UFC 230 main-card breakdown: Is Israel Adesanya too smart for Derek Brunson?

MMAjunkie Radio co-host and MMAjunkie contributor Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main card for UFC 230.

UFC 230 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on FS1 and UFC Fight Pass.

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Derek Brunson (18-6 MMA, 9-4 UFC)

Derek Brunson at UFC on FOX 27. (USA TODAY Sports)

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’1″ Age: 34 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 77″
  • Last fight: Knockout loss to Ronaldo Souza (Jan. 27, 2018)
  • Camp: Brunson’s MMA and Fitness (North Carolina)
  • Stance/striking style: Southpaw/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt
+ 3x Division 2 All-American wrestler
+ 11 KO victories
+ 3 submission wins
+ 14 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Solid feints and footwork
+ Dangerous left kicks and crosses
+ Strong pressure against the fence
^ Strikes well off of the breaks
+ Excellent wrestling ability
^ 100 percent takedown defense
+ Good power-double takedown
+ Underrated grappling
^ Transitions and strikes well from topside

Israel Adesanya (14-0 MMA, 3-0 UFC)

Israel Adesanya at the TUF 27 Finale. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Last fight: Decision win over Brad Tavares (July 6, 2018)
  • Camp: City Kickboxing (New Zealand)
  • Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Professional kickboxing experience (76-5-2)
+ Professional boxing experience (5-1)
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt
+ 12 KO victories
+ 6 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Good feints and footwork
+ Creative striking flow
^ Variates well to the body
+ Dynamic kicking arsenal
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Good base and balance
+ Shows serviceable counter grappling
^ Underhooks, getups, cage walking

Point of interest: Craft versus chaos

Kicking off the main card at Madison Square Garden is a middleweight matchup that many fans have been anticipating.

We have the brash Israel Adesanya, who shows craft well beyond his years, against the more tenured Derek Brunson – a man who can create chaos at the drop of a dime.

From his time spent with Jackson Wink MMA to his specialty training with muay Thai legend Manu Ntoh, Brunson has become a lot more than just an All-American wrestler who can throw his hands.

Whether he is marching opponents down or utilizing a subtle shuffle-step variation to come forward, Brunson will put himself in prime position to land shots from the power side of his southpaw stance. Having a knack placing powerful kicks, Brunson also has improved his hands over that past few years, being particularly dangerous when punching his way in or out of the pocket.

However, despite Brunson’s improvements, his brawling instincts can sometimes get the better of him, costing him emphatic counters in previous outings. And considering who the American is facing, there will be little room for a repeat of past performances.

Known as “The Last Stylebender,” Adesanya was introduced to martial arts at a young age and is no stranger to the stage of competition.

The Nigerian started spreading his proverbial wings within the kickboxing arena in his adopted home of New Zealand, as well as in a brief stint in China, where he was able to showcase his skills to international audiences. Adesanya also dabbled in professional boxing while earning himself a 5-1 record and two tournament titles in the process.

A cunning martial artist, Adesanya earns his moniker with his creative striking flow. Seamlessly moving through space, Adesanya will intelligently use feints and footwork to establish his reads and set up his shots accordingly.

When feeling in stride, the 29-year-old talent will unleash a dynamic array of kicks, whether they’re powerfully thrown from the rear or sneakily delivered off of his lead. And when Adesanya smells blood in the water, he will celebrate his reach by varying his punches, using extended hands to hide the kill-shots to come.

From hand-traps that parlay into elbows to clinches that lead to knees, Adesanya shows solid answers at multiple ranges. Still, he cannot afford to sleep on the speed and power of Brunson, who is known to close the distance in a fast, explosive manner.

Point of interest: Wrestling and IQ tests

Adesanya has arguably answered his fair share of questions in regards to counter grappling, but since he has yet to face an All-American level of Brunson, many are wondering how the young talent will do when met with someone who can hold him to the fire.

Should Brunson be wondering the same, then I will be curious to see how he fares in the takedown portion of the equation.

Despite having a lower takedown percentage than one might expect, Brunson does a deceptively good job of using his initial shot to force his opponents to the fence, chaining off his attacks from there. The three-time All-American may not have a “game over” type of ground game, but he can transition well with strikes from topside and plays position when he needs to.

Nevertheless, Brunson will need to first ground Adesanya, something that has proven to be increasingly difficult.

In fact, I believe that Adesanya shows some positive signs of improvement that will help him in this contest. Dating back to his first professional MMA bout back in 2012, Adesanya was already showing a surprising amount of clinch savvy, hitting hip tosses and displaying a basic understanding of over and underhook leverage.

Since that time, Adesanya has appeared to make steady improvements to his defensive grappling, smartly fightings grips and protecting his hips, typically while using the cage for assistance. Coupled with his natural base and balance, the six-year pro seems to be harder and harder to control.

However, in certain performances (like his bout with Marvin Vettori), Adesanya showed that he still has room to grow in regards to his offense and mobility from his back. He was able to eventually get back to his feet, but one couldn’t help but think what a more capable opponent could do in future matchups should that area not get shored.

That said, if Brunson fails to score takedowns early, then his propensity to fight his opponent’s kind of fight will only increase as time wears on.

Not only does Adesanya bring the lulling intangible with his off-beat stylings that can suck his foe in, but we have also seen Brunson struggle in a similar spot when facing a switch-stance counter fighter in Anderson Silva. So basically, if Brunson can find a balance between blitzing and staring, then he can avoid falling victim to the traps of his past. He has the ability, but this may ultimately be an IQ test.

Points of interest: Odds and opinions

The oddsmakers and public are backing the new kid on the block, listing Adesanya -325 and Brunson +265 as of this writing.

Though the betting line above may be surprising to some, I can understand the math that led to this spread. I, like many, was already impressed with Adesanya prior to his last showcase. But after seeing him dismantle an underrated, well rounded veteran in Brad Tavares, I felt the New Zealander’s potential ceiling rise even higher. Staying composed for five rounds, Adesanya used excellent footwork to change/maintain distance, as well as improved counter wrestling to thwart the Hawaiian’s threats.

Now, don’t misinterpret my analysis: I am not discounting Brunson here. He has more than one way to win this fight, I’m just not sure I can trust him to use his tools properly at this point. Even if the American does decide to wrestle, I’m not confident his gas tank will allow him to sustain the needed pressure, especially given that he’s shown signs of fading late into fights in both victory and defeat. For that reason, I’ll side with Adesanya to find the finish via strikes in the third round.

Official pick: Adesanya inside the distance

Next breakdown: David Branch vs. Jared Cannonier

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