Adesanya can enter UFC’s elite with victory in NY Sunday
Just three fights into his UFC tenure, the world is watching Kiwi star Israel Adesanya.
His fight for a spot inside the top five of the middleweight division at UFC 230 in Madison Square Garden this Saturday is one of the highlights of that promotion.
At each step of his accelerated UFC career, the 28-year-old faces a barrage of questions about his grappling ability and a potential maelstrom of criticism should he stumble.
Despite the pressure clearly mounting ahead of his debut at the iconic New York coliseum, Adesanya is embracing the scene with characteristic confidence.
“It's history making for me,” he says. “I went to [a] Knicks game at the Garden a couple of days ago and got to feel the vibe. I made the walk to where the cage would be and rehearsed it many times in my head. I’m ahead of the game, I’ve already switched into level two, and my opponent is still loading.
“Although DC (Daniel Cormier) and the Beast (Derek Lewis) are the main event (in the UFC Heavyweight Title), I’m the one who will steal the show.”
With two “performance of the night” bonuses in his three UFC bouts to date, it’s hard to deny he has walked his talk, so far.
But he faces a different beast in sixth-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson. The wild North Carolina southpaw is the first high-level wrestler he has faced and brings a string of first round knock-outs with his brutal one punch KO power.
Brunson’s unorthodox left-handed repertoire combined with his high-risk style make him a logistical nightmare for an elite technician like Adesanya, particularly early in the fight. Typically, however, the astute Adesanya team appear to have read the book on the 34-year-old and believe their man has the right game plan to win.
“The dangers he brings are is his awkwardness and chaotic style,” acknowledges Adesanya. “His off-timed attacks are how he gets is first round knockouts. But that's with people who don’t understand striking on my level. I’m not a punching bag who’s going to stay in the kill zone. With me, he’ll be hitting fresh air and getting cracked with a swift, swift counter.”
“The way to fight crazy is with crazy, but his chaos is just random, my chaos is organised so I’ve got the calculated chaos to whip him.”
Brunson, or “Bumson” as Adesanya dismissively refers to him, is MMA’s equivalent of boxer Dereck Chisora or Ray Mercer during the eighties. The 13-fight UFC veteran only loses to the absolute elite and will starch you if you make a mistake. Regardless of the Nigerian born Kiwi’s assessment, he brings a clear and present danger, evident in his first round KO of former champ and UFC legend Lyoto Machida in October last year.
Although it’s widely accepted Adesanya’s striking game should be too much for Brunson on the feet, the wrestling pedigree of the three-time division two All-American wrestler is not something he’s faced before.
Khabib Nurnargomedov’s recent destruction of Connor Macgregor is a timely reminder that you can’t execute on your feet if you are suffocated on the ground. It’s a common critique of the former world champion kick-boxer, who is used to deflecting questions on his grappling ability.
“I wouldn’t overstate his wrestling pedigree, he’s got a really blank-head style. It’s not calculated. He tries to drag you down and commits everything to taking you down. But, when he fails multiple times, it’s the same shit. He realises he can’t take me down and he’ll start to panic. That's when I move in for the kill.”
It’s a great internal narrative, and a necessary one to sustain the self-belief required for elite performance at this level. But reality can bite if you’re not physically prepared for the soul sucking intensity a sustained grappling attack can bring. If Brunson can live on the feet long enough to construct take down attempts, it will absolutely challenge Adesanya’s grappling defence and physical resolve.
In many ways a longer fight, which tests Adesanya’s take down defence under pressure, would be an ideal plot on his leaning curve as he eyes the top tier of the division.
Victory will see him join a pool of apex predators in one of the most talented weight classes in MMA. Yoel Romero, Jacre Souza, Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman and the champion, Robert Whittaker, are each assassins with well-rounded MMA games. Four out of that five are elite grapplers, so the opportunities for learning bouts are few and far between for the abundantly talented Kiwi.
The world awaits what victory may bring but, for now, the fast-rising Kiwi star must vanquish the sixth-ranked middleweight in the world, and continue to prove the doubters wrong - something he’s supremely confident about.
“Everyone is asking me to predict, but I’m a calculated fighter not a psychic,” he says.
“By my calculations, I have three ways this fight goes: I smack him up late in the first and finish him in the second round. I catch him off balance and starch him in the first round, or I might just submit him to prove to critics I have a ground game too. That's how I see the fight going.”