This weekend at UFC 221 an exciting champion from other promotions makes his UFC debut. Israel Adesanya, a fantastically entertaining striker, steps into the octagon after fighting for 6 years in New Zealand, China and Australia. Adesanya's background is in kickboxing, where he amassed a record of 65 wins and 5 losses. Since taking up MMA, Adesanya has gone undefeated with 11 wins. On this weekend's prelims, Adesanya takes on another UFC novice, Rob Wilkinson, who is making his second appearance in the world's most relentless cage.
Rob Wilkinson was an Australian champion who was also undefeated upon entering the UFC last year. He is trained as an all-around MMA fighter, but most of his wins come by way of submissions or ground-n-pound. Wilkinson lost his UFC debut against Siyar Bahadurzada last fall and looks to make his UFC record 1-1 with a win over Adesanya this weekend. Adesanya and Wilkinson are both champions in other promotions and both were undefeated coming into the UFC. This weekend they face off to determine who is the better new talent.
Adesanya will compete in the UFC's middleweight (185lb) division. If he wants to make it to the top, he'll have to pass opponents like Derek Brunson, Kelvin Gastelum, and Robert Whittaker(C). The other middleweights on the card, Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold, headline the evening, so viewers will get a chance to contrast Adesanya's fighting ability with some of those currently at the top of his division.
Israel Adesanya is a successful striker. All of his MMA wins have come by T/KO. All within 2 rounds. His strikes are flashy, varied, accurate and lead the pace. His long jabs and crosses often find holes. Typically, Adesanya wins by landing a handful of medium-high powered strikes over the first round or two until the opponent is weakened enough to drop their hands. Then Adesanya goes for the finish with headkicks, knees to the face and barrages of punches and elbows.
In each of Adesanya's last 2 MMA fights he won by T/KO in the last 15 seconds of first round. He defeated Melvin Guillard via punches TKO and Stuart Dare via headkick KO. Neither of these opponents really stand as a true test of Adesanya's MMA ability. Guillard has been on a losing streak since 2011 and Dare has a 8-5 record against mediocre competitors. In facing Rob Wilkinson this weekend, Adesanya may be taking on his most qualified MMA opponent yet.
Adesanya finishes Melvin Guillard with flying knee to set up ground'n'pound.
Adesanya finishes Stuart Dare via headkick KO in his most recent match.
Rob Wilkinson was middleweight champion of Australia's two largest MMA promotions, AFC and Brace, before being welcomed into the octagon last year. In Australia he earned an undefeated record of 11-0. In nine of those he finished his opponent in the first round. He wins most of his fights with Takedowns, Ground-n-Pound and Submissions. Wilkinson commonly gets his opponents to the ground via double-leg takedowns along the fence as well as trips and throws from the clinch. When his opponent brings the action to the ground, Wilkinson often gains control as he usually has the better BJJ and wrestling.
Wilkinson's last fight was his UFC debut and also his first MMA loss. He appeared moderately outclassed by middleweight Siyar Bahadurzada while standing, and was not able to get the fight to the ground. With 2 minutes left in the 2nd round, Bahadurzada rocked Wilkinson with a jab-cross combo, Wilkinson retreated to the fence and took 33 unanswered strikes before the ref stepped in.
Wilkinson is rocked and TKO'd by Siyar Bahadurzada.
With his first loss, some question Wilkinson's ability, or UFC-readiness. I recommend suspending judgement on that for now. Wilkinson's pre-UFC record is good enough that we ought to consider Octagon jitters as a possible factor. Even if the Bahadurzada loss was an accurate reflection of Wilkinson's ability relative to other UFC competitors, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt that he can learn, adapt and up his game for the upcoming bout.
Leading up to the loss, Wilkinson was on a 11 fight win streak, including a war with Jamie Abdallah, which Wilkinson won in the final minute of the third round via TKO (punches).
Wilkinson finishes Jamie Abdallah in the Euro Fighting Championship in 2016.
Israel Adesanya is a deadly striker. Rob Wilkinson is a nearly undefeated ground fighter.
Where the fight takes place will likely determine the outcome.
Can Adesanya defend against Wilkinson's takedowns? Can Wilkinson avoid the knockout Adesanya delivered so many previous opponents? We can speculate, but if we're to be honest with ourselves, we must admit that until fighters are proven in the UFC, we can't really predict their success. Adesanya looks great so far, but Wilkinson too was undefeated until the octagon door closed behind him. Adesanya has yet to fight someone with Wilkinson's grappling ability. If Rob Wilkinson can take Adesanya down and keep him there, we may see Adesanya as helpless on the ground as Ngannou was to Stipe a few weeks ago.
The unanswerability of these questions is what makes fighters' UFC debuts so exciting to watch. The UFC truly does appear to be at a different level and this weekend we will get to see whether Israel Adesanya is at that level. We will also get to see if Rob Wilkinson can adapt to UFC level pressure and put on a successful showing in his sophomore UFC appearance.
As viewers and fans, we are lucky that the UFC is matching incoming superstars against worthy opponents. By pitting two champions from other promotions against each other, we are ensured an exciting lead up and probably a great battle. At last, Israel Adesanya will compete in the UFC and we can witness the hype train either pick up speed, or crash into Rob Wilkinson.