Israel Adesanya had the torched passed to him from a legend while putting on a show in the impromptu UFC 234 main event on Saturday night.
Originally scheduled as the co-headliner, Adesanya ended up facing former middleweight champion Anderson Silva in the main event and ultimately earned a unanimous decision victory while the two fighters thrilled the Melbourne, Australia crowd over all 15 minutes.
Heading into the fight, Adesanya was an overwhelming favorite but he found out quickly in the opening round that the 43-year old Silva still had some fight left in him.
While Adesanya was able to control the range and the distance with his size and reach advantage, Silva refused to back down even after he was tagged with a couple of stinging punches during the first few exchanges.
Silva eventually started charging forward more and more as time ticked away on the clock and that’s when he managed to tag Adesanya with some stiff shots of his own.
Late in the first round, Adesanya turned the tables on Silva by showcasing a flashy array of strikes and then putting one hand behind his back and inviting the former champion to come after him like he was Neo in ‘The Matrix’.
The crowd ate up the back and forth exchanges not to mention the showmanship from both athletes in the main event.
The second round saw the best out of Silva all fight as he started to open up with his combinations and he began finding a home for his right hand on Adesanya’s jaw. Every time Silva managed to force Adesanya to back up, he did his best work in the fight.
Still, Adesanya never allowed himself to eat too much damage before resetting in the center of the cage where he was constantly the aggressor.
In the final five minutes of the fight, Adesanya surged ahead with a stronger showing on his feet while blasting Silva with several low kicks to the thigh. Silva winced during one of those thudding kicks, which let Adesanya know he was getting the job done.
As the punches and kicks continued to fly, Adesanya was just racking up far more significant strikes landed but Silva never went away and continued to throw counter shots until the final horn sounded.
When the judges returned their scorecards, Adesanya earned the victory with a 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 unanimous decision to move to 16-0 in his mixed martial arts career.
“If I’m playing basketball to play against Michael Jordan, this is it for me,” Adesanya said after facing one of his idols in Silva. “Crazy week. I showed up to work, a lot of people didn’t even though it’s out of their hands. Sometimes it’s not in your control. Player one has the controller and I showed up.”
Adesanya was obviously referencing middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who pulled out of the UFC 234 main event just hours before the card was slated to start after he was forced into emergency surgery for a hernia.
The Australian crowd booed loudly at Adesanya’s words towards the champion but he ultimately sent well wishes to Whittaker in his post fight speech.
He also managed to take a shot at top ranked contender Kelvin Gastelum, who was walking around with a title on his shoulder all night while proclaiming that he was the new middleweight champion by default since Whittaker failed to compete on Saturday night.
“Rob heal up quick, Kelvin put that belt down, seriously,” Adesanya said with a laugh from the crowd.
As for what comes next, it’s nearly impossible to say after Whittaker was forced into surgery that may keep him sidelined for several weeks or perhaps even months.
Adesanya was expected to earn a title shot with a win at UFC 234 but now that may be put on hold with Gastelum still expected to get the next crack at Whittaker once he’s healthy again.
Meanwhile, Silva embraced the crowd following his hard fought loss and stated once again that he’s not going anywhere except back to the gym to prepare for his next fight.
“I love my job,” Silva said following the fight. “This is my heart. This is my life. I continue to fight because this is my home.
“I try to fight in Curitiba, my city. I’m going to go back to training, go back to see my family and maybe I fight in Curitiba.”