At UFC 236, the fight between Israel “Izzy” Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum could mark the beginning of a new face of fighting in the sport.

By Justin Barrasso
April 12, 2019

Heavy stakes are on the line this Saturday at UFC 236 in the fight pitting Israel “Izzy” Adesanya against Kelvin Gastelum for the interim middleweight title. The UFC’s international expansion will grow exponentially quicker with Adesanya as its new face of fighting, which makes the implications of this outcome enormous.

Adesanya is overflowing with the intangible “It Factor,” not unlike what fight fans saw in a rising Conor McGregor. Adesanya talks the talk, looks the part, and is the total package in terms of marketability. If he comes out victorious, he will instantly become one of the featured faces of the UFC.

Both fighters took much different routes to arrive at UFC 236. Gastelum (16–3) made his UFC debut during The Ultimate Fighter six years ago this April, while Adesanya (16–0) has only spent 14 months under the UFC banner.

There are comparisons in his fight style to Jon Jones, but Adesanya is far more of the Anderson Silva-type fighter. He just defeated Silva by unanimous decision at UFC 234 in February, in a fight that represented a symbolic passing of the baton. Adesanya’s fluid movement and incredible striking ability make him, potentially, even more dangerous than Anderson was during his prime.

Carmen Mandato/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Saturday’s fight against Gastelum will be a legitimate test—he has the ability to knock out any opponent. But if the Adesanya gets the win, he will be the recipient of a marketing push from UFC on par with the promotion’s most transcendent stars.

The 29-year-old Adesanya, who refers to himself as “The Last Stylebender,” calls New Zealand his home, but he was born in Nigeria, which speaks volumes for the continued expansion of the UFC. Adesanya could eventually become the second UFC champion from Africa, which is extremely impactful as the sport continues to grow in that region.

More fighters are coming out of Africa and the UFC is paying closer attention, especially with the potential for a superstar to emerge in Adesanya. Heavyweight Francis Ngannou received a lot of support from the UFC as he built an MMA gym in Cameroon, making it clear that the region is a big part of the UFC’s growth strategy. Africa is a viable market for the UFC because the fans there have proven their appetite for the sport. A part of the pay-per-view records for the McGregor–Floyd Mayweather fight came out of African regions, and that event was consumed at a completely different time of the day than the local time of the fight in Las Vegas.

Saturday’s fight holds the key to the future for the UFC. Adesanya has international ties connect him to many different audiences—an integral part of the type of worldwide expansion the UFC is seeking. And if Adesanya defeats Gastelum, there will undoubtedly be a showdown with UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who is a New Zealand-born Australian, for the title unification bout. Internationally, that fight would serve as a massive boost for the UFC.

But despite the visions of grandeur for Adesanya, his toughest task awaits him in the cage at UFC 236.


What: UFC 236

When: Saturday. Early prelims begin at 6:15 p.m.; main card scheduled to start at 10 p.m. (All times ET.)

Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta

TV:  Pay-per-view broadcast available exclusively on ESPN+. Early preliminary bouts on ESPN+, UFC Fight Pass (6:15-8 p.m.). Prelims on ESPN (8 p.m.).

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