After UFC 248, Is There Any Middleweight Who Can Stop Israel Adesanya?

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 8, 2020

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07:  Israel Adesanya celebrates a decision win over Yoel Romero during a middleweight title bout at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

As the main event of UFC 248 crawled toward its merciful conclusion, the patience of the Las Vegas crowd no longer existed.

But that zero in Israel Adesanya's loss column did.

It's easy to call for blood when it's not your blood (or career). It was a long, tedious fight, with less output than a broken cable cord, but Adesanya (19-0, 8-0 UFC) steered clear of the volatile damage path of Yoel Romero (13-5, 9-4 UFC) to retain his UFC middleweight title by unanimous decision. The final judges' decisions were 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46. 

"It was a hard fight, but, cliche, I did what I had to do," Adesanya told broadcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I picked him apart. ... He played the game and lost. He'll do all this [stuff] to get you into a false sense of security, but [my coaches] said, 'You need 25 minutes of sharpness and focus.' I was hoping to touch him a little more, but unfortunately it's hard to engage with someone who doesn't want to dance."

Romero (left) swings at Adesanya
Romero (left) swings at AdesanyaHarry How/Getty Images

In all candor, neither competitor had a lot of pep in his dance step Saturday. But Adesanya was lamenting Romero's well-known periods of inaction, which are designed to maximize both stamina and strategic advantage and are punctuated by fleeting but furious offensive eruptions that, squarely landed, can crumple the engine block of a midsize pickup. It's an odd style to watch. 

But as Adesanya also pointed out, it takes two to tango, and this was one heck of a slow dance; only 16 other five-round UFC title fights had fewer than the 88 significant strikes these two managed together.

(All the action fiends out there surely were transfixed by the epic co-main event, which might have been the best women's MMA fight ever, but I digress.)

The first round set the tone. At the two-minute mark, Romero had not thrown a single strike. A few moments later he broke the ice with a crushing right hand, the fight's first significant offense. Welcome to a Yoel Romero bout. As Adesanya worked to find his range, the resulting stalemate favored the challenger both on the presumptive scorecards and over the longer term, given his need to conserve the quick-burning rocket fuel in his gas tank.

The second round was much the same, with Romero likely up a pair afterward. Adesanya opened up just a bit in the third, clearly outlanding the challenger for the first time behind an array of kicks to the legs, body and head. Still, the champ was clearly—and quite rightly—wary of flying too close to the danger zone. For all his quirks, Romero may have the most finishing ability on the UFC roster.

The action remained at such a low level that referee Dan Miragliotta intervened before the start of the championship rounds, telling the competitors, "You gotta give the judges something to score." A little, uh, interventionist for a referee, but an illustrative sequence nonetheless.

In the fourth, Romero took his sweet time recovering from what looked like an inadvertent Adesanya eye poke. Maybe it was legitimate, but he's been accused of stalling before. Just saying. In any case, the champ staved off a late Romero takedown attempt—oddly, the only one all fight from the Olympic wrestling silver medalist—and appeared to grab that round as well to even things up for the final frame.

In the fifth, welts rose on Romero's right leg from repeated kicks. That cumulative, visible damage might have swung the final outcome.

"Those legs don't lie," Adesanya told Rogan. "I f--ked his leg up. He was doing stuff to play it off, but I did what I had to do to win this fight."

So, yeah, it was an ugly, boring contest. No two ways about it. However, the slog made a little more sense from Adesanya's standpoint. During a fight, Romero's entire body vibrates with danger, even as he remains coiled. 

In fact, the champ's conservative approach may have made him even scarier: He knows who you are, and he has a plan for you. The end is more important than the means. This fight showed how stylistically flexible Adesanya can be. Instead of worrying about the crowd or a bonus or fighting "his" fight, he stayed within himself, fought smart and played the long game. As a result, he'll leave Las Vegas with the belt and ready to negotiate his next title defense.

That raises an important question. Who is going to beat this guy? With Romero dispatched, the field is getting slimmer. Can anyone at 185 pounds stop Adesanya's march to the sea? And if so, who?

