How Israel Adesanya Became the Middleweight Division’s Newest Problem

By: Kevin Wilson
Jul 11, 2018
International Fight Week 2018 has come and gone, leaving the combat sports universe with some of the best and worst performances of the year. Outside of Daniel Cormier, Israel Adesanya may have stood out most. The undefeated kickboxer intelligently dismantled Brad Tavares in “The Ultimate Fighter 27” Finale headliner on July 6 and has the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s middleweight division shaking in its collective boots.

What were some of the techniques and strategies Adesanya used to pick apart Tavares across five rounds and announce himself as a legitimate contender at 185 pounds? Take a look:

Striking Masterclass

Ahead of their encounter, many thought Tavares’ experience would be too much for a fighter making just his third appearance in the Octagon. However, those who have followed Adesanya’s kickboxing career knew he had the striking skills to hold his own with anybody in the division. Many kickboxers have a difficult time transitioning to MMA because of the smaller gloves, the threat of grappling exchanges, the shape of the cage and a host of other differences between the sports. So far, Adesanya has made a seamless move, using efficient footwork, timing and distance management as his main sources for success.

Long reach, footwork and fluid stance switching makes Adesanya almost impossible to hit or takedown. Tavares only landed 22 percent (40-for-174) of his strikes and eight percent (1-for-12) of his takedowns, as he spent most of the fight jabbing and leaping in with combos that were easily avoided. Early in the bout, Adesanya showed off some karate Switch 45 stance switches in which he would change stances while circling towards Tavares’ strong side and hoping the switch went unnoticed. Tavares was flustered with all the openings and closings of each stance and had a hard time landing anything other than jabs and the occasional leg kick.

Adesanya can hide his stance switches in a variety of ways and even showed some Dominick Cruz-style drop shifting into the opposite stance.

Adesanya’s height and reach was also key to his striking success. Notice the slight shift forward he takes to land his rear straight and the much larger step Tavares has to take to land the same rear straight. This space between the fighters is called the buffer zone. As the long, rangy fighter, Adesanya likes to keep a large buffer zone between opponents, so he can land his long strikes and his opponents must cover more distance to land their own.

Anytime Tavares was in range, Adesanya would extend his lead hand, keep his rear hand high and use a boxing shoulder roll to avoid strikes. This outreached lead shoulder roll takes Adesanya’s head off the center line and makes him an even further target to hit. The downside to the shoulder roll in MMA is that you are open to kicks on the side to which you are leaning, but Tavares was not able to exploit this weakness.

Adesanya’s usual hip feints to body kicks were also on display and were arguably the best strikes of the fight. Adesanya is always feinting and rarely throws naked strikes. Whether its hip and foot feints, jab and kick feints or pinwheeling with his rear hand, Adesanya is always looking to distract and draw reactions out of his opponents before coming forward with strikes. He spends the early rounds of fights feinting and throwing non-committed strikes to get a read on his opponent’s reactions and will build off those reactions to land combos later in the fight.

Despite fighting on the outside for most of his MMA career, Adesanya spent a lot of time trading in the pocket in his kickboxing days and showed flashes of it against Tavares. In one of the few moments both men were in range to land strikes, Adesanya took a step inside Tavares’ lead foot to land a jab and another step outside to land the rear straight and take his head off the centerline.

Adesanya is also adept at landing kicks as his opponents are recovering from missed strikes. After softening up the body in the first round, Adesanya slapped down Tavares’ jab and landed another kick to the body as he was slow to recover his stance.

The big question with fighters transitioning to MMA from striking-based sports like kickboxing centers on their grappling ability. Some transitioning fighters -- Stephen Thompson, for example -- only need adequate takedown defense to hold their own in MMA. Adesanya has taken this same approach and has stuffed 27 of 33 takedown attempts in his UFC career. When he has found himself on his back, he does look a bit flustered, but at only 28 years of age and having established himself as one of the best strikers in MMA today, he has plenty of time to develop his grappling game.

With confidence soaring, Adesanya attempted a few takedowns of his own, including an outside trip from the clinch and an Imanari roll to end the first round. Grappling interactions are not expected from striking-based fighters, so they allow Adesanya to get away with things a respected grappler might not.

Midway through the fourth round, Adesanya landed the best strike of the night with a hand-trap lead elbow. This is a staple technique in muay Thai but not often seen in MMA. For those wondering why Adesanya calls himself “The Last Stylebender,” the fight with Tavares provides the answer. In just this bout, he used techniques from Karate (Switch 45), muay Thai (hand-trap elbow), boxing (shoulder roll), judo (outside trip), Dutch kickboxing (body kicks) and jiu-jitsu (Imanari roll). The mixing of styles, along with exceptional footwork, distance management and cunning striking, makes Adesanya an anomaly that may not be solved anytime soon.

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