Israel Adesanya vs. Marvin Vettori headlines UFC 263 this June 12, 2021 at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, United States.
One sentence summary
David: Israel Adesanya defends his title against…a rematch.
Phil: An unheralded Kings MMA-trained cuboid takes on a flashy and heralded striker
Record: Israel Adesanya 20-1 | Marvin Vettori 17-4-1 Draw
Odds: Israel Adesanya -240 | Marvin Vettori +220
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Adesanya hasn’t lost his touch despite losing his last fight. The Light Heavyweight foray was a noble attempt, but Izzy fell short. No big deal. You’ve been claiming Blachowicz was a mythical creature for some time, and we were just too slow to realize it. None of this has any bearing on how great Adesanya remains at middleweight. He’s cleaned out his division in emphatic fashion. And now he’s having his Chuck Liddell vs. Jeremy Horn II moment: taking on a challenger who summons up nothing more than a distracting narrative from a parallel universe.
Phil: Well, we have to reserve some judgement on how Adesanya looks before we actually see him bounce back, but yeah. It was perhaps a tougher ask than many of us (even me) expected for him to take on Blachowicz, but he is someone who has suffered major setbacks before in kickboxing, and the fight itself has been perhaps unfairly retconned into being less competitive than it was.
David: I gotta be honest. I kind of love Marvin. It’s not exactly your wholesome relationship with Jan, but I feel like Vettori gets shit on for drawing this fight rather than being an effective pugilist at just kind of gritting his teeth into the draw. He fights with a funny ‘Moment You Realize You’re About to Die’ movie face, but keeps surviving against the tide. There’s just the right mixture of sloppiness, and elegance. Like a beautiful potbelly pig creating its own mudwallow to stay warm, Vettori doesn’t scare. And that’s why he’s here. Although for the record: unlike Blachowciz, I don’t think Vettori has some hidden gear of eliteness.
Phil: I think you nailed it. Vettori projects this air of mild, bafflingly imperturbable panic. He looks constantly stressed, he flails and jerks around on both offense and defense, he gets hit an absolute ton, and yet… he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even slow down. There have been fighters who have weaponized janky pace before, like Elkins or Emmanuel Newton, but there are few who have done it within the boundaries of such a functional, dare I say bland skillset. It makes him a fascinatingly weird proposition, who can grind out specialist strikers or grapplers with equal aplomb… despite displaying zero aplomb anywhere, at any time, ever.
What’s at stake?
David: Making history. These ‘Champ gets shot to avenge his loss to the kid who shoved him in the locker’ bouts never go the challengers way. Horn was brutalized by Liddell. TK? Forget those cyborg jokes. Fedor tried to kill him that night. Pulver versus Penn? Pulver didn’t embarrass himself, granted, and they were both legit fighters during their first match, but the rule still holds.
Phil: It’s Vettori’s chance for his RDA moment, and Adesanya just racking up another win on the road to middleweight greatness (and probably a rematch with Whittaker).
Where do they want it?
David: Fans may be disappointed in Adesanya not winning the LHW title, and that’s fine. The fans who are wrong are the ones who think Adesanya got exposed. The things that Adesanya struggled with against Blachowicz, were prevalent against Vettori in their first fight: his lack of dynamic entries. This doesn’t lessen Adesanya’s ability, or the fact that he’s the best at 185. Even ignoring that I think Israel has a better performance in him, much of his game is built off acquiring information. It’s easy to watch a highlight reel and think the reel itself is the sum rather than the parts. And that’s never been Adesanya’s style. His elite movement coaxes out all the ticks, triggers, and tails you would need to feel more comfortable with on more aggressive entries, or better angles on counters. It doesn’t always make for the violence you’d want, or even expect out of his combination of skills, but it’s part of his DNA. He’s a gourmet chef, not a fast order cook. The proper entree takes time.
Phil: Adesanya has been a strange experience for me. When he first came up, everyone said how much he was like Anderson Silva, because he was a skinny black guy with flashy strikes, and I roundly dismissed it because of course he isn’t, but in retrospect: he really is a bit like Anderson Silva. In the same way that “Wonderboy is like Machida but higher paced” Adesanya’s comparably high aggression was actually something of an illusion- he simply looks for more openings and attacks in combination more, but he is still basically unwilling to lead unless he feels safe. Like Silva he leans away from strikes a lot, and gets a lot of his information from feints. If the feints are working, he can essentially chew the opponent up with the jab and low kick changeup, or pull away from counters and land his own shots. If they’re not, he can be pulled into an uglier or slower fight.
