I cannot recall a UFC card in my lifetime that I have been more excited for than this, UFC 259, featuring three title fights, four champions, two fights between top-five ranked contenders, and eighteen total top-15 contenders.
Of all the fantastic and intriguing matchups on the card, none have been more eagerly anticipated than this, the light heavyweight championship main event, which will see Jan Błachowicz attempt the first defense of his light heavyweight title against the current middleweight champion, the still undefeated Last Stylebender, Israel Adesanya.
These fighters have had an equal amount of time off since their respective appearances on the UFC 253 main card in September. Adesanya put on a striking clinic and dismantled middleweight title challenger Paulo Costa in the main event, following Błachowicz’s upset victory over Dominick Reyes in the light heavyweight championship co-main event. This upcoming fight was made not long after, when Adesanya made known his intentions to be the eighth two-division champion in UFC history, and the fifth to hold two belts simultaneously.
Of these two fighters, Adesanya is more experienced in both MMA and in professional fighting, despite being seven years younger. Including kickboxing and boxing, Adesanya has over 100 professional fights under his belt, and 44 knockouts. He’s one of the most intelligent and sophisticated strikers in the UFC in any division. I would argue that he’s one of the most talented mixed martial artists of all time, and that he is arguably the most skilled striker in UFC history.
His hands are lightning fast, he’s effective in both stances, he utilizes his reach and all eight limbs. Adesanya is extremely unpredictable in his attacks, has a plethora of strikes he can hurt you with and just as many different ways to set them up. He has great footwork, and is usually looking to start his combinations from distance, land 2-3 strikes and move back out to safety.
He’s intelligent defensively and moves his head off the line well. He uses some whipping leg kicks to keep his distance and is usually looking to follow them up. His roundhouses and front kicks seem to come out of nowhere. Adesanya thrives in more measured, strategic fights. He usually spends most of the first round reading and reacting, showing his opponents a number of different looks, seemingly just to see how they’ll react.
Usually, the end of the first or start of the second round is when Izzy starts to dictate the pace a bit more. He is a counter striker, but he has the ability to take advantage of small windows very quickly, like his lead roundhouse and later uppercut knockdowns in the first round against Robert Whittaker. The biggest things we learned about Izzy in the fight with Whittaker to become undisputed were that he has a chin, and that pressing forward is the wrong way to beat him.
The only way to beat Adesanya, in my opinion, is to catch him moving forward, which doesn’t happen often. Izzy tends to keep his hands down when he has opponents hurt and when he presses, which makes me concerned about a counter bomb from Błachowicz. The problem for Błachowicz is that, at this point in his career, Adesanya doesn’t chase knockouts or extend himself to vulnerability. He’s patient and finds his knockouts with precision and technique. Izzy has survived and returned power shots from the likes of Kelvin Gastellum, Whittaker and Yoel Romero, but the question is whether any of them possess the legendary Polish power that Błachowicz does, or whether Adesanya can survive getting hit more than just a few times.
Adesanya has good takedown defense but definitely wants to be on his feet. Has shown some submissions but isn’t setting them up, just blindly going for guillotines and triangles, and he’s really just using them to get back to his feet. Not many of Adesanya’s MMA opponents have tried or been able to execute grappling-intensive gameplans against Adesanya, and Jan Błachowicz and his team may have something of the sort in mind for this fight.
Adesanya’s most similar MMA opponent to Błachowicz is Kelvin Gastelum, but Izzy truly hasn’t fought anyone in MMA who possesses the power, or the level of grappling ability that Błachwoicz does. Even so, that fight with Gastelum was the one in which Adesanya faced the most adversity in his MMA career. Błachowicz, a powerful counter-striker with great timing and accuracy, could be looking to employ a similar strategy.
Błachowicz has a right hand to be feared, but what has been even more impressive over his last few fights has been his check left hook. His striking is becoming more and more sophisticated in each of his fights, and he is fighting more intelligently now than at any other point in his career.
Błachowicz has strong kickboxing, and makes a concerted effort to damage the body. He moves and lands well in both stances, but when he goes southpaw he’s looking for round kicks to the liver. His body attacks open up his opponents guards and allow him to move forward and throw in powerful flurries.
Błachowicz is known as a power striker, but he’s also a BJJ black belt. He has a variety of submissions that he has attempted and succeeded with. He has great wrestling skills, though he doesn’t usually try to put fights on the ground. He was the first fighter in the UFC to bring Devin Clark to the ground, and stuffed all of Clark’s takedown attempts before finishing the October 2017 fight by standing/modified rear naked choke. I believe Błachowicz’s gameplan is going to be to emphasize grappling. He has the clear wrestling advantage here, and is far more advanced than Adesanya in Jiu Jitsu
Blachowicz is good at reversing and maintaining position in the clinch. He does land some shots there, but, at times, he hasn’t been busy enough for the ref to let the action continue. He’s dangerous exiting the clinch, and has a lot of power in both hands, even when moving backwards.
Overall, what we have here is a fight that will undoubtedly live up to the hype, one way or another. There’s a reason that, going into this fight, both fighters are wearing hardware around their waists. This will go back and forth, and Błachowicz will likely find a few windows to land counter shots. However, landing one of those clean and finding a knockout is one of very few paths to victory for the defending light heavyweight champion.
Landing a clean shot on Israel Adesanya is an extremely difficult proposition. Landing many in a single fight is even more difficult. He’s better than anyone in any weight class at managing range, he has extremely quick head movement, and we have really only seen him hurt in the octagon once before. His defense is so good that, even when his opponents have landed, the shots landed are glancing blows.
The biggest discrepancy between the striking abilities of these two fighters is the speed advantage in Adesanya’s favor. While he has never seen power like that of Błachowicz, Jan has never seen speed like the speed Adesanya possesses. Styles make fights, and speed kills. This one has Adesanya: double champ written all over it. He’ll be in a number of parlays for us, and I like him to win this fight by decision as a value play.