Through five fights in the UFC, Israel Adesanya has turned out exactly as advertised. The only question that remains is whether he can win a UFC championship.
It took 30 professional fights, but the time has finally come for longtime contender Dustin Poirier to win his first UFC championship.
The UFC will bring two acting titles on April 13 in Atlanta. Featherweight champion Max Holloway will face Dustin Poirier in lightweight and Kelvin Gastelum and Israel Adesanya will face welterweight.
The 29-year-old former kickboxer will have this opportunity on Saturday, when he will meet Kelvin Gastelum for the Interim Middleweight title at UFC 236 in Atlanta. The winner should compete for a title unification against Robert Whittaker later this year.
Adesanya (16-0), from New Zealand, exploded in the 185-pound division, scoring five wins in a single year. Gastelum (16-3), however, represents his most difficult challenge on paper – and has a history of success in outsider moments.
Who has the advantage at UFC 236? ESPN has asked some of the sport's brightest minds to break it down.
Henri Hooft, HKickboxing
I have known Israel for a while – as a kickboxer, of course, but we also brought it a few years ago, while Anthony Johnson was supposed to fight Jon Jones. This is a talented guy. His fight, his IQ is really very high. He thinks a step forward. He does not spend energy when he does not need it. He's not nervous. He has fought so many fights that he is very comfortable.
In kickboxing, Israel did not lose a lot of fights, but when it lost, it was under pressure. This is not a guy with a knockout. He's like Jon Jones – he'll break you and do it all at the right time. Kelvin must take risks and get closer, mixing fight and strike. He can not go over there, get hit by a few punches and say, "OK, I'm just going to focus on shooting you down. No, Israel is not a man to a coup de grace. You can hit with him. He'll be better than you, but you have to take a little risk that way, and Kelvin does not fear that.
It's a difficult thing, because it's hard to do at the gym. When you enter the cage and fight a guy like Israel, you worry about a lot of mental things. It's very difficult when you have a guy where everything you do has an answer. Once again, like Jon Jones. Every time you do something, it goes one step further than you, or you miss it – and when that happens, people get nervous. Something does not work and they leave it. Whoever beats Israel will need some scenarios to do it. To mix everything
I think Israel will win because he is technically superior, but Kelvin has a decisive power and a very good mentality.
Sayif Saud, MMA Fortis
I think Gastelum has some of the middleweight boxing. Gastelum is a perfect example. He can challenge Adesanya with his shot when he closes the distance.
And one thing we do not talk about enough is that Gastelum has a wonderful back and wonderful strangulation. He has a very good back game that he used a lot more. Back in the day, he took people out and choked them. It was a little what he did, it was who he was. He was always a tough Mexican kid who went forward and threw, but he put people down and choked them.
Adesanya has experience and is good, but Gastelum has more experience. He has the advantage of wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Now, Adesanya has shown that it improves greatly between fights – but I think that over five rounds, with Gastelum's ability to get the withdrawal, I'm in favor of Gastelum. If Adesanya can get him to work in that range and prevent that landing, he can obviously hurt him, but if Gastelum fights his way, it could turn into a long night for Adesanya.
Gastelum will have to push, press, enter. He hits hard and Israel has not really been touched in the MMA, but I know he can shoot. I see Israel win at points where Gastelum stops him in the third round.
Gastelum's strike is not as versatile as that of Israel, but as Bruce Lee said: I do not fear the man who has already practiced 10,000 kicks, but the one who kicked 10 000 times. Quality rather than quantity Gastelum's left hand is solid. This crossing of the left hand that he throws, is solid. He has the right timing with that and the power.
John Crouch, MMA Lab
Israel is too difficult to catch. Kelvin will come in there and will get some shots, but the experience of Israel is there too. I do not think Kelvin can fight enough to change that. I have to choose Israel. I think it will be pretty boring – Kelvin chasing him and Israel targeting him. Not boring, but more technical than some would like to see.
Israel is good with its range, it can choose almost everyone apart. He just did it for Anderson Silva for the love of God. He must just be himself. This is right in his wheelhouse. Kelvin is shorter, smaller. He is explosive and good athlete, but Israel has already faced that. He fought skilled fighters in kick-boxing. This fight will take place where he is comfortable and I will say Israel by decision.
Duc Roufus, Roufusport
Coming from my past, I really like Israel – its skills, its state of mind. It's a handsome fighter out there. But what stops him in this fight is that he is a volume attacker. He needs more power to stop some of these beasts. I have been coaching against Kelvin and I have a lot of confidence in him and in the coach Rafael Cordeiro's ability to make this fight offensive, dirty and dirty. He will be right in front of Israel.
The fact is that if you want to hit harder, you have to plant harder – but planting harder makes you more likely to be shot. It's a double-edged sword. Israel must have a power of arrest to keep Kelvin away from him. That's what Anderson Silva had decided to do for him in all his splendor: he was letting people down. It makes you guess when to shoot him.
I see Gastelum using a lot of fight, dirtying him, defeating him and exhausting him. It will not be the fight of the attackers that the fans want, but it is in that consists of this sport: to take advantage of what you do best and to win with it. Gastelum by decision.
Marc Montoya, Factory X MMA
The big question is whether Adesanya can stand in front of a person with Gastelum's pedigree and end the takedown. If he puts himself on the back, it is very difficult to know if he can get up. I think this is a question that fans and the UFC are looking for after this one: Can Adesanya let go of someone like Gastelum?
I do not think it's "if" Adesanya is demolished, I think it's "when" he is demobilized. I know that he showed that he could get up in other fights, but there are levels to that and Gastelum is one of the best. If he can get up, he has the ability to win big. It's just – it's going to be demolished at some point. What does he do after that?
The other thing that happens when you have a wrestler against a high-level striker, is that sometimes the grappling hook, his shots tend to land more often than he was an attacker – because that the threats are different. And Gastelum showed that if he can hit you with precision, he can finish you off. If I put money, I would bet Gastelum.
I'm going with Gastelum. I think he's just a real sustainable fighter, who has mixed his MMA very well. He can wear it on the ground and he can stand up. I do not think Israel can do that. It's a very dangerous fighter, but Kelvin Gastelum has more pros.
Gastelum is much more experienced. I know that Israel has a lot of fighting experience, but Gastelum's resume in the cage is much harder. I believe that if Israel has a hole, it will be on the ground. And it's not because I saw him doing badly, I did not see him fighting there and as he trains in this way, he can not imagine that his fight will be close to Kelvin. Gastelum.
If I were the coach of Kelvin, I would have a game plan similar to that Kamaru Usman did to Tyron Woodley [UFC 235 last month]. Smother him, stay on him. I think his body type will help to smother Israel and dry its arms. Get it tired, accumulate this lactic acid. I think Gastelum will finish on the pitch, late in the third.
John Kavanagh, SBG Ireland
Israel is the future of this division. I think he's going to stop Kelvin.