The Careful Cage Craft of Israel Adesanya

Israel Adesanya
Jasmin Frank
A while ago we took a look at Liam Harrison and his method behind setting up low kicks. I said that it’s very easy for the aspiring fighter to get bogged down by a myriad of fancy techniques that will help to make them ‘unpredictable’, when having a few simple and easy to land techniques, with a variety of set ups, are what truly make great fighters.

Israel Adesanya is a phenomenal example of this concept. While Israel Adesanya is known for his dynamic, hands down style of striking – the truth is that what makes the current UFC middleweight champion exceptional are the few small things he does to hide his strikes and make him unpredictable.

Adesanya isn’t hard to read because he does wacky outlandish things, he’s hard to read because he is possibly the greatest pressure fighter in the sport today. Adesanya’s striking skill is not the techniques he throws, but his shot selection and cage craft.

When you fight Israel Adesanya the first thing you’re liable to see is a shoulder feint (Adesanya calls it his ‘frontside feint’). Adesanya will make a hard half step forward, thrusting his shoulder out in a way that mirrors the jab. Usually this will draw some sort of reaction, whether it’s a flinch or it’s the opponents jab counter.

For each shoulder feint Adesanya throws, the more his opponents reflexes will be dulled to the real jab. It’s important to note that Israel doesn’t throw a flimsy half jab to fake the shot. In real life a jab doesn’t start off life as a half hearted faked jab, it starts as an explosive movement forward. No matter how much time a fighter puts into removing telegraphs, at the end of the day your arm still has to move. Adesanya doesn’t have the type of jab that’s impossible to see coming, but he doesn’t need to because he fakes his jab so often that the opponent doesn’t know when the real one is on its way.

From the shoulder feint, Adesanya will build off it with a real jab, and from that real jab he will follow with additional punches and kicks and start hitting the opponent. Adesanya’s kicks are very heavy, leaving even Yoel Romero, who may actually be made of marble, with painful looking lumps and bumps.

Because his kicks are so hard, and because of his reputation as a prolific kickboxer, most opponents are immediately nervous of them. Adesanya then uses this as the basis of his second major technique, the rear hip feint.

The rear hip feint’s primary focus is to feint the kick, however there’s more to it than that. From a hip feint it’s very hard to tell whether or not a rear kick, or a rear straight punch is coming to the opponent. These techniques look very similar to each other on start-up – meaning that the hip feint isn’t only making the opponent fear the rear kick, it’s also serving the secondary purpose of disguising the rear straight punch.

When combining these two techniques with the rear hip feint, it becomes next to impossible for the opponent to tell what technique will be coming their way until it has actually got half way towards them. Unfortunately for the opponent, if you do see Adesanya’s round kick coming your way there is no guarantee that you are actually going to be hit with it. As Adesanya makes extensive use of the Brazilian kick.

The Brazilian Kick, named for Glaube Feitosa, the Brazilian kickboxer who excelled at it – mimics a kick to the body before whipping up and striking the head. There are several strikers in MMA who are able to make good use of it – and Adesanya is probably the best of them.

These three techniques together make Adesanya next to impossible to read – and in order to fight him, the opponent can no longer be reactive. As Adesanya will be throwing combinations of these feints together. Adesanya will threaten an entire combination of attacks, none of which ever actually came – it shuts down the opponent and forces them to be pro-active in the fight.

Being pro-active in the fight means you have to come forward and bring the fight to Adesanya, and unless you are a particularly strong wrestler like Jan Blahovicz, this means you have to strike with Adesanya – and unless Alex Pereira (who we talked about before https://blackbeltmag.com/alex-pereira/) ever does get his MMA bout with Adesanya, we can reasonably assume that you will be a weaker striker in any given exchange.

Defensively, Adesanya has the advantage over most of his opponents due to being more comfortable striking as a whole. The vast majority of Adesanya’s opponents haven’t had close to the ring experience he has, given that he had an entire kickboxing career before making the switch to MMA. This combined with very smart defensive footwork, Adesanya becomes very hard to pin down. It’s tricky to get him against the cage because he is continuously faking directional changes, at first you might think he is going to the left, so you might throw an attack to meet him there, only for him to have tricked you and he’s shot off in the other direction and escaped to the centre of the cage.

UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez was great at this, to the point where Rafael Dos Anjos, who might be the best cage cutter in MMA history, wasn’t able to pin him down. Israel Adesanya uses the same principles, but he does so in a more plodding, methodical pace, befitting of the heavier weight division.

While you may look at Israel Adesanya and see the hot new star, with a dynamic exciting new style. The truth is he isn’t doing anything that we haven’t seen from great kickboxers for decades. The truth is that good techniques are good techniques, regardless of the era. We will look deeper into that next week when we look at George Hackenschmidt and Modern MMA.

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