this real life? Unlike his last fight, where I felt like Reyes and Jones both did little to prove their worth as elite 205’ersm in their bout and therefore picked Blachowicz to beat Reyes less because of Jan’s skills, and more via the default principle, the title holder is the clear underdog because the challenger is just so damn good.
Phil: Jan Blachowicz has been one of those rare belt holders where a big, big part of the appeal of his championship success was how incredibly unlikely it seemed. Sure, if you told me that Michael Bisping was ever going to be middleweight champ, I would have been shocked, but... Jan Blachowicz? The guy who got outworked by Corey Anderson, bullied by Jimi Manuwa and thoroughly broken down by Patrick Cummins? At least Bisping typically lost to really good guys. Yet here Jan is, scaring Jon Jones out of the 205lb division by being better than him, and in testament to genuine improvement (rather than just random LHW chaos), he’s convincingly avenged 2 out of 3 of those godawful losses.
David: To be honest, I don’t even know how we got here. Adesanya has definitely cleaned out the middleweight division, but he’s still fresh as a daisy in throne years. I’m not sure why we needed to rush Champ Champ status, but that’s the rage with kids these days, huh? One title to rule them all is not enough. You have to have two titles! How economically neoliberal of everyone. Where was I? I’m not complaining, by the way. Adesanya is so far ahead of his peers, it’s a valid curiosity — even setting the stage for two-division ruler. But it feels like an ‘out of ideas’ matchup. Like ‘hey we’re sorry these divisions are so thin on contenders that one champion can take up space in two rooms but do you want to watch fights or what!?’ ya know? I’m still complaining. I’m sorry. Adesanya can do whatever he wants.
Phil: Adesanya’s current trajectory is a result of the moribund promotional tactics of the UFC more than anything, I think. They took their cues from McGregor: accelerate as fast as possible, and for every success double down, because the losses are taken on the fighter rather than the organization. The comparison between this and the Silva-GSP era are stark, where the organization was downright coy about setting its champs off against each other. Now? Jones is (maybe) off to heavyweight, and Adesanya is up to 205 despite being one of the lighter middleweights on roster. As you said: I can’t be too mad about it, Adesanya has no real challengers that he hasn’t mopped up already. I can’t be too excited either- reference this tweet here for my feelings.
What’s at stake?
David: I’m not even sure I can handle any potential consequence for a Blachowicz win. Is Adesanya just not quite good enough for LHW, or has Blachowicz taken some kind of super soldier serum, and the fight world wasn’t prepared for his transformation?
Phil: Oh man that would rule. I guess the winner gets Glover Teixeira, and the loser gets... Jon Jones talking shit about them online?
Where do they want it?
David: Blachowicz is an interesting contradiction of skills. For a guy who moves forward so slowly, you wouldn’t expect him to be so fast on his backfoot. When he’s throwing feelers, or lead hands, they’re never as fast as when he’s sequencing a countercombination response, or the power hand-body kick combo that turned the skin around Reyes’ abdomen into a dark shade of menudo. His attacks can be easily anticipated, given how he lumbers forward, and yet not easily defended, given his shot selection of say...a lead uppercut. I never thought about it until now, mostly because I’ve always understated Jan’s skills and improvement, but now I see (beyond just the indulgence of appreciating what I used to think was an ironic obsession of all things Blachowicz on your part) how he’s come to have success: light heavyweight doesn’t punish lacking, slower, or less powerful mechanics. And that’s why the buck stops here. Adesanya ain’t no light heavyweight.
Phil: In his early UFC career, it seemed like Blachowicz was going to be hampered by the fact that he couldn’t finish most opponents, nor did he have the cardio to survive even a hard three rounds. In a rare turnaround, he improved his finishing power while also increasing his endurance. Like former lineal LHW champion Thiago Santos, a lot of his success comes down to just plain strike accuracy. He might not be taking the straightest line to the target, but when he’s coming with a lumbering Blachoblitz(tm), the shovel hooks and upjabs and whatnot are generally well aimed. Similarly, he has a surprisingly comprehensive toolset, in uniquely MMA ways: he jabs nicely, strikes effectively off clinch breaks, kicks into punches and vice versa, is a surprisingly decent counterpuncher, and even defends kicks well. He’s a decent offensive wrestler with a good top game. That these functional skills all float in a gloppy Rosół soup of... untraditional mechanics doesn’t obviate the fact that it’s all there. At LHW, it often isn’t.
