Rob Wilkinson was thirsty. He was hungry. Throat as dry as the Australian Outback, the UFC fighter could barely speak.
The plan coming in for Wilkinson was to be heavier — about four or five pounds more than usual — so he could outmuscle debuting striker Israel Adesanya. What Wilkinson didn’t count on were the rules for UFC 221 in Perth, Western Australia.
Unlike the typical procedure in the United States, where fighters get more than 30 hours to recover from the weigh-ins to their fight, Western Australia only allows for 24 hours or fewer. The athletes on the card, scheduled for Feb. 11, 2018, were sent an email about that by the UFC about three weeks prior to arrival.
Wilkinson was concerned when he got the email. That feeling intensified during the weight cut. And then he ran into Adesanya before weighing in. Adesanya gave one look at him, saw him struggling and mischievously said the exact thing that had been troubling Wilkinson: You sure you’re going to be able to recuperate in just about 20 hours?
“Izzy was saying that to me when we were stepping up to the scales, that we had less time than usual,” Wilkinson told ESPN. “You could see how drawn out I was. He was chirping off on me.”
Adesanya was prescient. He saw Wilkinson’s strategy — and his mistakes — coming a mile away. Adesanya finished Wilkinson by second-round TKO in that bout, starting an eight-fight UFC winning streak. On Saturday, he will try to make it nine straight when he defends the UFC middleweight title against Paulo Costa in the main event of UFC 253 in Abu Dhabi.
Wilkinson’s game plan was obvious. He wanted to grind out the kickboxer against the fence, take him down, make him tired. None of it worked.
“My plan was to hold him down,” Wilkinson said. “I think I got up to 210 pounds when I was in the cage with him [after weighing in at 186]. I was going nonstop for the takedown, I was pressuring him. I was putting him on the cage, wrestling him.”
Adesanya caught Wilkinson with a knee and finished with punches. By the second round, Wilkinson was exhausted — “I felt like my arms were made of cement” — because of the weight cut. Adesanya knew Wilkinson’s vulnerabilities even before the fight started.
“He was right,” Wilkinson said. “It was something I was a bit worried about.”
ESPN asked seven of Adesanya’s past opponents across all combat sports — including kickboxer Alex Pereira, who was the last opponent to beat Adesanya — what makes the undefeated UFC star different from the rest.
Alex Pereira, Glory Kickboxing middleweight champion and interim light heavyweight champion
Beat Adesanya via unanimous decision in kickboxing on April 2, 2016, and he knocked him out in kickboxing on March 4, 2017.
The first time I fought him, I thought this guy is not gonna bring me too many problems. As I was fighting him, I realized he’s definitely different. He was doing MMA, and in kickboxing, people were looking at him like he wasn’t a very difficult guy to fight. But when he’s in there, he’s a very hard guy to fight.
He’s a very smart fighter. He can adjust in the fight frequently. He reminds me a lot of Anderson Silva, the way he fights — loose and smart, using techniques at the right time to not expend too much energy. Adesanya is very good at getting a guy to make a bad mistake and expend energy unnecessarily. He makes those adjustments. It’s harder to beat Adesanya on points than a KO. The way he fights, he’s so difficult to beat on points.
I did the same technique over 30 times in the second fight, a right hand-left hook combination, and finally finished him. In the second fight, I lost the second round against Adesanya. I realized I was behind. But then I was able to capitalize with the KO. But I was actually losing the fight before that.
Adesanya is a point fighter. He’s very smart at not getting hit. Hit, but not getting hit. But when people fight like that, they don’t commit too much for a knockout or submission. If you look at guys who fight that way, Jon Jones is one of them, it’s very hard to beat Jon Jones on decision. The only way is you have to go over there and knock him out, take him down and ground and pound. Because a decision, he’s already got that. Some people have that kind of style. You go to a decision, you’re f—ed.
Lost to Adesanya via split decision at UFC Fight Night: Poirier vs. Gaethje on April 14, 2018.
