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Israel Adesanya… a new star is born


Israel (right) teaching his American opponent Kelvin Gastelum some bitter lessons during the UFC fight in Atlanta, USA on Sunday

After conquering America’s Kelvin Gastelum in a captivating clash at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 236 in Atlanta, USA in the early hours of Sunday, rave of the moment, Israel Mobolaji Adesanya is set to visit his fatherland, Nigeria, 16 years after he took his martial arts trade to New Zealand. Adesanya’s victory at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, earned him the interim middleweight championship belt in one of the best title fights ever seen in combat sports history. The Nigerian won via unanimous decision.

The Last Stylebender, as Adesanya is fondly called, moved to New Zealand (his adopted country) when he was 13. Adesanya had defeated Brazil’s Anderson Silva in February at UFC 234 contest in Melbourne, Australia, but his battle against Gastelum, a Mexican fighter in Atlanta, was fascinating.

Gastelum was aggressive from the outset as he looked to counter his significant height and reach disadvantage with a game plan built on pressure and an effective jab. The approach paid dividends for Gastelum, as he caught Adesanya with a glancing right hand early that staggered the Nigerian and won him the opening round.

Adesanya then found his rhythm on the feet and the momentum swung back his way. He landed consistently with counter shots, as Gastelum chased the killer blow, using his head movement to evade danger at times. That trend continued into the third, when the variation and unpredictability of Adesanya’s striking looked to be taking its toll on Gastelum.

But Gastelum recaptured control in the fourth round behind courtesy of his trademark left hook, catching Adesanya clean and sending him stumbling to the fence, where he chose to shoot for a takedown rather than chase a fight-ending blow. Though, Gastelum ate most of the shots, he was able to last the full five rounds. He was dropped several times but never hurt enough for referee Marc Goddard to call an end to the bout.

Adesanya’s counter right hand, coupled with his vast experience in mixed martial art, kickboxer and boxer, was his biggest weapon. Relatively untested in his UFC tenure to this point, Adesanya was forced to reach deep against Gastelum, displaying an exceptional level of fortitude in overcoming some early adversity to produce a stellar performance in the pivotal final round.The enthralled State Farm Arena crowd rose as the fifth round began, well aware what was on the line, and Adesanya came out on top – twice sending Gastelum to the canvas courtesy of a pair of searing right-hands, then threatening with a triangle choke that almost found its mark.

The Nigerian put a final stamp on his victory, dominating the fifth round to lift the UFC middleweight interim belt, which many have tagged ‘a fight of the year contender.’At the end of the five rounds, all three judges scored the fight – that was closer than many expected – 48-46 in favour of Adesanya. Both fighters finished the bout with blood-smeared faces.

Visibly emotional, Adesanya dedicated the win to his coach and long-time mentor Eugene Bareman. He laid the belt on the mat and the two embraced as they kneeled on the canvas. “I was willing to give it all and leave it all in there.“I’m the champion, let’s go,” an elated Adesanya told journalists immediately after Sunday’s bloody fight.

With the victory, the 29-year-old Adesanya moves his undefeated record to 17-0 – including a staggering six consecutive UFC wins in just 14 months. The victory makes the Nigerian-born Adesanya New Zealand’s first-ever UFC champion, although he still needs to beat the recovering Robert Whittaker later this year to become the division’s outright king. That fight will produce an undisputed king of the UFC’s 185-pound division.Interim titles are awarded when the original champion is unable to compete for a long period of time. It prevents the top end of a division from stalling, and once the original champion is able to return, they are generally required to fight the interim titleholder in a unification bout.

Speaking with The Guardian shortly after the victory, Israel’s father, Femi Thai Adesanya, who watched the fight in Atlanta with other members of his family, including his wife, revealed that his son would be visiting Nigeria next month.

“Israel will be visiting Nigeria in May. I will keep you posted on arrangement towards to the visit,” he stated.On the battle of Atlanta, the senior Adesanya said: “We were nervously optimistic Israel will come out victorious, and thank God he did.” The father however revealed that the crowd support for Israel played a part in his victory. “The crowd supported Israel. He has a growing fan base worldwide.”

Adesanya trained in taekwondo briefly in his youth but was stopped by his mother after breaking his arm. At the age of 13, he moved to Rotorua, New Zealand and attended Rotorua Boys’ High School. He started training in kickboxing at age 18 after being inspired by the Muay Thai film Ong-Bak and went on to amass an amateur kickboxing record of 32-0 prior to moving and fighting in China.

At the age of 21, Adesanya relocated to Auckland, New Zealand, and began training at City Kickboxing with other established fighters, including Kai Kara-France and Dan Hooker. He made his professional debut in 2012, and fought in Hong Kong, Australia and China in five-and-a-half years, amassing a record of 11-0 with all wins coming via KO/TKO. He was signed by the UFC in December 2017, and made his debut against Rob Wilkinson on February 11, 2018, at UFC 221, which he won via a TKO in the second round.

In April 2018, defeated Marvin Vettori via split decision. He was pitched against Brad Tavares in July 2018, at The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale, and Adesanya won the one-sided fight via unanimous decision. Among other fights, Adesanya defeated Derek Brunson in November 2018, at UFC 230, winning via a technical knockout in round one.Apart from Adesanya, other Nigerians making waves in the UFC includes, US-based Nigerian boxer Kamaru Usman, who defeated American Tyron Woodley to become the first African fighter to win a UFC title. Usman, known as the “Nigerian Nightmare’’ won the Mixed-Martial Arts (MMA) bout against Woodley for the welterweight title in Las Vegas recently.While Adesanya hails from Odogbolu, Ogun State, Usman is from Auchi, Edo State.

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