Adesanya's not going anywhere anytime soon. He said this week that, although light heavyweight and heavyweight remain in play for the future, he wants to "do right by the division," essentially by trying to clean it out. He hopes to fight at least a couple more times this year alone.

We do know who's up next: Paulo Costa (13-0, 5-0 UFC), the hard-charging Brazilian straight out of central casting. Costa was the presumptive choice for this defense until Adesanya handpicked Romero instead.

"This guy's going to actively come forward and try to f--k with me," Adesanya told Rogan. "I'm gonna f--k this motherf--ker up. Yo, Costa, I'll see you soon, boy."

One thing's for sure: It woudn't be a boring fight. Borrachinha combines relentless pressure with smart movement and consistent body work. It's hard to tell whether his punches or kicks are the more lethal weapon, but he can string together combinations with both.

However, Costa's key weakness—he's pretty hittable—dovetails with Adesanya's strength. If the champ can find openings and use counters to turn Costa's pressure against him, it could be a one-sided affair. Nevertheless, Costa and his phone-booth style probably stand the best chance among UFC middleweights Adesanya has yet to face.

So, who else is there? When Anderson Silva (34-10 [1], 17-6 [1] UFC) sits at No. 15 on the official rankings despite being 44 years old and winless in seven of his last eight bouts going back to 2013, you might have some slim pickins on your hands.

For starters, no one wants a repeat of what happened Saturday night, and given that Romero turns 43 next month and is now on a three-fight losing streak, it doesn't seem likely anyway. The chances of a rematch with Robert Whittaker (20-5, 11-3 UFC), whom Adesanya dismantled last year to capture the title, also seem remote given Whittaker's long injury history and the lopsided nature of the defeat.

Last April, Kelvin Gastelum (15-1 [1], 10-5 [1] UFC) gave Adesanya his toughest UFC test to date. His bullrush style was novel at the time, but if the Whittaker fight was any indication, Adesanya got hip to the blueprint, breaking Whittaker down with surgical counters. At a minimum, Adesanya-Gastelum 2 makes more sense than any of the other potential rematches.

But if it were to happen, it's still a ways away, as Gastelum is still looking to rebound from the loss he suffered last fall to Darren Till (18-2-1, 6-2-1 UFC). So what about Till? Adesanya had a few choice words for the Englishman this fight week. Frankly, Till is not a great option outside of the charisma he'd bring to the proceedings. But now that he's back up at middleweight, Till could conceivably bring all his considerable power to bear and might just stand a puncher's chance. Because, uh, anything can happen in an MMA fight?

If you want to maximize that puncher's chance, why not call in the big gun? The aptly named Jared Cannonier (13-4, 6-4 UFC) reinvented himself in 2018 after dropping down two weight classes from heavyweight to middleweight. Since then, he's 3-0 with three knockouts, giving him nine for his career. Cannonier isn't the most dynamic of athletes and has a suspect gas tank of his own, but he also has devastating power and not a little bit of momentum. He'd need to win at least one more before his name could formally enter the hat, but if he can get there he might just pose a threat.

After that, the landscape flattens out pretty quickly. Derek Brunson and Brad Tavares already fell victim. Edmen Shabazyan is promising but still green at 22 years old. Uriah Hall would undoubtedly be a fun foil given his next-level striking displays, but he has never found consistency in the UFC. The last time Hall won more than two bouts in a row, it was 2015, and he beat a guy named Ron Stallings to get there.

Fans are upset with the nature of Saturday's fight, but they'll forget soon enough. Memories of a close but clear decision win will remain longer than the unconsummated bloodlust. Everyone freaked out when Adesanya had a boring bout with Silva, too. Did that stay with us? Is Adesanya, in your mind, really a boring fighter? After Silva came Gastelum and Whittaker. 

No one should worry too much. Adesanya will have better fights. But as he continues his march through the division, it's hard to know whether we'll say the same about his opponents.

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