He came in to weigh-ins and tried to rip off his T-shirt and couldn’t do it. He tried to do it like Hulk Hogan, but he wasn’t able to rip it apart completely. So he had to take it off and just throw it. It was just a sad drama show right before the weigh-ins. He’s aware of the mental warfare. He’s aware of it, for sure. He knows it’s mental before it’s physical. A lot of people don’t, but he knows. He’ll try to play games with you.
It still amazed me how much more he knew about the striking game, and how little he could do to me. I watched that fight not too long ago. I had the right approach in fighting Israel, but he knew so much more about the striking game. He was way more ahead.
He could read the fight a little bit better. I think he was feinting a lot, he was trying to bait me on things, but I didn’t fall for it. He was trying to set me up. Fighting is a lot about creating rhythm, so you can break it; creating patterns so then you can change those and trick your opponent that you’re still going to go on that rhythm, but you’re actually going to change it. That’s at a high level. I feel like he was doing that and I wasn’t even aware of it. But he couldn’t get me with anything. Next time, I’ll catch him.
You think, ”Oh he’s a skinny guy, he breaks.” But he’s well-balanced. I made a mistake in that fight. I almost had him with an inside leg trip and he was able to just stay up somehow. He’s long. He’s evasive in general. I remember I got to a double-leg takedown on him and I locked my hands. I’m like, OK, give me this split second just to set myself for a moment and then take him down. Because I knew I had him. I had my hands in a locked grip, which is the best grip you can get on a double — by the cage, especially. One second after, he was able to pull my grip up his body. He was like super greasy, almost. He just pulled it up easily. He’s evasive. He’s not too easy to bully, even though with the right work you can cut him off and take him apart.
Rob Wilkinson, former UFC middleweight
Lost to Adesanya via second-round TKO at UFC 221 on Feb. 11, 2018.
Obviously he’s got an elite level of striking. His distance is very good. I’ve trained with him since we’ve fought, a couple of times. He was good at defending takedowns, he was good at getting up. Even once you take him down, he’s very good at popping back to his feet. He’s been like that in training, as well.
My plan was to hold him down. Izzy is a big guy. He’s like 6-foot-4. He’s got long range. I might be one of the heaviest guys he fought. I think I got up to 210 pounds when I was in the cage with him. I was going nonstop for the takedown, I was pressuring him. I was putting him on the cage, wrestling him.
He is strong. I’ve always been quite a big middleweight and a strong middleweight. I’ve done a lot of strength-and-conditioning since I was at a young age. He’s definitely not just a skinny guy. He’s quite big and strong when you’re actually up close to him. He has thick legs and he obviously knows what to do in there.
Izzy does not tire. You saw him with that Kelvin Gastelum fight. In that fifth round, he was really pushing the pace. That was probably the worst I felt dropping down to middleweight, weight-cut wise. It was probably one of the bigger cuts I’ve done. Going into that second round, I felt like my arms were made of cement. I was just completely gassed. He’s definitely fit. I was a little surprised when we came out into the second round. He came out real hard and I think threw a head kick at me straight away, real fast, that I just avoided. Going down and training with those guys, I see why they are so fit.
Jason Wilnis, former Glory Kickboxing middleweight champion
Beat Adesanya via unanimous decision in kickboxing on Jan. 20, 2017.
It was a five-round fight, and from the first minute, I kicked him so hard to the leg. I was like, ”Oh yeah, he’s gonna feel it in the later rounds.” But I kept kicking him hard, and in the later rounds he looked like he wasn’t feeling it. He was still moving like it was the first round. That was something very unique.
When I do that with other guys, they’re gonna feel it — they’re gonna show that they are hurt. Especially in a five-round fight. But man, in the fourth and the fifth rounds he was still moving. He did a kick with a handstand. From that moment, you could see that he was different than all the other fighters. I think he’s got durability or he was hiding it — I don’t know. With a leg kick, you can hide it. But then your movement is going to be slower, especially when you kick and you’re moving a lot. But he wasn’t moving slower by a second. I think it’s something unique.
