UFC 234: What's next for Israel Adesanya?
UFC 234 was supposed to be the night that shone some light down onto the Middleweight division. Coming live from Melbourne, Australia, the show was supposed to see UFC Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker defending his title against top contender Kelvin Gastelum, while in the semi-main event, hot prospect Israel Adesanya was to take on the legendary former champion Anderson Silva. The underlying idea was that the winners would fight for the Middleweight title later in 2019.
Of course, not everything went to plan. Just hours before the event, Whittaker was forced out of the event with a freakish injury – an abdominal hernia complete with a collapsed bowel. ‘The Reaper’ was sent into three-hour surgery immediately, while Adesanya and Silva were moved into the main event. Gastelum meanwhile was seen parading around the Rod Laver Arena with a UFC title belt – reportedly Henry Cejudo’s – on his shoulder.
In the end, it was Adesanya who had his hand raised in the main event. ‘The Last Stylebender’ didn’t finish Silva violently as many fans were predicting going in, but it was still a relatively impressive showing. Silva showed flashes of his old self at times, but Adesanya was almost always one step ahead, and he was able to outstrike ‘The Spider’ to take a unanimous decision.
So where next for the UFC’s newest top contender? Adesanya is now undisputedly the top flashy striker in the division, but has he done enough to earn a title shot? It’s slightly hard to say due to an absolute ton of factors.
Essentially, a lot relies on the status of Whittaker and how long he’s on the shelf. UFC President Dana White suggested ‘The Reaper’ could be on the shelf for a short period of somewhere between 4-6 weeks during the UFC 234 broadcast, and if that’s the case, then the way forward seems pretty straightforward.
UFC 236 is pegged to take place on April 13th from a location yet to be announced. As of writing, the show doesn’t have a main event, and a main bout hasn’t even been rumoured yet. April 13th is 9 weeks away, meaning if Whittaker’s recovery goes as White suggested on Saturday, then the promotion could easily rebook Whittaker vs. Gastelum for UFC 236. In that scenario, Adesanya would simply wait to fight the winner.
But let’s say Whittaker is going to be out for a little longer – say until the summer. What happens then? Well, one train of thought would suggest that Adesanya should simply skip over Gastelum in the queue, given Gastelum hasn’t actually fought since his May 2018 win over Jacare Souza, and two fights before that, he was beaten by Chris Weidman. Adesanya meanwhile is 5-0 in the Octagon.
But would that be fair to Gastelum? After all, it’s not like he’s done a lot wrong – he’s only had to wait so long for his chance due to the filming of TUF 28 and now because of Whittaker’s injury. And his win over Souza should probably negate the loss to Weidman, as Souza knocked Weidman out in the fight that followed his loss to Gastelum. Plus, Souza is a far better win than any on Adesanya’s ledger, the 2019 version of Silva included.
Sure, the UFC does have precedent in taking title shots away on a whim, but Gastelum appears to be a promotional favourite and so I think it’s doubtful. So what about a Gastelum/Adesanya fight to crown an interim Middleweight champ? The fans tend to frown upon interim titles but in this case, it could be justified, particularly if Whittaker is out for some time.
Realistically though, Adesanya just fought Silva this weekend; the timetable for his own return is likely to be somewhere around May or June at the earliest. If Whittaker ends up being due for a return in the summer, would an Adesanya/Gastelum interim title fight in May or June make sense? I’m not sure it would, particularly as it would then mean any unification match with Whittaker would have to wait until very late in the year.
The best bet for Adesanya would probably be to attempt to stay on the shelf and simply wait for a shot at the title, with Whittaker/Gastelum hopefully happening sooner rather than later. There could be an issue with that, however, and that reason is happening on April 27th. That night sees a UFC on ESPN show headlined by a Middleweight clash between Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa.
MMA is a sport of the here and now, and the fans have very short memories at times. Adesanya’s fight with Silva on Saturday entertained the fans, but came up short on highlight reel moments for ‘The Last Stylebender’. That means his status in the division is somewhat at risk, particularly with Costa/Romero on the horizon. Sure, if Romero were to win then he’d be okay – the UFC probably wouldn’t want to match Whittaker and ‘Soldier of God’ a third time – but what about Costa?
‘The Eraser’ has been cutting a path very similar to that of Adesanya through the Middleweight division since his debut in 2017. He’s currently 4-0 in the Octagon and has finished all of his opponents violently. If he were to do the same to Romero – becoming the first man to finish the Cuban in the process – it’d become very hard to deny him a crack at the title, meaning he could leapfrog Adesanya.
At the end of the day, Adesanya has simply become a victim of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Whittaker. Therefore, I see three paths going forward for ‘The Last Stylebender’; if Whittaker returns in time for UFC 236, Adesanya vs. the winner of Whittaker/Gastelum could be booked for the summer.
If Whittaker is out for an undetermined amount of time, then Adesanya should fight Gastelum for an interim title around May or June. But if Gastelum were to dig his heels in and wait for Whittaker – and if the UFC were to allow that – then a nasty contender’s fight between Adesanya and Paulo Costa could be in the future instead.
As always with the UFC, the devil’s in the details.