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Champion Check-In: Israel Adesanya Made It Look Easy

"The Last Stylebender" Kept To His Word And Kept His Belt With Relative Ease In 2020.

He told us it was going to be easy.

He told us it was going to be easy and we dismissed it as pre-fight banter and boastful comments from a confident champion because as talented as Israel Adesanya is, how could a fight with undefeated Brazilian menace Paulo Costa be easy?

After all, each of Costa’s first nine fights ended inside the first round, including his UFC debut, and his next three victories inside the Octagon were second-round finishes against increasingly stiffer competition.

In 2019, “Borrachina” went toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, round-for-round with ageless wonder Yoel Romero, showing he could maintain a rigorous pace against an elite contender and still emerge victorious. The win pushed his record to 13-0, and yet from the minute the reigning middleweight champion set his sights on the unbeaten Brazilian, he told us he would have an easy time of it whenever they finally shared the Octagon together.

For months they bickered with one another on social media, the challenger promising to become the first to defeat the champion, while the charismatic titleholder fired back, resolute in his belief that the inevitable clash between the two would be one-sided and require minimal effort.

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UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Octagon Interview
UFC 253: Israel Adesanya Octagon Interview
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He told us it was going to be easy, and when they finally met at UFC 253 in September, Adesanya backed up his words.

He chopped at Costa’s lead leg throughout the first round and had the challenger biting on every feint, avoiding any real damage as he made his reads, gauging his adversary’s speed, strength, reaction time, and movement.

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He told us it was going to be easy, and when they finally met at UFC 253 in September, Adesanya backed up his words.

He chopped at Costa’s lead leg throughout the first round and had the challenger biting on every feint, avoiding any real damage as he made his reads, gauging his adversary’s speed, strength, reaction time, and movement.

It was more of the same to start the second, as the continued low kicks turned the Brazilian’s lead leg into ground chuck. As the kicks kept crashing home, Costa’s reactions to each subtle feint, each flinch of the shoulders or slight twist of the hips got bigger, creating increased opportunities for Adesanya to mix things up and do more damage.

A high kick at the midway point of the round crashed into the right side of the challenger’s head, opening a cut above his eye, sending blood dripping onto his chest. Though Costa tried to play it off, he was clearly affected by the blow, but rather that chase an opportunity to finish that wasn’t necessarily there, Adesanya remained patient, stuck to the game plan, and followed it up with another thudding kick to the outside of Costa’s battered left leg.

The challenger began pressing forward a little more, connecting with a kick to the body, which Adesanya absorbed, countering with a multi-punch combo, most of which landed on Costa’s arms. Seconds later, as the Brazilian reached out with a lazy jab, Adesanya landed a right hand to the temple and a left hand to the chin, sending Costa to the canvas.

Seven seconds later, the fight was over.

He told us it was going to be easy and then went out and made it look easy, extending his record to 20-0 while cementing his place atop the middleweight division and delivering the kind of performance that has made “The Last Stylebender” a must-see attraction throughout his UFC tenure.

People started questioning Adesanya a little for the first time in 2020 after he and Romero engaged in a drawn out, 25-minute contest at UFC 248.

What started as a tactical, tense game of chicken between the undisputed champion and the perennial contender became an uneventful five-round slog, with neither man throwing or landing much of anything, resulting in a close, yet unfulfilling, follow-up to the “Fight of the Year” between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk that played out before it.

It was easy to understand why neither man wanted to rush in haphazardly but given the way the majority of Adesanya’s fights had played out as the he rose from UFC unknown to undisputed champion in the span of 20 months, his low-key performance against Romero prompted some to wonder if winning the title meant a shift to a more tactical, more risk-averse approach for the City Kickboxing representative.

The fight against Costa was a reminder that Adesanya is one of the more cerebral and tactical fighters in the sport, as well as being one of its most accurate and dangerous strikers.

Openings and opportunities that weren’t there against Romero were present against Costa, and Adesanya was able to create more with each quick switch of his stance and an assortment of feints.

It was a reminder of the approach Adesanya has maintained throughout his combat sports career, the one he shared with Joe Rogan inside the Octagon following his first-round stoppage win over Derek Brunson at UFC 230: “I don’t throw and hope; I aim and fire.”

There’s a line in the Justin Timberlake track “Sexy Ladies” where he acknowledges the previous line might sound overly boastful, then asks “But is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?”

While the former boy band member might not be the first, fifty-first, or one-thousand-and-first artist whose musical stylings spring to mind when thinking about Adesanya, that individual line feels like an encapsulation of not only his fight with Costa, but his unprecedented rise to the top of the middleweight division as a whole.

He told us straight away that he was going to be a factor in the 185-pound ranks, warning everyone in the division that there was a new dog in the yard following his impressive debut at UFC 221.

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Less than five months later, he picked apart veteran stalwart Brad Tavares in his first headlining turn before styling on Brunson in New York City. His first year on the roster ended with a victory over Brazilian icon and long-time champ Anderson Silva, and his sophomore campaign included a pair of championship wins — a gutsy interim title-winning victory over Kelvin Gastelum and a thorough defeat of Robert Whittaker at UFC 243.

In less than three years, Adesanya has earned nine victories inside the Octagon, ascending to the top of the middleweight division while emerging as one of the biggest stars in the sport, with his skills inside the cage only being matched by his swagger outside of it.

He told us it was going to be easy and then made it look easy.

“Is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?”