He’s got great reach. He’s tall and he’s unpredictable in his fights. Sometimes he’s moving a lot, sometimes he’s southpaw. He’s very athletic with his movements. He’s one of my examples now how you can switch your career to MMA from kickboxing and make it successful.
Anderson Silva, UFC middleweight
Lost to Adesanya, who’s been described as a younger version of Silva, via unanimous decision at UFC 234 on Feb. 10, 2019.
I got to display all of my skills for martial arts inside the cage when I fought Israel. It didn’t feel like fighting a younger version of myself. I have three younger visions of me — my three sons. But Israel is an amazing fighter. [Some of the techniques we did, it was] like I’m inside a special movie. It was the best fighters in the world. I just enjoyed the moment and put in my whole experience in martial arts in this fight with Israel. It’s so special to me.
I just talked to him a little backstage. I just said, “Thank you for giving me the chance. Enjoy your moment. It’s your moment right now. Do your best. Don’t lose your focus.” Israel is a great man. He has a great family. He’s very young, but he’s a good boy.
Simon Marcus, former two-time Glory Kickboxing middleweight champion
Beat Adesanya via split decision in kickboxing on Feb. 16, 2014.
It was a tournament fight, and tied, so we had to go to an extra round. I hadn’t prepared for the tournament as much as I could have. I wasn’t in tip-top condition. After three rounds, I remember going into the extra round pretty gassed. And I looked over and I see him cheering onto the crowd and chanting with all this energy. I just remember thinking, ”This guy is full of energy — holy s—.” That was the moment I most remember about that fight.
At that time we were both undefeated in kickboxing. He was coming off a lot of wins and was very active in China. When I fought him, I remember he was a different opponent than I had been used to facing at the time. Just stylistically and his output. We fought at a high pace and a good rate. He did feel a bit different than the average guy I was used to. It was a challenge. Our fight was very close. I edged it out, but it was a very close fight and it went to the extra round. At that point in my career I was undefeated and that was probably the biggest challenge to that point.
Adesanya was game the whole way through, even up to the extra round. He’s pretty durable. He’s a focused guy. You could see he embodies the martial arts mentality. He goes in there and he uses his style and his mind and his way of fighting to really make it difficult for you. I wouldn’t say he was indestructible. It was more his gameness — he was game every round.
It’s good to see a guy like him who was in the kickboxing circuit and fought his way and is now on the UFC top level, top stage and just dominating. It’s beautiful to see him just represent for all of us strikers out there.
Brian Minto, former WBO cruiserweight title challenger
Lost to Adesanya via split decision in boxing on March 28, 2015.
I got robbed against him over in New Zealand in a cruiserweight tournament, a three-round fight. Me and Adesanya fought in the finals. I won two out of the three rounds. They sent us back to the corners and made us do another round. At that point, I was super gassed out.
He’s a great athlete. I have nothing against him. He’d kick my ass in a street fight any day. These guys are pretty great martial artists and tough guys. He’s an alright guy, but he can annoy you with that attitude sometimes. Adesanya wasn’t the greatest boxer, but he’s got athletic ability. Technically, he had a lot of leaks and stuff. He probably could have been great [in boxing] if he honed his skills in that. I didn’t think he was a killer as a puncher, to me. I’ve been in there with a lot of guys that can punch. It was an interesting fight. But I’ve been in there with way better opponents than that.
What stands out the most is his arrogance. It just drove me crazy. Because I’ve always been respectful to my other opponents. But he’s an a–hole when it comes to being an athlete. I think he is. After the bell would ring, he’d go up on the ropes and lay there. I’m just like, ”What an a–hole. Why would you waste energy to do something like that?” That just got under my skin. He was respectful afterwards, though.