Israel Adesanya claimed the interim UFC middleweight championship belt via unanimous decision over Kelvin Gastelum in the co-main event of UFC 236 in Atlanta on Saturday.
The kickboxing wunderkind put on a masterful display of technique and power in an instant-classic five-round battle that had a little bit of everything.
Gastelum set the tone by taking the first round. His hand speed as he moved into range proved to be a key factor as he landed some notable left hands. He even scored a knockdown to highlight the frame, but it set the table for Adesanya to show whether he could adjust in the second round:
Question for Adesanya is, can he adjust to Gastelum’s speed and power. The strike selection isn’t likely to change that much if he can read it. #UFC236
Adesanya answered in the second round. With some time to figure out Gastelum’s timing he stunned his opponent several times in the second frame, flooring him with a hard right hand and later scoring big with a spinning back elbow:
The two knockdowns for Adesanya in Round 2 were a rare sight to see in a Gastelum fight:
That was the first time that Gastelum had been knocked down since his fight with Rick Story at UFC 171 on March 15, 2014 per Fightmetric
The tide continued to turn in The Last Stylebender’s favor in the third frame. He was more comfortable in his counter-striking in the period and answered questions about his defensive grappling abilities. He was taken down briefly but had no problem in getting right back up to his feet and keeping the fight standing up after.
The takedown defense answered a serious question about Adesanya as he continues to reveal to fans more of his game:
Gastelum doesn’t look like his gas tank will hold up. I thought he’d be able to take Adesanya down, but it turns out the Stylebender has solid takedown defense.
Gastelum wasn’t done making things interest, though. He landed a round-changing head kick that rocked Adesanya and set up an intriguing fifth round:
Adesanya showed the heart of a champion in the fifth and final round. He answered the call with a masterful performance that made him an interim champion and earned the judges’ nod, nearly finishing Gastelum as the final horn sounded.
This is just the latest step in a fascinating rise to the top for The Last Stylebender. The 29-year-old has now run his perfect record up to 17-0, including wins over Anderson Silva and Derek Brunson to go with the win over Gastelum.
Now, the question will be whether he can continue his rise to the role of champion.
The interim belt is a step, but it only guarantees that he’ll be the next in line to welcome Robert Whittaker back to the Octagon. Whittaker hasn’t seen action in the cage since June 2018 when he took a split decision from Yoel Romero.
It’s a fight that Adesanya has already been building up hype for even before picking up the win over Gastelum.
“Dude, the guy has fought twice in three years. Imagine me as champion in three years what I could do. My first year look what I did in UFC, so imagine me in three years what I could do,” Adesanya said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show (h/t Adam Guillen Jr. of MMA Mania). “And I actually work, I actually show up to work. Even though I don’t like it all the time, I actually get all the media s–t done.”
Whittaker was scheduled to fight against Gastelum at UFC 234 in February, but emergency surgery took him out of the fight.
Ariel Helwani of ESPN.com has reported that Whittaker plans on returning to action in June or August. When he does, it’ll be a new challenger in Adesanya waiting on him.