Technique can take you very far in the UFC. Eventually, though, you’re going to have to rely on heart to get you through a tough spot.
When both fighters have to reject their central nervous system’s warnings, allowing them to push forward where others would stop, you get a great fight. When that happens under a magnifying glass on the sport’s biggest stage, you get a classic.
That’s a fitting term for Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum, an interim middleweight title fight set up by an injury to then-champ Robert Whittaker. It was a fight where both men had to dig deep, and for reasons deeply intertwined with their histories in the cage. They had different motivations for rising to the occasion, but together, they built to a roiling boil over five rounds.
Adesanya had always been a superb technician. In the ring and cage, the middleweight’s control of distance and timing separated him from the pack, so much so that his every move – and misstep – had been dissected by a public that expected greatness at every turn. Decisions over mid-pack veterans were cause for disappointment. A win over aging legend Anderson Silva was expected. He needed a real test.
Gastelum, on the other hand, wanted real recognition. After a tumultuous career as a UFC welterweight, he’d set out to reinvent himself in the division to which he was ordered after several misses at the scale. At 185 pounds, he wasn’t as big as his colleagues, but he could still hit hard and move fast. Knockouts of Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping got him on the map, and a decision over Rondaldo “Jacare” Souza made him a viable contender.
With the finish line in sight, force majeure proved a terrible foe. Champ Whittaker’s last-minute hernia scratched Gastelum’s title shot at UFC 234, erasing 12 weeks of buildup as they led opposing teams on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Seeking to save face, he showed up on fight night and paraded a fake belt around the octagon.
Then on the same night, “Stylebender” beat Silva, and the finish line was pushed back.
Gastelum showed up looking to prove something at UFC 236, and he also arrived facing serious physical deficits; he was short at least seven inches in height and reach. He was up against one of the promotion’s most obivous talents. His wrestling was thought to be an equalizer. But as it turned out, it was his heart that did the job.
”The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner fought a smart fight early on, circling away from Adesanya’s power side and using forward pressure to land big punches. Adesanya initially struggled to find setups and measure range. But just as his idol Silva, “Stylebender” produced devastating results the moment that changed. The first telling blow came in the second frame, when Gastelum mismanaged distance and hit the canvas off a straight right. Then a spinning elbow landed with less than one minute, and Gastelum shot in desperation. Adesanya grabbed his opponent’s torso and spun his legs like a swing ride.
By the fourth round, Adesanya was comfortably in control of the action. But Gastelum refused to capitulate, starting the frame with a chase and a punch that opened a cut. With less than one minute, he snuck in a head kick that wobbled Adesanya, whose face began to show the evidence of a barnburner. By the end of the next five-minute stanza, Gastelum would mirror that image.
The “TUF” champ had to go for broke. As we found out later, they were tied up heading into the fifth. Adesanya’s technical brilliance had carried the day when he could control the distance. But Gastelum’s toughness had pushed him in a way no previous opponent had. The fight was competitive like the best high-level matchups in the sport, but the stakes of the final frame pushed it to new heights.
Seeking to finish what he’d started late in the fourth, Kelvin swung for the fences. Adesanya retorted to a straight right and a guillotine choke, which Kelvin powered through only to fight off a triangle. Just the sight of “The Last Stylebender” transitioning through submissions was a shock, even if their ultimate purpose was to initiate a scramble.
With minutes left, Gastelum waded forward one last time, convinced that whatever Adesanya doled out, he could take and return tenfold. It proved his undoing, as Adesanya dropped him with a trio of straight punches that exploded his face. Adesanya moved to his back, drawing a hard warning from referee Marc Goddard as punches rained down. And yet, Gastelum again summoned the will to continue, getting up, then falling to another punch. UFC commentator Joe Rogan screamed to stop the fight. The final bell sounded first.
As it turned out, the judges had properly done their jobs, scoring the final frame 10-8 across the board for unanimous 48-46 scores. The win brought Adesanya his first UFC title, the golden validation of his innate talent, the right to unify the middleweight belt, and, not least of which, a true test.
Swollen and bloodied, the Nigerian-born fighter laid the UFC strap at the feet of his longtime coach, Eugene Bareman, who eight months later would be back to help another fighter from Down Under collect a belt. With tears still in his eyes, Adesanya embraced his family.
”I was willing to die,” he said afterward. “We’ve lost teammates to this game; they’re not with us anymore. But I knew I was willing to leave it all in there. He’s a Mexican warrior, but I’ve got that Mexicano in me, too.”
