Israel Adesanya will meet Kelvin Gastelum in the co-main event of UFC 236 in Atlanta on Saturday. The Last Stylebender has seen a fast rise up the ranks and has quickly become one of the hottest fighters on the UFC roster.
But how did he get here? What makes him so special?
The 16-0 mixed martial artist has built a reputation throughout combat sports with his dynamic striking and winning personality. Some fighters seem destined for greatness, and Adesanya has checked all of the boxes. Everything he has said, he has backed up with intricate and devastating striking.
This is how Adesanya grew from a striking standout making noise from across the ocean to UFC title threat.
Catching the Eye of the UFC
Adesanya’s UFC debut came in February of 2018, but he had been a professional combat sports fighter for more than six years prior. He was not an unknown budding prospect just entering the sport. He had a background that caught the eye of the UFC, but he did not sign on the dotted line until he was ready.
Prior to his debut, Adesanya told Newshub’s Ravinder Hunia, "I used my opportunities to get my experience outside of the UFC and fought guys from all over the world—I didn’t just jump in."
He competed in boxing, kickboxing and MMA. He excelled at all three. A combined record of 43-6-1 between the three sports. In 2016, Adesanya won the Glory 34 middleweight contender tournament in Denver. Ultimately, he failed to capture the Glory title, but the tournament victory helped to build his stature as one of the best strikers in the world.
In 2017, he got his 10th MMA victory over UFC veteran Melvin Guillard. Adesanya walked away with the Australia Fighting Championship middleweight belt. More importantly, he got a big win over a notable name in the sport. His next outing, a KO over Stuart Dare, was his last outside of the UFC.
The accolades Adesanya amassed made him a huge get for the UFC. The pressure was on him to meet the standard of excellence he had set outside of the Octagon. Many fighters would buckle under the bright lights, but the burgeoning star rose to the occasion and surpassed nearly all expectations under the UFC banner.
The Quick Ascent
UFC 221 was the stage for Adesanya’s UFC debut. Rob Wilkinson would be the man tasked with opposing him. Wilkinson survived the first round, but Adesanya would secure a Performance of the Night bonus with a second-round TKO finish.
Resistance would come The Last Stylebender’s way in his second UFC bout. Marvin Vettori pushed him for three rounds at UFC on Fox 29. Adesanya escaped with a split decision as Vettori came on strong in the third round.
With a 2-0 record in the UFC, Adesanya would earn his first main event opportunity at The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale against Brad Tavares.
Tavares had been a mainstay in the middleweight rankings. While never ascending to title contention, Tavares was a quintessential gatekeeper. This was the test to see if Adesanya was ready for something more. And he was.
Adesanya had little trouble against Tavares. He learned from his previous fight and nearly swept the scorecards. He only lost one round on one judge’s scorecard. It was a statement-making performance from the Kiwi.
Becoming a Title Contender
When the UFC returned to New York for UFC 230, Adesanya was a centerpiece of the event. He was finally being tested against one of the division’s contenders. Derek Brunson entered the fight as the No. 6-ranked contender.
Adesanya smoked him inside the first round.
The clinical performance put Adesanya on the map not just as a rising star and prospect, but as a contender. He proved his skills against a top-10 caliber opponent on a big stage at Madison Square Garden.
When the calendar flipped to 2019, Adesanya had one more marquee opportunity before ascending to being a true title contender: Anderson Silva. While the former UFC middleweight king had not fought since 2017, he still brought name value and respect to the table. Grabbing a win over Silva, even a 43-year-old Silva, would carry a lot of weight within the division.
After the initial Whittaker vs. Gastelum main event fell apart, the bout got even bigger by becoming the main event of UFC 234 in Melbourne.
Silva was game, but Adesanya was never in any danger in the fight. His technical brilliance outshined the greatest middleweight of all time en route to a unanimous decision. It was a virtual passing of the torch, but now Adesanya has to take that torch and run toward the title.
Given the state of the division, he gets that opportunity on Saturday. Adesanya will meet Gastelum for the interim title and attempt to keep his record clean with his most important victory to date. The Last Stylebender has been as good as advertised, and that is why his ascent has been this quick. In just 14 months, Adesanya can go from a UFC debut to UFC gold.
It is a story that has been writing itself, and now he just has to complete the championship chapter.