It was a little short on razzle-dazzle, especially for an Israel Adesanya fight. But maybe that was the point.
The middleweight champ (21-1) stifled takedowns, repeatedly scrambled back to his feet and slow-cooked the lead leg of challenger Marvin Vettori (17-5-1) to take a clear unanimous-decision win in the main event of Saturday's UFC 263 in Glendale, Arizona. Adesanya won with 50-45 scorecards from all three judges.
This was a grudge match from the start, but let's face it: grudgy though he may have been, Vettori was merely an underboss. The real boss is a man named Robert Whittaker (23-5). That rematch, not the one with Vettori, is the one everyone's been waiting on at 185 pounds. Including the guy who just completed his third title defense.
"The old Aussie, my archnemesis, Bobby Knuckles," Adesanya said to broadcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight, referencing Whittaker's nickname when asked about his next move. "I knocked him out that first night, and I don't know what's gonna happen with all this COVID s--t, but let's run that back in Auckland."
Rewinding back a bit, though, and Adesanya was still focused on Vettori and his desire to correct the perception that the Italian was anywhere near his level. That began in 2018, when in Adesanya's second UFC bout, Vettori's wrestling gave Adesanya enough trouble to earn one scorecard in his favor. It's still the only split decision on Adesanya's MMA resume.
So the blueprint was clear: Vettori would absolutely try the wrestling again, having claimed all week that he had improved just as surely as Adesanya had. The champion, meanwhile, would have to stay upright, where he is more skilled than Vettori by orders of magnitude.
Vettori scored the first memorable sequence of the fight when he caught a low kick and turned it into takedown, followed by about a minute of sustained top control. However, Vettori couldn't inflict much damage once he had the champ on his back, and Adesanya escaped and continued to chop on Vettori's lead leg. Adesanya secured the round late after minutes of spamming low kicks led to opportunities upstairs, which he seized with hissing punch combinations.
It didn't veer much from that script for most of the rest of the fight. Vettori would shoot in for a double but only succeeded in pushing Adesanya against the fence, where he would be unable to complete the takedown or forced to expend lots of energy for a pyrrhic victory that just saw Adesanya pop right back up in short order. On the feet, Vettori attempted to trade with Adesanya, only to be bamboozled over and over again by Adesanya's almost prescient head movement.
The third round contained Vettori's last major stab at offense. During a ground sequence, the challenger had Adesanya's back and went for a rear-naked choke. The champ looked vulnerable for an instant but was able to spin out of the hold and then deftly scramble out of a few potentially dicey leg-lock situations a few moments later.
All the while, Adesanya was chopping at Vettori's lead leg, and it had the challenger limping through the championship rounds. According to UFC Stats, Adesanya landed 41 leg strikes in the contest; he failed to land only two.
Vettori seemed to be swimming through marmalade, as his offense simply failed to make hay. He converted only four of 14 takedown attempts while landing 58 of 176 significant strike attempts. These are not good numbers. Adesanya fed the fever dream with endless (and elaborate) feints and a wide stance that helped him stay upright despite Vettori's best efforts.
The enduring image of Vettori from this fight will be of him pressing Adesanya against the cage, holding him in a body lock and trying to figure out what to do from there. You may already have guessed this, but it got a little clownish in there toward the end.
It was another masterwork from the middleweight champion, even if one of those question-mark head kicks never quite hit. With the Vettori beef properly vanquished, Adesanya and the rest of the MMA world can look forward to a rematch with Whittaker. It looks like we won't be waiting much longer.
Whittaker held the middleweight crown for two years before Adesanya surgically dissected him at UFC 243 in 2019. Since then Whittaker is a crisp 3-0 over pretty distinguished competition. In the first fight, Whittaker had the home advantage, with UFC 243 taking place in Australia. Adesanya called for the rematch to take place in his home nation of New Zealand.
"We need to run that back in my territory this time," Adesanya told Rogan. "You don't get to decide. I get to decide. Why? Because I'm the motherf--king king, b---h."
Very well. Adesanya showed Saturday that even winning ugly can be pretty. And if one last settled grudge opens him up for a career-defining rematch, it's a thing of downright beauty.