David: I remember thinking the Paulo Costa fight was Adesanya’s to lose. Then I realized he couldn’t lose. A fighter like Costa, who doesn’t have the mind to make adjustments in-fight, would simply never solve Izzy’s movement: movement that as long as Adesanya is dedicated to, will always be able to assume the offensive or defensive role without ever having to commit to the strikes that typically proceed them. This continues to be his flowchart: early movement, heavy leg kicks, and systematic jabbing. Seems simple enough, and perhaps even easy to spot for an opponent, but that’s never the case. The feints help, but so does his ability to explode with violent combinations. It’s like the striking version of Khabib: he doesn’t need to actively have a hold of you in order for you to expend a ton of energy trying to keep him away. To the extent that Adesanya has faults, this won’t be the bout to “expose” them (sorry Phil).
Phil: Watching tape on the two fighters, it does seem a little cruel. The size difference isn’t pronounced in any of the meaningful ways (height / reach) and Blachowicz has generally tired when enforcing a physical game more than his opponent has. Other than that they share some commonalities, with the primary difference being that Adesanya is a picture of well-trained technique, and Jan... isn’t. The jab is straighter, the footwork better, the defensive reactions more well-honed. Adesanya is simply a more subtle fighter: much of his approach revolves around digesting information gleaned through simple feints. He picks up on timing and defensive reactions, whereas Blachowicz is more likely to bang away with variating his punch selection and kick followups on entry.
Insight from past fights
David: It’s funny. The last fighter I would compare to Adesanya on Jan’s dance card is...Goran Reljic??? Is that just dumb? I don’t count Reyes, because I honestly don’t think he’s who he’s billed as (good fighter; just false advertising). I don’t count Reljic either, but Reljic was once a moderately-hyped prospect (mainly because he was undefeated and debuted with a win over Wilson Gouveia — another moderately hyped prospect at the time), who has a toolsy, rangy striking game. In their bout, Reljic stuck Jan with leg kicks, and kept the bout fairly inert with probing strikes until Blachowicz landed an uppercut out of nowhere. None of this is relevant in almost every way except to note Blachowicz’ reaction at the time: he never looked pressured, or anxious. He bided his time. He sat. He waited. He might have even yawned. But he never lost sight of what he was there for, even if the matchup didn’t offer much action. It reminded me of an Oberyn Martell quote. “The lion may be, a mighty beast, but pride always lifts its gaze to the horizon, never seeing in the grass, the viper.” (didn’t work out well for Oberyn in the end...but I’m convinced this analogy for the theory of an impossible Blachowicz win is sound)
Phil: I do think Blachowicz has some things to offer Adesanya. Primarily is his jab: despite not being a tall light heavyweight, he’s still the most rangy fighter Adesanya has fought in MMA by some margin, and he has a good jab, doubling up on it and poking away in ways which have troubled Adesanya against fighters like Whittaker and Tavares. In addition, he can kick from his punches, which seems like a solid option against someone who leans back from punching exchanges. Adesanya is a good kick defender in general (the body shots he laced Costa with after a caught kick being particularly tasty), but if Blachowicz has to commit to the Blachoblitz, he could do worse than finishing it with a left middle or high kick.
David: I’m sure the Google Memo guy wrote something about the Balls-to-Prowess ratio, which would heavily favor Blachowicz. As we all know, Google Memo guy definitely did his research because the Intellectual Dark Web is a fan.
Phil: Good lord.
David: As fun as it is to see Blachowicz at the top, I suppose the fact that he was never long for the light heavyweight title world makes this no better place as a sendoff. The best chance for Blachowicz is not a puncher’s chance, but an obscene waiting game. This fight has the potential to be a bore, in case anyone’s curious. At least until the finish. Israel Adesanya via TKO, round 4.
Phil: I would love to see the fairytale ending for Jan, but the Jacare fight leaves me unconvinced that he’s a lock to outmuscle middleweights, and I just can’t trust his technique to hold up in the face of a vast speed advantage. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 4.