The Last Stylebender. The first Champion.
Have you ever heard the story of how the British won the war of the Falklands? As the story goes the Argentinian guns could fire 9 km’s and the British guns could fire 17km’s, so the British just sat 10 km’s away and shelled the shit out of them. It’s a fun anecdote but in reality, it doesn’t do justice to the brutal and bloody ground war waged in the Falklands, where hundreds lost their lives in one the most violent ground campaigns in modern history.
UFC 236 was a bit like that. The length and superior firepower of kiwi Israel Adesanya was expected to dominate Kelvin Gastelum, Izzy was expected to keep his comparatively diminutive opponent at a distance and drop bombs whenever Gastelum tried to make his way inside... but that wasn’t the fight we got. For all the talk about Gastelum’s superior wrestling ability, it was his striking that made it a hard night for our boy Izzy. It spoke volumes in the post-fight presser when one reporter asked “were you in danger in the fourth?” and a clearly bruised and battered Izzy Adesanya spoke through his swollen mouth to answer quite simply “yes.”
If you haven’t heard already (and what rock have you been hiding under?), on Sunday afternoon New Zealand time Israel Adesanya silenced the haters and naysayers with a phenomenal performance and easily the toughest fight of his career so far to beat Kelvin Gastelum and win the Interim UFC Middleweight title. The kiwi superstar punished his opponent in the fifth round, dropping bombs like the captain of the Enola Gay to send Gastelum to the canvas not once, not twice but three times. It took heart, it took pain, it took a superhuman strength of will, in a fight where he wasn’t always on top, the Nigerian born kiwi fighter proved he has the tank for the championship rounds and the strength to fight through them.
Gastelum dished out his fair share of punishment, catching Adesanya with a clean right hand only 2 minutes into a fight that stunned Izzy and looked to put him on the back foot. No matter who you spoke to ahead of this matchup they told you about Gastelum’s wrestling ability, the danger he posed if he could take the fight to the ground but Gastelum spent most of the fight standing and throwing heavy shots that looked ready to remove his opponents head.
It’s rare in any division to see one fighter hold an eight-plus inch reach advantage over his opponent, so it speaks volumes to the tenacity of Kelvin Gastelum that he spent most of the fight as the aggressor, constantly coming forward, looking to get inside and neutralise the advantage of his longer opponent. But for all the danger posed by Gastelum in the first, he surely felt the superior striking of Izzy in the second. A huge overhand right sent Kelvin to the mat for the first time and a creative spinning elbow seemed to take some wind out of Gastelum’s sails.
The third saw Gastelum try to regain his aggressive position in the fight, albeit with more hesitation having felt the sledgehammer hands of Israel Adesanya minutes before. The two advanced and retreated for much of the round, jostling for advantage before finally, Gastelum showed his strength with a takedown four minutes in, this is what Izzy’s fans had feared. But it was also what the fighters camp had prepared him for and you saw Adesanya shrug the wrestler off quickly to find his way back to his feet.
Heading into the championship rounds Kelvin again went on the offensive and Izzy was cut, bleeding and swelling halfway through the fourth. Gastelum continued to press forward against the defensive movement and counter striking ability of Adesanya and late in the round he found what he was looking for as Gastelum's big right hand landed cleanly on the chin and rocked the kiwi. In a room full of people, we all fell silent as we stared at the big screen. Was this where it ends? Was the unbeaten, fairytale story of the last stylebender coming to a close? No, Izzy retreats and as he retreats, he survives.
It’s a close fight. Arguably even money at this point. Who knows how the judges have it. Maybe Gastelum is ahead? Izzy looked hurt in that last round, will he survive the next? The cut man looks to put Izzy back together as his corner crowds around him. People around me shout at the screen, come on Izzy. Come on.
And then that round. I know I might be biased but I don’t care. In all my years of watching mixed martial arts I don’t know if I’ve seen more heart from a fighter than in the fifth and final round of UFC236. An injured man retreated at the end of the fourth but where he left, a lion took his place.
In the fifth and final round Gastelum cape forward throwing with fury for the first 45 seconds, but this wasn’t the man he was fighting just minutes ago and Izzy ducked and weaved, not letting his furious opponent touch him. A minute in and the momentum had clearly shifted. High kicks land from Adesanya, then a big right, then a guillotine takedown. The two warriors ride once, again and again, a big right lands. Again. Again. Gastelum is hurt. A minute 15 and another one sends Gastelum to the mat. The once quiet crowd erupts.
Thirty seconds left and another series of blows sends Gastelum to the ground again. Izzy mounts his opponents back and begins to land bombs. The campaign of the foot soldiers is over… this is the artillery now. Ten seconds to go and blood is spraying the canvas, Gastelum looks out on his feet as he again gets sent plunging to the floor. Joe Rogan calls for the fight to be stopped but Gastelum is still fighting and trying to weather the onslaught from the deadly Adesanya. In the post-fight interviews Izzy would say “I was ready to die in there, so I was also ready to kill.”
The hooter sounds to end the fight and the room falls into a murmur as we wait for the scorecards to be read. Surely that round was enough to top the scales but in combat sports, the judges can surprise the best of us... “All three judges score the fight 48-46”... calls Michael Buffer, silence fills the room. “... For the winner by Unanimous Decision and new Interim UFC Middleweight Champion of The World... Israel “the Last Stylebender” Adesanya”.
The crowd erupts.
Izzy’s father hugs him in the centre of the ring before he falls to his knees to praise his coach and mentor Eugene Baremen of City Kickboxing, laying the championship belt at his feet. The last stylebender is New Zealand’s first UFC Champion.