2. DUSTIN POIRIER VS. MAX HOLLOWAY 2, UFC 236
Adrenaline dumps aren’t just for fighters – just ask the MMA faithful who took in UFC 236’s main event.
Like the two of a one-two, Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway’s rematch for the interim lightweight title gave the “Fight of the Year” winner a run for its money, rudely interrupting the release of cortisol after the championship-length rollercoaster of the main event.
Seven years after Poirier’s 2012 win, the two had been transformed into elite warriors at 145 and 155 pounds, respectively. Holloway had taken over featherweight in the wake of Conor McGregor, a shared catalyst for their impressive comebacks. Poirier had his first shot at UFC gold after a long road to proving his title worth.
They had no immediate reason to meet again; it was only the chaos left in the wake of McGregor’s return at UFC 229 that brought them together. With champ Khabib Nurmagomedov suspended and Tony Ferguson unwilling to take another interim title fight, Holloway stepped up for another go-around with Poirier, who’d grown increasingly frustrated by the DMV line at 155.
With 10 extra pounds, Poirier and Holloway had more energy to bludgeon each other over 25 minutes. And bludgeon they did, in a fight where almost 800 strikes were thrown. When it was all over, Poirier was again the victor, setting up a title unifier with undisputed champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.
3. VICENTE LUQUE VS. BRYAN BARBARENA, UFC on ESPN 1
A gunfight from start to finish. Luque, a powerful technical striker with a dangerous submission game, had knocked out four octagon foes when his fist connected with Barbarena’s chin early in the first. That might have been it, but punches only seemed to motivate Barbarena. And so, the two settled into a brutal game of chicken as they smashed into each other over and over again, thrilling the crowd well before the main event of UFC on ESPN 1.
It seemed as though Barbarena’s toughness might be too much for Luque, who hit the canvas in the first after a stiff punch. Two rounds of relentless pressure shifted momentum toward the American. Then Luque, bleeding from his eyes, landed a right hand and a pair of knees that put Barbarena down with seconds were left on the clock. Dazed, Barbarena crawled toward safety as another punch sent his mouthpiece flying. He would have continued, but the referee had different ideas in a buzzer-beater finish. The roar of the crowd was one mark of a job well done for both fighters, and the $50,000 checks hopefully eased the sting of one very painful night.
It was more than just a grudge match between two top welterweights separated by one Florida county. Over two years, Covington had hitched his promotional wagon to a polarizing, often zenophobic ideology. So it was fitting that he was forced to face Usman, an immigrant with a storybook rise, at the final mile of a slash-and-burn campaign to the belt.
Real or exaggerated, Covington’s persona elevated an already compelling fight to a symbol of our divided political times. Nationalism gets dragged into the fight game a lot, but this was more than that – it was emblematic of what’s going on right now in our world. And as irony goes, you don’t get one much richer than Covington, who gave as good as he got before getting dropped in the fifth, suffering a broken jaw. Were he nothing more than a blowhard, one of the more dramatic fights of the year might have ended there. But he and his counterpart also happen to be two of the toughest and most talented fighters at 170 pounds, and so we got our money’s worth.
5. PAULO COSTA VS. YOEL ROMERO, UFC 241
Another classic in the middleweight division. Costa had never really been tested in the octagon. Then he ran into aged granite. At 42, Romero stuck out his tongue and laughed as the young lion threw hammer after hammer at his head and body. Then he escaped, flung punches like paddleball and exploded into takedowns. You figured at some point the two most muscled fighters in the division would tire, but there was no let up. Romero even turned up the tempo and threatened to end Costa’s meteor-like rise at 185 pounds. Costa took his lumps and bled, but he proved he was a true contender.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2019 Fight of the Year played out.
- Vicente Luque vs. Mike Perry - Aug. 10, UFC Uruguay
- Saad Awad vs. Brandon Girtz - March 29, Bellator 219
- Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes - June 8, UFC 238
- Pedro Munhoz vs. Cody Garbrandt - March 2, UFC 235
- Ben Askren vs. Robbie Lawler - March 2, UFC 235
- Demian Maia vs. Ben Askren - Oct. 26, UFC Singapore
- Nicolas Dalby vs. Ross Houston - June 29, Cage Warriors 106
- Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens 2 - Oct. 18, UFC on ESPN 6
- Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone - June 8, UFC 238
- Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 2 - Aug. 17 - UFC 241
- Jorge Masvidal vs. Darren Till - March 16, UFC London
- Angela Lee vs. Xiong Jing Nan - March 31, ONE: A New Era
- Yojiro Uchimura vs. Shinsuke Kamei - April 14, Pancrase 304