The two sides of Israel Adesanya: Bangers & bummers

Israel Adesanya might be the best middleweight of all time, but if you wouldn't know it from half his fights.

By: Connor Ruebusch | 3 weeks ago
The two sides of Israel Adesanya: Bangers & bummers
Israel Adesanya during the UFC 293 presser. - DEAN LEWINS IMAGO/AAP

Since 2019, Israel Adesanya has participated in an incredible ten title fights. Only four, however, were incredible to watch. Of the remaining six, one was downright terrible and the rest just sort of… happened. Not dreadful, but certainly not good–and often quite close. Closer than they should have been.

There are fighters who can’t help but deliver the action–your Charles Oliveiras and Petr Yans—and then there are fighters you can always count on to be safe and boring—Valentina Shevchenko and Raphael Assuncao come to mind. But Israel Adesanya is neither of these. How entertaining he is depends on who he’s fighting.

So, why is there such a clear distinction between Izzy’s good fights and his mediocre fights? Why is there always the feeling of him fighting up or down to his opponent’s level? Why does it seem like the amount of damage he dishes out is directly proportional to the damage he takes?

One word: control. 

Oh, and two more: lack thereof.

Israel Adesanya has a full complement of techniques at his disposal. He is a two-fisted puncher with some of the deadliest kicks in the game, and the best striking defense in the middleweight division. He can fight at long range, in the pocket, in the clinch. He has solid takedown defense, too, and he can even grapple a bit—a lot better than you’d expect, anyway, for a guy with a kickboxing background. 

What he does not have, however, is the instinct for controlling his opponents, and the cage he shares with them.

Israel Adesanya: Prevention vs Punishment

Israel Adesanya’s style is flexible. Loosey-goosey, even. He is happy to eat up the space given to him by a passive opponent, but no less pleased to give ground against a more aggressive foe. Between the two, however, the evasive, back foot approach is his bread and butter. Adesanya rarely insists on pressure when his opponent does the same and, as evinced by his last fight with Alex Pereira, the mere act of standing his ground requires a concerted effort. 

But this is not the reason that Israel Adesanya struggles to maintain control of his fights. After all, it is perfectly possible to contain an opponent without pressure. Hell, some of the most commanding performances in combat sports history were prosecuted entirely off the back foot. To find an example of someone who does this very well, in fact, you don’t even have to look outside Adesanya’s own team. 

See Alexander Volkanovski, the featherweight champ. 

Volkanovski is a master of control, because he is a master of positioning. He keeps a vice grip on the distance between himself and his opponent, never allowing it to close unless he is perfectly positioned to meet his man in the middle. This is despite the fact that he is among the shortest men in his division. He has an excellent jab—arguably the best in the game—which remains a constant threat by virtue of the small, lateral steps he employs, which force Volkanovski’s opponents to adjust their own feet constantly, lest they give him an open line of attack.

When opponents do get close enough to strike, they find they are not properly aligned—Volkanovski’s footwork makes it so that they have to punch across themselves, throw themselves off balance. And these decisions are always made under duress, because Volkanovski is never merely evading. He doesn’t just outmaneuver his opponents, he outpositions them, which means they must always worry about his threats as much as they worry about establishing their own. 

There is a saying: a clever man gets out of trouble, but a wise man stays out of trouble. 

Prevention is better than the cure. This is the guiding principle of Volkanovski’s game.

Israel Adesanya may or may not be wise, but he is far more apt to solve a problem than he is to avoid it altogether. Indeed, he often creates the problems himself.

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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