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I will start off by admitting that I was one of the many people picking Israel Adesanya to beat Jan Blachowicz, and do so handily. Moreover, I was heavily against Blachowicz in each of his last four fights. First, I thought Ronaldo Souza would defeat him. Admittedly, the Brazilian legend did win on some scorecards, despite bad corner advice telling him he was up three rounds to none and should coast in Rounds 4 and 5, though I personally had Blachowicz winning 48-47. I chalked that up to unfortunate circumstances. Next, I was certain Corey Anderson would administer an even worse beating to Blachowicz than he did in their first meeting. Blachowicz knocked him out in the first round, but hey, everyone knows that Anderson has a glass chin, the one glaring weakness in an otherwise tremendous fighter. Then, I was absolutely convinced that Dominick Reyes would dominate and humiliate the Polish fighter. Dead wrong again! Sure, I was impressed with Blachowicz's speed and accuracy, but I couldn't help noticing how flat and slow Reyes looked, as if he hadn't prepared properly. When Adesanya was announced as fighting Blachowicz, I thought this would finally be the opponent to expose the aging light heavyweight, even if I wasn't as confident as before. And yet again, Blachowicz proved me wrong. But there are no qualifiers this time. Blachowicz put on a masterful performance, hatching a perfect gameplan which he executed flawlessly. He defeated Adesanya, a fighter I've previously praised for his intelligence, at his own game, outwitting the middleweight champion and his fine coach, Eugene Bareman.
How did Blachowicz accomplish such a sensational feat? Let's examine the victory more closely.
To begin with, Blachowicz fought Adesanya in a completely different manner than he did Reyes. Against Reyes, Blachowicz would blitz forward with punches, especially when countering Reyes' jab. Against Adesanya, Blachowicz was instead patient, holding back, throwing more solitary strikes, and not always even looking to counter. This was already a bold move. A martial artist changing his normal style doesn't always work well, since it's not what got them to the top in the first place. In this case, however, Blachowicz must have been worried about what happened to Robert Whittaker, who very aggressively came forward and crashed the pocket against Adesanya, throwing big left hooks and overhand rights, only to be sniped with counters and knocked out for his efforts.
Blachowicz was also heartened by the fight Adesanya had against Yoel Romero, one that the UFC and its commentators are hell-bent on pretending never happened. It was ruthlessly boring, but I had Romero winning 48-47, as did a significant portion of media members and a majority of fans. Blachowicz may not be as fast as Romero or possess the same punching power, but he has far more energy and his reach is almost five inches longer.
Thus, Blachowicz dared Adesanya to initiate hostilities, rather than his usual countering. The commentators were making a big deal about Blachowicz biting on all of Adesanya's feints, but I don't see why this was necessarily bad. Certainly, if Adesanya used Blachowicz's unnecessary retreating to set up combinations, it would have been. But he never did. On the contrary, a danger against Adesanya is not reacting to his feints as all. He uses that information, waiting until later in the fight to throw the strikes for real. Essentially, Blachowicz was robbing Adesanya of opportunities. Retreating a few times when he didn't have to was a small price to pay.
Blachowicz also exposed an aspect of Adesanya's style I didn't fully appreciate until after the match. Namely, that his defense is predicated on having a giant reach advantage over his opponents. Pulling straight back at the end of one's jab like Adesanya does, usually a no-no in boxing or kickboxing, works great when, on top of good athleticism and reactions, one's arms are also vastly longer than the opponent's. When he would pull back against Whittaker or Romero, both of whom have reaches listed at 73.5 inches, or Paulo Costa, whose reach is 72 inches, their fists would just barely miss making contact with his face. Blachowicz's reach was 78 inches, however, so those same punches, even if they were a little slower due to being a heavier fighter, were making contact.
Now, all of that was not enough. Adesanya is still a better striker than Blachowicz, and he was starting to find his range, having considerable success in Round 3 and early in Round 4. However, the sport is mixed martial arts, not kickboxing, and this was where Blachowicz revealed a stroke of absolute genius: namely, his approach to the grappling. Joe Rogan wondered why the Polish champion didn't try to wrestle more early in the fight, but that would have been a mistake. Early on, Adesanya is not only stronger, but he has the energy to hip-escape, scramble or wall-walk back up after being taken down. Those takedowns would have been wasted. Later on, however, as Adesanya lost energy and wasn't feeling so spry, Blachowicz began grappling more. Initially, he clinched with the middleweight champion against the fence, feeling his strength and trying to deplete a little of his energy. Later on, as Adesanya also started finding his range striking, and was seeking to clearly win the rounds, he was coming forward more. That was when Blachowicz cleverly timed each of his double-leg shots. And with the two men having already fought for over 15 minutes, Adesanya simply didn't have the juice to get back up against the larger man with good top control.
Last but not least, I have to applaud Blachowicz for his excellent management of energy. His cardio has been an issue in the past, most notably in his loss to Patrick Cummins in 2017, a fight he was utterly dominating before gassing hard midway through the second round. And at 38, in one of the heavier weight classes, this was more of a concern than ever. But against Adesanya, he was again perfect in how he allotted his stamina. A lot of times we praise fighters who don't look remotely tired after going three or five rounds, but that's not always a good quality, particularly if they lose. Ideally, a fighter will expand enough energy during the course of a fight to feel very tired by its conclusion, but only have it visibly effect their performance near the end, or not at all. That's precisely what Blachowicz did. He slowed down in Round 4, and was noticeably breathing heavy in Round 5, but his performance was only minimally affected.
This outstanding strategy of Blachowicz, executed so well, even managed to outsmart the combined brains of Adesanya and Bareman, a hell of a feat by itself. The duo from New Zealand did many things correct with their preparation. I love that Adesanya didn't try to gain a lot of muscle, sapping himself of the speed and cardio he would need to win. And Adesanya was smart in not forcing matters and possibly running into a counter early. It was clear that the strategy was to start becoming aggressive as the fight wore on, which we saw in Round 3, and which Bareman reinforced by telling the middleweight king that Round 4 was the time to show his superiority. Unfortunately for them, Blachowicz threw a wrench in their plans with his brilliant use of grappling, which they might have thought was no longer going to be a worry this late in the contest. What should Adesanya have done? In my opinion, avoiding exchanges in the pocket early was correct, but he waited a little too long. He should have started becoming more aggressive and taking more risks halfway through Round 2, a point at which Blachowicz loses at least a little explosiveness, but it would have still been too early to wrestle. I'm sure if there is ever a rematch, they will make this and other adjustments.
Regardless, the night belonged to Blachowicz and his brilliant strategy. When you look back and wonder how he defeated Adesanya, realize that it was one of the smartest, most well-planned performances in MMA history.