David: Vettori is a strange collection of attributes, all working against each other like some kind of biological protest. His speed and power aren’t enough to justify how aggressively he tries to pressure. His wrestling isn’t technical enough to justify spending too much energy on. He doesn’t move gracefully enough to justify his attack shifts. Maybe this is too cheap or superficial of a comparison, but he’s like Alessio Sakara if the skills had brains. Vettori just does everything he can, and tries to ask his opponent to hold everything and the kitchen sink at once, forcing opponents into a high-paced balancing act.
Phil: Sakara? That is racist against Italians. But I will allow it. Vettori looks massively uncomfortable in almost everything he does, but never lets it get to him. Locked into the strictures of a Kings MMA game, he mostly leans on the left hand, and the double jab left hand. He can of course throw the patented left body kick (and probably should) but tends to default to punching given the chance. He’s a decent, dogged wrestler, having originally started out as a grappler, and enough of a scrambler to give a tough fight to Antonio Carlos Junior when thrown in against him early in his career. Mostly what makes it work for him is his immense durability, where he just soaks up clean shots and keeps an endless pace. It’s like RDA if he were in the depths of a meth freakout, complete with jitters, gritted teeth and an insensibility to the outside world.
Insight from past fights
David: As mentioned, I do think the first fight is worth revisiting. Vettori did something similar to what Aljamain Sterling did to Petr Yan, leaving an otherwise highly technical striker absolute zero room to get comfortable. And like Sterling against Yan, the strategy saw diminishing returns. Still, I appreciate that it’s a sound theory Vettori fought with instead of whatever half-assed strategy Paulo Costa used. Oh right, he had too much wine the night before. Nonetheless, I do think Vettori’s style is like coffee grinds on the ground to track the invisible man’s footsteps. Adesanya’s “weakness” to left side strikes, and the brilliant change-ups on entries with clinch tactics and knees were and are negated by Vettori’s weirdo-technical entries. Vettori doesn’t waste time with nuanced proximity work. He’s either all-in with punch pressure, or all-in with a takedown attempt. His success relies on good defense via offense. Yet one of the things that became readily apparent was that it wasn’t a sustainable strategy. Also, a lot of the things Adesanya has improved (and things he improves on within fights) on were things we saw glimpses of that made a difference the first time, with Adesanya scoring heavy shots in close once he began to pin down Vettori’s timing. Plus his takedown defense, a linchpin for Vettori in the third, is much improved.
Phil: The first fight felt a bit like Edgar-Aldo II, albeit with someone who cared a lot less about getting hit than Frankie Edgar does. Vettori kept chasing Adesanya, trying to double jab his way in to land the left hand. Adesanya essentially ignored the lead hand and circled away from the power, countering the left when he could. So, improvements for Vettori would come in actually committing to his lead hand more (right hook etc), and also headhunting less. Adesanya still leans a lot when he retreats, and it would help Vettori to have something which he could use off forward momentum more than a left body kick.
David: Eye pokes are always an issue, but moreso in a fight like this, where one fighter is trying to jailbreak his way into closing the distance while the other fighter is calmly trying to manage it. It came up in the first fight, and could easily surface again.
Phil: Again, I doubt that the Blachowicz fight weighs on Izzy much, but everyone will jump on that narrative if he loses (or even struggles particularly badly)
David: The first fight was instructive for broad reasons: namely Adesanya’s weakness in specific situations. It was not instructive for reasons Vettori should hang his hat on: that he can broadly hang with Adesanya on the feet. If there’s a blueprint to beat Israel, it’ll be Vettori landing a killer left hand that just happens to knock Israel out – not spamming a wide range of different attacks the way he’s done with lesser fighters. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 3.
Phil: The main thing I struggled with when looking for in this fight is: where does Vettori find his entries? What is his replicable way inside against Adesanya? He made a very difficult fight competitive with guts and toughness, but he still broadly looks like the same guy. Even the advantages of that third round are mitigated by the way that Adesanya got up from his takedown and continued working: he didn’t seem fatigued. With that being said, I think Vettori can still snag himself some moments again, I’m just not sure that he can convert them into a fight-winning number of rounds. Israel Adesanya by unanimous decision.
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