Israel Adesanya was in a rough spot in the fourth round at UFC 236. Kelvin Gastelum rocked him with a head kick and nearly finished him. The damage done to him over 20 minutes of fighting was accumulating and beginning to show on his face in the form of a fat lip and badly bruised cheek.
When the round was over, Adesanya made it back to his corner, sat down and listened to his coach Eugene Bareman.
“Even at the end of the fourth round, Eugene said go that place,” Adesanya said. “Because I’ve been there before in trainings, when it’s put on you by six, seven, eight guys. And I knew if they couldn’t break me, one man couldn’t break me. And he’s one tough man.”
In the fifth round, Adesanya said he told himself, “embrace the darkness,” repeating a line one of his other coaches says. With the bout tied two rounds apiece, Adesanya came out with ferocity and nearly finished Gastelum with punches on several occasions.
Adesanya didn’t get the stoppage victory he wanted, but he walked away with a unanimous decision over Gastelum to win the UFC interim middleweight title Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 236. It was a bloody, brutal, grueling war of attrition — and one of the most scintillating fights in UFC history.
“I wanted to finish it,” Adesanya said. “I was willing to die, so I was willing to kill.”
Gastelum dropped Adesanya in the first round and looked well on his way to a dominant performance. But it didn’t go down quite like that after all. In the second, Adesanya dropped Gastelum and took back momentum. He continued that roll into the third round. The fourth round went back to Gastelum after an out-of-nowhere head kick and barrage. Both men took obscene amounts of punishment. Adesanya dished out the carnage in the fifth, but Gastelum survived to the bell.
“I know why people break I know why people get wilted,” Adesanya said. “A lot of people are weak mentally when they get to that point. They want a way out. I’ve done it to many people before, I’ve done it to many men. So, I could see he was trying to do that to me, but he couldn’t, so he started to get discourage.
“That was some movie-type shit, man, c’mon. Overcoming adversity in the beginning and then the end of the fight, fifth round I rocked him how many times and I’m just trying to finish the fight. I was going for it.”
Adesanya will now face undisputed middleweight champion Robert Whittaker to unify the belts. The bout will have a ton of pomp and circumstance, since Adesanya lives in New Zealand and Whittaker calls Australia home. The bout figures to draw a massive crowd somewhere in that region later this year.
However, Adesanya vs. Gastelum will be a battle fans won’t soon forget. It’s a clear early favorite for Fight of the Year. More than that, it was a glimpse into an Adesanya that hasn’t been seen before. “The Last Style Bender” is flashy and proficient in finishing foes with striking. But boy, he can certainly take a beating as well as dish it out, too.
“I’m not one to quit,” Adesanya said. “I’m strong mentally. I’m bulletproof in the brain. And I’m fucked in the head a little bit. I just know you’re not gonna break me, because I’ve had eight guys, 10 guys — I was gonna say run a train, but in a different way — on me in training. And I’m like, if they can’t break me, one man can’t break me. And he’s a tough, tough one hell of a man.”
If there were still nay sayers about what Adesanya can accomplish, they are now few and far between. UFC president Dana White said this was a star-making performance for the Nigerian-born striker. And maybe even Adesanya learned a little bit about himself as well.
“I found something deep,” he said. “I found like another level. I’ve been there in training before, but I found another level of just that darkness.”