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Israel Adesanya had to dig deep against Kelvin Gastelum, and those depths were the revelation

Israel Adesanya
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Early last year, Israel Adesanya quietly took out Rob Wilkinson in his UFC debut, and then — in a bold and ultimately symbolic act — proceeded to mark his territory in the Octagon. That was at UFC 221, and people compared him at first glance to Jon Jones. Fifteen pay-per-views later, at UFC 236 in Atlanta, he overcame Kelvin Gastelum through 25 minutes of hell, in what could very well end up as Fight of the Year in 2019, and people are talking about him fighting Jon Jones. One of those running the idea up the flagpole is Jones himself, who has a fight already lined up for July 6 against Thiago Santos.

This is how it usually works. When Jones defeated Shogun Rua back in the day to become the youngest champion ever, it got people to wondering what would happen if he faced the great Anderson Silva. The imagination went towards the most ridiculous extreme, because extremes are a fun vacation spot for our collective curiosity. Back then Jones was still full of faux respect and righteousness, and didn’t want to disrespect Silva (publicly) by speculating about a colossal fight out of division. Silva himself was reduced to a fit of big blushing eye rolls when asked about Jones, saying things like, “you never know.”

Today’s game isn’t nearly as modest; Adesanya will shoot ice darts through Jones’ heart at the first chance he gets. That’s a guarantee. There’s no longer a “martial arts respect” barrier in play, and the notion that a champion must clean out his or her division before straying into other weight classes is as obsolete as Aristotle’s pretext that women have fewer teeth than men. All Jones and Adesanya have to do is come face-to-face with one another at any point and Dana White will wedge a contract between their noses and arm them with pens.

Adesanya isn’t already shooting ice darts through Jones’ aorta because, well, there’s Robert Whittaker out there on the horizon. That’s first. What a mega-fight that now becomes. And besides, as he alluded to moments after surviving Gastelum, he was savoring his own depths. Why the hell wouldn’t he be a little selfish in a moment like that?

It took him 14 months to go from prospect to champion, and he wanted to bask in the blur of his own accomplishments after withstanding Gastelum’s fourth-round onslaught. His face, bloodied and swollen, told you everything about the kind of encounter he had. Every distortion of his features was a testament to a resolve that, through 25 harrowing minutes, became a public fact. Adesanya is more than striking prowess and pomp; there’s mettle in his core. If we didn’t know how deep Adesanya goes, we do now.

And he really was on the brink of falling as Gastelum tuned him up with the left, and that jab, and all the heavy stuff in between. The legs were going, even as the mind scrambled to override the action. Whatever kept him up was the same thing that kept Gastelum up when the tables turned (again) in the fifth; a preference, by each fighter, to freaking die before losing.

A great fight is when neither man can find the bottom of the other man’s depths, even when they pour every ounce of themselves into the effort. What were we watching Saturday night, other than heart — that easily flung around word, and the biggest in the fight game lexicon — is communicating its secrets of indomitability? There were genuine heroics on display in the championship rounds. Everything from determination to desperation could be found in those punching exchanges, sometimes both at the same time. Adesanya said that between the fourth and fifth he “embraced the darkness,” and that was enough to revitalize him. Not many fighters can keep peeling back layers 20 minutes into a war of that kind.

What he did to Gastelum in the fifth round was a full-on confessional of just the kind of fighter he is. That Gastelum survived to hear the final horn was of equal wonder. Gastelum loses nothing in defeat. He is above reproach. And the thing is, Adesanya loses nothing of his mystique by failing to dominate a fighter who showed up in Atlanta determined to lay it all on the line, at any cost. Adesanya knew he was in a fight early. Gastelum made sure of it. Yet even in his sixth fight in 14 months — and his second in 2019 — he didn’t look for a way out. He seemed more inclined to make his way in. He found it in him. Then he won the most revealing fight of his young MMA career.

Next up it’s Whittaker to unify the titles, and beyond that, who knows — maybe by the end of the year he’ll grant that fight to Jones. In any case, it’s all big things for Adesanya, who looked perfectly comfortable in his new belt. For now there’s enough time to reflect on one of the best fights of 2019, and for all future opponents to lose themselves in the idea of what it might take to beat him.

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