As 2019 taps out and we move into the new year, I like everyone else, always take a look back at the year that was in MMA. Champions change, new faces emerge into contenders, and veterans lay their gloves in the cage one last time.
The point is, in this sport where things can change in the blink of an eye, or more on brand, in the connection of a right-hand, one thing remains a constant.
MMA is about moments.
Be it the ones you don’t see coming, the underdog with no chance suddenly shocking the world, or a champion solidifying his reign with a dynasty reign.
The evolution of MMA is growing rapidly, and even at the highest promotion levels (e.x. The UFC) it’s almost impossible to predict the fortunes of fighters a year in advance. With all the highlight reel performances week after week and the constant promotional chaos, you’d think it’d be hard to find 1 performance that stood out.
Normally I’d agree, but I did you one better. I found the moment that encapsulated the story of this sport in one night and introduced the fight world to the next big superstar.
2019 belonged to a rising middleweight, a broken native that pieced together the performance of a lifetime. The greatest moment of 2019 was manifested, planned out, and perfectly executed by Israel Adesanya aka the Stylebender.
Part of having the best moment of the year is having the grand stage for the world to see. Call it luck, destiny, or fate; whatever it was, the stage was set. A hometown champion defending against a flashy, entertaining striker with the gift of gab from a rival island. Australia vs New Zealand, Aussies vs Kiwis, a built-in rivalry culminating at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, in front of a sold-out crowd of 50,000 for UFC 243.
Enter Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker the UFC Middleweight Champion and Australia’s favorite son, a strong silent type. He doesn’t say much with his words, but his fists speak with conviction. His toughness and skill earning him the support of his nation of Aussies and the kickass nickname “Bobby Knuckles”.
Next the challenger, Israel Adesanya. An undefeated middleweight with a New Zealand sized chip on his shoulder. He’s confident, vocal, skillful, and cerebral. Loose in his demeanor and calculated in his preparation, Izzy marries patience and a killer instinct to systematically overwhelm opponents. He’s fast witted on the microphone but responses even faster in the cage, patiently navigating distance and analyzing his opponent’s weaknesses before he strikes.
As the main event approached and both fighters finished their warmup, what happened next is for lack of a better term, special. Under a roaring crowd reigning down boos, on the biggest stage of his career, Adesanya presents Exhibit A for the biggest moment of 2019 in MMA: The Walk Out.
This is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the UFC, and only there’s once I can remember seeing anything like it at all. It came from Anderson Silva, one of Adesanya’s heroes, who gave his best impersonation of Michael Jackson all the way back in 2002.
Either way what came next might not ever be seen again, because I’m 90 percent sure it gave Dana White a mild stroke.
Adesanya’s music hits but he’s nowhere to be found. Instead 3 people in army fatigues and masks start a choreographed dance, until a slim figure emerges from the walkout tunnel. It’s Adesanya, and as he walked, I assumed he was just going to be led to the octagon by the 3 dancers. Thankfully Izzy, always the showman, had something up his sleeve for this entrance. He huddled with the dancers.
We found out later from Adesanya himself were 3 of his closest friends and some of the first people he met when he came from Nigeria to New Zealand.
Add a million more cool points for that alone.
Then out of nowhere Israel Adesanya jumps to the front of the group and leads a seamless dance routine, complete with a one-handed flip. A flip that he of course he sticks the landing of, in the midst of without a single pause or misstep.
Then, as if he hadn’t just put Chris Brown to shame with the dance moves, Adesanya turned and walked to the cage. I should’ve seen what was coming right then and there but I was too mesmerized by what I had just witnessed. On this night, Adesanya was in a special zone.
It seemed as if nothing fazed him, everything thing he was doing fell right into place. I know the Hollywood screenwriters are the best in the world but there’s a reason the phrase “You couldn’t write a script like this” exists. There was only one problem, the hero still has to conquer the beast and in this case a reaper was waiting in the cage.
If Adesanya’s dance and aura as he walked to the ring were the prologue, what happened next can only be described as the final act.
And what a way to put it because Exhibit B of why Israel Adesanya claimed the top moment of 2019 is Adesanya’s crowning moment, the final act indeed, the fight itself. UFC Middleweight Championship on the line between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya.
The fight starts with Whittaker blitzing the center of the cage and pressuring Adesanya with a flurry of lunging punches. He then leaves the pocket, and from the outside probes at Adesanya with low kicks to the knee and calf. This aggression was a gift for Whittaker early but became his greatest curse.
On the other side the ever calculating Adesanya was reading Whittaker’s approach, looking for opportunities to counter with strikes as he lunged forward. At the end of the 1st round, Whittaker again attacked Adesanya with looping overhand punches, but this time Adesanya stepped into the danger instead of retreating.
This allowed Adesanya to be out of range from the punches at his head but still be close enough to counter. And counter he did, throwing a right hook that sent the champion to the canvas as the horn sounded and the round ended.
Having just witnessed their champion be saved by the bell, the Aussies watched on in shock as Robert Whittaker came out for the 2nd round. Across from him stood a different opponent than the one he had seen in the 1st stanza.
Adesanya had now figured out Whittaker, and like the lions of his native Africa, Adesanya was hunting his prey. Whittaker played a dangerous game with an elite striker and one more time, for the final time, he lost.
Whittaker came forward midway through Round 2 got caught in an exchange of strikes and as both men threw left hooks, only one landed. By now I’m sure you can guess that Izzy stood tall and the crowd went quiet.
A new champion was crowned after a masterful performance, and one that was able blend his technique with a gritty chin and an unmatched speed. For the first time I now understood the what the name The Last Stylebender meant. Most think The Last Stylebender refers to Izzy’s fighting style and his multifaceted attacks.
His nickname reflects that he is the most elite middleweight in the world, while also possessing an X factor only 1 other fighter in the history of this sport ever has. Couple that with his superstar look, unmatchable swagger, and his unlikely rise to become champion. It’s like the name says, he is The Last Stylebender. I can’t say that Israel’s rise is surprising, but how effortless he makes it look is.
That’s why think it’s only right we end out the year with the classic Michael Buffer boxing ring introduction. Thank you, Israel Adesanya, for giving us “The moment we’ve all been waiting for”.