In his UFC middleweight title defence against Yoel Romero, Israel Adesanya did what few before him have been able to achieve – walk away from a fight with Romero unscathed.
Before the fight, Kiwi UFC lightweight Dan Hooker predicted his City Kickboxing teammate Adesanya would be too fast for Romero and make the 42-year-old Cuban look "stuck in the mud." And while the fight itself has been heavily criticised by fans and pundits for a lack of action, that's exactly what Adesanya did.
Despite being a silver medal-winning Olympic wrestler, Romero is known for his power inside the octagon. Even in his losses, he does plenty of damage to his opponents. Take his two most recent bouts, against Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa, for example. Romero lost both the fights on the judges' scorecards despite knocking both men down multiple times and securing multiple takedowns against them.
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Adesanya came into his bout against Romero with the middleweight title slung over his shoulder as the taller fighter, with a longer reach with his arms and legs. The Kiwi is an elite striker, and being able to work from range to piece Romero apart was a major advantage going into the fight.
It meant there was no need for him to do anything stupid to force the tempo of the fight, even when Romero stood still with his guard up for the first two minutes of the fight. It caught everyone watching by surprise as Romero is generally an aggressive fighter.
It became clear that Romero was trying to focus on defence and set some sort of trap when, in trying to make something happen, Adesanya walked right into a heavy left hand from his Cuban counterpart.
For the rest of the fight, Adesanya was aware of the left hand and, being the champion already, there was no reason for him to take any risks. Despite offering different looks, feints, positions in the cage and throwing strikes to try initiate some sort of offence, Romero would not bite or engage, which saw Adesanya go to the leg kicks and fight for points.
That made it hard for Adesanya to get Romero with an open shot. Even when he was attempting in good faith, the opportunities weren't there very much. Romero, to his credit, has very good defense.— Luke Thomas (@lthomasnews) March 9, 2020
The problem for Romero is that while his defense is sound, that's all there is.
When Romero did try to come forward, Adesanya was too fast and got out of trouble without wearing too many clean shots – his defensive guard holding up as he moved back to range. Even when Romero tried to take the fight to the ground, Adesanya slithered out of trouble with ease.
Romero attempted just 89 total strikes through the 25 minutes, attacking in short flurries, while Adesanya attempted 132. In his previous bout, a decision loss to Paulo Costa, Romero attempted 568 strikes - and that was only a three-round (15 minute) fight.
It wasn't the bloody war that fans expected to see, but it was a clinical and technical display in point fighting from Adesanya. Being able to land leg kick after leg kick – more than 50 per cent of the strikes he landed were to the legs - there was no need to walk into range of an opponent with well documented knockout power.
As Adesanya has said in the past: "it's chess, not checkers."
With the pace and fluidity at which Adesanya gets his strikes off, Romero had to look hard for a point where he might have some success throwing a counter left hand. With Adesanya fighting back at range, you could hear his corner telling him to circle.
The instruction essentially means to keep moving around the octagon so your opponent can't get set and put as much power into their strikes. Many see this as 'running away' – a thought Romero made very clear in his post-fight press conference.
"He running and running and running," Romero said of Adesanya. "That is not a big champion. The big champion needs to stay here in the middle and fight like a real champion. Like the old people in Rome, like a gladiator. That's what the people want to see here.
"The people paid for pay-per-view for a real fight. Not for this. The fighters need to respect the people paying. The people paid because they want to see a good fight, not like this.
"You want to see running, go see Usain Bolt."
At the end of the bout, it was simply a case of Adesanya outwitting and outclassing Romero while flexing his high fight IQ. It might have come across as boring, it was a brilliant display of knowing your opponent and where your advantages are against them.
Romero did not fight like he desperately wanted the title, and Adesanya made him pay for it.
"Show me you want the belt," Adesanya said in reference to the way the fight played out.
"One of his tactics is he tries to bore you. He's done it with a lot of guys; he'll just stand there and bore you. You're just expecting something and lose concentration, and then he catches you. That was probably his only hope for this fight; I think that was his thing.
"It's not my kind of fight. If you haven't seen me fight before, check my resume and see how I really f*** people up.
"If you want the belt and you know the fight is close, come get it. He didn't."