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Israel Adesanya fixed his sights on history long ago and now finds it within arm’s reach.
“The Last Stylebender” will attempt to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s fifth simultaneous two-division titleholder when he sets aside his middleweight strap and challenges Jan Blachowicz for the undisputed light heavyweight crown in the UFC 259 main event this Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Adesanya enters the cage with a perfect 20-0 record that includes 15 knockouts. He last appeared at UFC 253 in September, when he cut down Paulo Costa with a second-round volley of punches and elbows.
As Adesanya makes his final preparations for Blachowicz, a look at five of the moments that have defined his rise to power:
1. Close Call
Although he did so uncomfortably, Adesanya kept his perfect professional record intact and improved to 13-0 with a split decision over Marvin Vettor in their three-round UFC on Fox 29 middleweight showcase on April 14, 2018 at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. All three judges scored it 29-28: Derek Cleary and Chris Hayes for “The Last Stylebender,” Chris Lee for Vettori. Adesanya outlanded the former Venator Fighting Championship titleholder by small margins in the first and second rounds, nursed his lead and withstood a pair of takedowns from the Italian in the third. It remains his closest call to date inside the Octagon. Vettori has since emerged as a Top 5 middleweight, meaning a rematch between them no longer seems as far-fetched as it once did.
2. No Turning Back the Clock
Though it lacked the finality for which many had hoped, Adesanya cleared the final hurdle standing between him and a shot at the middleweight crown and did so with room to spare. “The Last Stylebender” poked, prodded and outmaneuvered the great Anderson Silva for the better part of three rounds and took a unanimous decision from the future hall of famer in the UFC 234 headliner on Feb. 9, 2019 at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia. All three judges sided with heavily favored Adesanya: 29-28, 30-27 and 30-27. Silva made headway in the second round and showed flashes of his former self before his younger, faster adversary reclaimed control. Adesanya doubled up “The Spider” in the significant strikes landed department and found another gear when it mattered most. He outlanded Silva by a 25-5 margin in the third round, removing any thoughts of an upset.
3. Mettle Tested
Adesanya captured the interim middleweight championship with a unanimous decision over “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner Kelvin Gastelum in an electrifying UFC 236 co-main event on April 13, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. “The Last Stylebender” emerged as the last man standing in what was widely hailed as the “Fight of the Year.” Their 25-minute engagement was marked by wild shifts in momentum. Gastelum drew first blood in the first round, where he had the City Kickboxing standout reeling with a sneaky but powerful right hook. Adesanya answered in the second, first with a chopping right hand that resulted in a knockdown and later with a spinning back elbow that revved the crowd’s engines. As they headed to the championship rounds, it appeared to be anyone’s fight. Gastelum opened a cut under the New Zealand-based kickboxer’s right eye and staggered him badly with a head kick, driving forward with punches in a bid to finish late in Round 4. Still, Adesanya refused to wilt. He did his best work over the final five minutes, as he threatened Gastelum with a standing guillotine, transitioned to a triangle choke and scrambled to his feet. Adesanya knocked down the fading Kings MMA rep three times in the last half of the fifth round and was closing in on a stoppage when the horn sounded, an audible buzz rippling through the audience.
4. Alone at the Top
When Adesanya first set foot in the UFC, there seemed to be far more hype associated with him than substance. “The Last Stylebender” has since silenced such skepticism. Adesanya arrived at the summit as the undisputed middleweight champion with his second-round stoppage of pound-for-pound stalwart Robert Whittaker in the UFC 243 headliner on Oct. 5, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, where a record crowd of 57,127 witnessed his coronation at Marvel Stadium. Whittaker bowed out 3:33 into Round 2, his reign atop the 185-pound weight class at an end after 660 days. Adesanya allowed “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner to lead the dance for much of the first round, then turned his aggression against him. Whittaker wandered into a counter right hand in the closing seconds of the opening period, hit the deck and might have met his demise there if not for the bell. Adesanya rattled him again early in the second round and later engaged him at close range in the center of the cage, uncorking a compact counter left hook that connected on the chin. Whittaker collapsed to the canvas, where a short burst of follow-up punches resulted in the stoppage.
5. Path of Least Resistance
The performance was pedestrian by his lofty standards, but Adesanya chose the safest—and perhaps wisest—way forward against an enigmatic but lethal challenger. Crushing leg kicks and evasive, risk-averse movement carried the City Kickboxing star to a unanimous decision over Yoel Romero, allowing him to retain his undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight crown in the UFC 248 main event on March 7, 2020 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Scores were 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46, all for Adesanya, who improved to 19-0 amid a chorus of boos from a crowd disappointed by inaction from both men. The striking totals were downright anemic for a five-round fight: Adesanya was 48-for-132, while Romero went 40-for-89. Romero connected with more impactful head shots—they included an overhand left in the first round that stopped the champion in his tracks—but they were too few and far between to make a difference on the scorecards. Adesanya’s commitment to leg kicks took an undeniable toll on the 2000 Olympic silver medalist, providing him with the separation he needed to maintain his hold on the 185-pound throne.