UFC 253 sober play-by-play: Israel Adesanya made it look so easy by being so smart

It’s been awhile since I’ve dusted off the ole’ play-by-play chops. I never had them to begin with, granted, but I want to bring…

By: David Castillo | 3 years ago
UFC 253 sober play-by-play: Israel Adesanya made it look so easy by being so smart
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

It’s been awhile since I’ve dusted off the ole’ play-by-play chops. I never had them to begin with, granted, but I want to bring them back because I believe that philosophy is all around us: even when it has to do with humans beating the shit out of other humans. And in philosophy, one of the oldest concepts since Marcus Aurelius was told to avoid public schools — is causation.

The relationship between cause and effect can be simple enough. A punch resulting in a knockout has a clear cause and effect relationship between one another. But MMA is such a grindy tapestry of competing violence particles that monocausal narratives never work.

Just because Israel Adesanya finished the fight in the second round doesn’t mean he didn’t win in the first. But just how bad was it? Could Paulo Costa have done things differently? I decided to watch the fight again with fresh eyes, and less beer.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Question 1: Did Paulo Costa lose the fight in the first thirty seconds?

This was my first question after re-watching the first thirty seconds. Observant fight analysts have noted Adesanya’s half-step lowkicks for some time. Part of what defines Israel’s striking ability is how he can pressure without throwing. Feints, square-ups, pivots, half steps: if there’s a name for it, Israel’s got it.

Within the first thirty seconds versus Costa, Adesanya has not only landed a few half-step lowkicks, but each one was followed up with a vicious scoop kick. It’s not even a minute in, and already Adesanya is mastering distance with a comprehensive leg attack: one at full range, one at midrange.

The end result is Costa feeling the pressure early. Eventually Costa throws and lands a body kick. It’s kind of a nothing attack. The kind of movement you make when you laugh after a humiliating joke directed at you to hide real pain. Costa’s kick sets the stage for what I think becomes one reason why his attack just disappears like a Proud Boy at an NFL training camp: when Costa lands the only attack of note on Adesanya, he does so breaking one of the cardinal rules — he’s too damn close (perhaps expecting Adesanya to back up).

Adesanya doesn’t counter, but he’s become better at settling into the pocket. He calls Costa’s bluff and squares up immediately after taking it. You can actually see Costa’s ‘oh shit’ body posture in response. Adesanya doesn’t pounce right away, instead resetting, and lands another leg kick. It’s 3:53 into the first round and already Adesanya is making the fight feel claustrophobic.

Question 2: Or did Adesanya win it in the first minute with great sequencing?

I see a lot of takes on this fight because this is part of my job, and because philosophy is nothing without a dialogue, whether explicit or implicit. And I see stuff like ‘Costa was frozen. Costa just didn’t come to win. Costa’s head wasn’t right. He choked.’ Even Dana peddled this narrative at the press conference. Well these things can be true, but that doesn’t mean they happen in a causal vacuum. Adesanya’s progression from a counter-based approach to Guns of the Navarone had Costa on edge from jump street. Costa may look like the villain from Only the Strong*. And be just as ridiculous. But he’s one of the better cagecutters, so we have every reason to assume that Costa understands the attack progression he’s seeing from Adesanya — and is therefore terrified by it. Adesanya’s giving him everything, but showing him nothing.

Israel’s lower body attack was flawless in this fight. Even his leg kicks in the middle of the round had different progressions from his earlier work. After starting with his patented half-step lowkicks, he went to quick release lowkicks, and then to quick pause lowkicks — indicating little to Costa in terms of whether Adesanya was assuming an offensive role, or a defensive one. This is an easy spot for most fighters, but Adesanya isn’t most fighters.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Question 3: How much did Adesanya’s jab have to do with pulling away early?

The other thing that allowed Adesanya to pull away early, at least tactically, was pumping the jab. He didn’t land very many, but he threw them often. One of the most dangerous combinations in MMA is also its most basic: the one-two. You don’t have to throw it to command respect, and that’s what Adesanya was doing: forcing Costa respect a punch he hadn’t even thrown (the follow up cross, which of course, becomes significant later).

All those brutal combinations Costa was known for? He tries one at 1:34 in the first. Adesanya misses an inside thigh kick, leaving himself in range for a combo. But as I mentioned in the preview, up until this point, Costa had never fought anyone with the movement or height of Adesanya. Not only would this force adjustments, but it would also force a less linear line of attack. Sure enough, Adesanya easily evaded Costa’s punch entries with quick lateral movement.

All the while, Adesanya is still sequencing his offense. Jab, scoop kick, leg kick. No feints, or half-steps either. Just strict sequencing indicating to Costa that Adesanya is now asserting himself into an offensive role.

Question 4: How much work did Adesanya’s southpaw positioning do?

Stance switching in MMA is still relatively unexplored. And for good reason. If you haven’t mastered one stance, what makes you think you can master two? At worst, we see fighters switch stances to “confuse” opponents, and it’s never anything more than spinning the fight wheels. At best, well, do we have even have a best? Guys like Dominick Cruz did well with stance-switching as a defensive maneuver, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, fighters like T.J. Dillashaw did well with stance-switching as an offensive maneuver but until Adesanya, never have the twain met.

It’s worth noting that Adesanya started training Muay Thai early, thanks to the release of Ong-Bak: a great movie about stunt men risking their life to choreograph Tony Jaa’s stardom. Kidding: kind of. While Ong-Bak was indeed an influence, he did train Muay Thai under Derek Broughton for a minute. I mention Muay Thai because there’s a low-key influence to his game that gets understated, and Muay Thai is one of the few fight sports that rewards stance switching due to having common moves that require a baseline understanding of switching stances, like the switch kick. I would never describe Adesanya as a Muay Thai fighter, but I do think his love of it is apparent in how his feints achieve something similar to the Thai clinch, which itself begins at hand-fighting range.

His southpaw attack paid huge dividends. It was where he primed Costa to fear punch entries, as he just patiently bombed roundhouse after roundhouse (one of which nearly took Costa’s head off), taking away easy centerline attacks. It made the one-two that ended the fight almost feel perfunctory.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Question 5: Could Costa have done something differently?

It’s easy to look at Costa’s style and think “he should have just thrown caution to the wind.” I just don’t understand this.

If Costa were a fighter who threw caution to the wind, he wouldn’t even be here. However his mind works outside of the cage, he’s a smart brawler inside of it. He got here precisely because he’s committed to calculated punch entries, and aggressive cagecutting. If he were the type to throw caution to the wind, he’d just be another Chris Leben, or Leonard Garcia. No disrespect. Personally I don’t think Costa ever had a chance, but that doesn’t mean a potential rematch would be just as lopsided.

As Sriram Muralidaran noted, Robert Whittaker had some success covering distance with crafty edgework and pumping the jab. Costa may not have Whittaker’s mind, but he already changed his style once. What’s preventing him from changing it twice? Regardless, this was a legitimate masterclass in strike progression from the most dynamic fighter in the sport today.

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David Castillo
David Castillo

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