Kelvin Gastelum and Israel Adesanya showed they belong along the best fighters in any division after taking part in an instant classic Saturday at UFC 236.
The two middleweight warriors put on an absolutely insane showing of skill, talent, and sheer toughness in front of thousands of screaming fans at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, leaving each other bloodied and battered. When the dust settled, it was Adesanya who emerged victories, bolstered by a 10-8 final round that pushed him to a unanimous decision (48-46, 48-46, 48-46) win and an interim championship belt being wrapped around his waist.
“I was willing to die. We’ve lost teammates to this game,” Adesanya said post-fight. “They’re not with us anymore. … But I knew I was willing to give it all and to leave it all in there. And I said let’s go, but like I said he’s a Mexican warrior, but hey, I’ve got that mexicano in me too.”
Afterwards, Adesanya shared an emotional moment with coach Eugene Bareman, placing his newly won title on the floor in front of Bareman before the two embraced.
Through the first four rounds, the outcome was in doubt as Gastelum and Adesanya showed why they deserved this title opportunity. A right hand from Gastelum put Adesanya in defense mode early on and to the surprise of some it was Gastelum who was winning the striking exchanges with the decorated kickboxer.
In round two, Gastelum continued to back Adesanya up with solid boxing, but he felt Adesanya’s power when a counter right staggered him.
That knockdown fired Adesanya up and he began to land blows with consistency, including a back elbow with about a minute to go. To Gastelum’s credit, the pinpoint shot only made him push forward with greater urgency.
After a clear round two for Adesanya, Gastelum was undeterred. He stood in the pocket and traded, though Adesanya didn’t sacrifice accuracy as he engaged Gastelum. Adesanya was even able to defend well against the highly vaunted wrestling of Gastelum and appeared to be up on the scorecards after three rounds.
As he has throughout his career, Gastelum did not let up. He was still being peppered by counters, but his persistence paid off when he hurt Adesanya badly in the final minute of round four.
Round five saw Gastelum pushing the pace and attempting to seal the deal with a takedown. A wild scramble saw Adesanya go for a triangle and neither man slowed down or showed any sign of quit as the clock wound down. Back on the feet, Adesanya was the fresher fighter and he countered with confidence, eventually unloading with punching combination that dropped Gastelum with about a minute to go. Adesanya crushed Gastelum with an elbow on the mat and beat him bloody with ground-and-pound, but Gastelum made it to the final bell.
Adesanya was declared the winner in a bout that will likely see both fighters lionized for years to come. He improved to 17-0 as professional and 6-0 in the UFC, while Gastelum (15-4, 1 NC) loses for just the second time since moving up to the middleweight division.
Up next, Adesanya presumably faces undisputed champion Robert Whittaker. If his post-fight swagger is any indication, he’s ready to show who is truly the top dog at 185 pounds.
“I’m the champion,” Adesanya said. “Let’s go.”