Going the Distance: Adesanya cruises past Vettori at UFC 263

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

After an unsuccessful light heavyweight title challenge in March, current UFC middleweight champion Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (21-1, 10-1 UFC) got back to his winning ways Saturday, earning an unanimous decision victory over Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (17-4-1, 7-3-1 UFC) at UFC 263 in Glendale, Ariz. 

Vettori, whose last loss came to Stylebender in 2018, had won five straight fights coming into this fight, where many believed him to be a live underdog. The thought was that Vettori would have a big wrestling and ground-game advantage, if he could get the fight there. However, Adesanya had no real trouble against him, putting on an excellent performance in which he won every round on all three of the judges’ scorecards. Adesanya largely succeeded in keeping Vettori at distance, where he landed 53 percent of his significant strikes compared to Vettori’s 32 percent. As he often does, Stylebender employed excellent takedown defense and patience to neutralize Vettori’s wrestling game while pushed up against the cage. The challenger’s only good opportunity came in round 3 when he briefly had the back of Adesanya and attempted a rear-naked choke. This might have been the most interesting moment of the fight, as Adesanya quickly reversed position and was on top of Vettori, giving us a rare glimpse into the work he’s put into his ground game. 

Overall, Adesanya showed once again that there are levels to this game, and Vettori is simply not on his level yet. When you look at the difference in recent competition, this is pretty clear. Adesanya has been beating the best middleweights in the division (Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, Paulo Costa) while Vettori’s last three have been much less inspiring (Karl Roberson, Jack Hermannson, Kevin Holland). Vettori came up short, as has every other middleweight who has ever fought Adesanya. So what’s next for the elite in this division?

Middleweight Landscape

Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (C) vs. Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (No. 1): A rematch of the 2019 unification bout between these two men is the only fight to make at the top of the division, and Dana White has already said as much. Since taking his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243, Whittaker has rebounded impressively, winning unanimous decisions over some of the division’s best in Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum. Whittaker is the true No. one contender, and of all the top fighters in the division, he poses the biggest threat to Israel. While the champ may not have anything to prove, a second win over Whittaker (who is currently listed as No. 12 in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings) would go a long way toward cementing Stylebender as one of the best middleweights to ever do it. We should expect to see this bout headline a pay-per-view in late 2021. 

Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa (No. 2) vs. Jack “The Joker” Hermansson (No. 6): After his loss on Saturday night, Marvin Vettori called out Costa, expressing that he wanted to beat up “the drunk guy” (referring to Costa’s admission that he was drinking the night of his title fight against Adesanya last year). While that fight would surely be entertaining, that would leave Hermansson, who deserves a top-five guy after his last few performances, without a matchup. Costa, on the other hand, deserves a lower-ranked opponent after pulling out of a fight with Jared Cannonier over fighter pay complaints. Costa’s last performance was terrible, so a fight with Hermansson could make sense as the Norwegian is a tough opponent but not usually considered in the top tier of middleweights. For the Joker, he can take a significant step toward a title shot with a win over Borrachinha, and has a path to victory in this fight if he can get it to the ground.

Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (No. 3) vs. the winner of Uriah “Prime Time” Hall (No. 8) vs. Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (No. 11): As we said before, there are levels to this game, and Vettori needs to take a step down. He is still a legitimate prospect at only 27 years old, and if the UFC wants to continue to build him up, a fight against the winner of Hall vs. Strickland (taking place at the end of July) could make sense. While Vettori would very likely be favored in either of these matchups, both opponents could pose problems. Hall is capable of putting on great performances (albeit inconsistently), and has the power to knock out a very durable Vettori, while Strickland is a strong boxer who has defended 82 perent of takedown attempts against him. Either way, the winner of Hall vs. Strickland will be on a five-fight win streak, so this is an opportunity for Vettori to reload his hype train while extinguishing someone else’s. 

Jared “Killa Gorilla” Cannonier (No. 4) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (No. 9): Gastelum is once again stepping in for a withdrawn opponent (Costa) in a high-profile fight, with this bout scheduled for late August. Gastelum has lost four of his last five fights, but the level of competition in those matches has been excellent. Given these recent outcomes, Gastelum is still a fair bit away from a title shot, even if he’s able to get through Cannonier. For the Killa Gorilla, who has only one loss at middleweight and is known for finishing fights with his fists, earning a knockout over an uber-durable Gastelum (who has never been finished by strikes) would be a huge statement, and one likely to catch the attention of Adesanya, who has publicly said he wants to fight Cannonier and views him as a “Dark Horse” in the division. Had Cannonier beaten Whittaker back in October 2020 at Fight Island, he would likely have been next for Adesanya. He can get himself back on that path with a great performance against Gastelum. 

Derek Brunson (No. 5) vs. Darren “The Gorilla” Till (No. 7): This fight is rumored to be taking place sometime in September. Brunson has been rolling of late, winning four in a row (most recently in dominant fashion over Kevin Holland) since being knocked out by Stylebender in 2018. Brunson will be outmatched on the feet, which means he’ll look to take the fight to the ground where he usually excels. However, Till’s takedown defense is significantly better than Holland’s (82 percent to 47 percent). A healthy Till will be difficult for Brunson to beat, but if he can, a title challenge could be next. Conversely, the same could be said for Till. Despite losing three of his last four fights to absolute killers in Tyron Woodley, Jorge Masvidal, and Robert Whittaker, it’s well known that Adesanya wants to fight Till at some point in his career. If Adesanya defends the belt against Whittaker and Till beats Brunson, I wouldn’t be surprised to see those two get in the octagon at some point, regardless of whether or not Till deserves the title shot.

Edmen “The Golden Boy” Shahbazyan (No. 10) vs. Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland (No. 14): Shahbazyan had a rough go last time out against Hermansson, as the Joker was able to get him on the ground where he essentially had no answer for Hermansson’s ground-and-pound. While not nearly as brutal a sight, Holland suffered roughly the same fate in his last fight against Brunson. Both of these men are primarily strikers, so this fight would not disappoint from an entertainment perspective. While the result is not likely to teach us anything important about either man, it’s simply too fun of a matchup not to make. 

Bonus Round

All hail the new king of the flyweights, Brandon “The Assassin Baby” Moreno! Moreno had an incredible performance to win the belt from Deiveson “Deus da Guerra” Figueiredo in the UFC 263 co-main event, tapping out the Brazilian with a rear-naked choke in round 3. I was shocked to see Figueiredo so outclassed by Moreno in every area of the fight, and while I give full credit to Moreno, we also need to acknowledge that the best version of Figueiredo is not likely to be seen again at flyweight, given how difficult the weight cut is for him. I’d like to see him move up to bantamweight, where he can hopefully return to a stronger form in what is an already stacked division. For Moreno, it would make sense for his first title defense to come against Askar “Bullet” Askarov, an undefeated fighter who is currently ranked as the No. 2 flyweight. Moreno has already fought Askarov once: That fight ended in a split draw back in 2019. What better way to settle the unfinished business than to run it back, this time with UFC gold on the line?

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