Movement Skill Analysis – UFC 248: Israel Adesanya

You may be thinking to yourself right now, “why is there an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight(er) movement analysis on this football movement skill blog?”

Well, I have found over the years that one of the best ways to empower your eye for studying and understanding movement skill, while also further solidifying your beliefs on certain concepts and ideas within your personal paradigms as a Sport Movement Specialist (i.e. your Form of Life), is to closely investigate other sport disciplines and the masterful movement displayed there. Thus, though I am far from a mixed martial arts or combat expert (there’s my disclaimer), I do highly enjoy sharpening my own sword for understanding movement in American football through watching MMA/boxing as well as other sport disciplines.

Additionally, I also been asked over the years if I would/could ever consider publishing movement breakdowns here for sports other than American football. I will admit; I have been somewhat reluctant to do this for various reasons (though I have been studying/taking notes on other sports’ athletes and their movement skill for years). But, I figured maybe now is the time to dabble in the those waters a bit.

So, here I am, trying my hand at a public movement skill analysis on a sport other than American football. This is actually meant to be a ‘Movement Skill Preview’ of sorts (not a prediction, so don’t take anything below as betting advice) for this weekend’s UFC 248 Main Event for the Middleweight Championship of the World, between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero.

Hopefully, when the dust settles, readers are able to take something from it…whether it’s for American football, your sport(s) of choice, or just to give you some ammo if you’re attending a UFC 248 viewing party this weekend.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock and this is your first time to my blog here, you probably know that I have always gravitated towards athletes who display their own brand of movement skill, which is centered on establishing the most functionally fit movement solution to meet the needs of the problem in front of them, built off of being perceptually attuned and sensitive, with attempts to adjust and adapt one’s movements dynamically. Today’s movement skill analysis will certainly go down this similar path.

If we are talking about concepts pertinent to an Ecological Dynamics framework such as the performer-environment relationship, information and affordances, perception-action coupling, repetition without repetition, movement variability, and authentic movement (over technical models), it’s hard to beat the sport of MMA for describing and explaining where those ideas live and breathe. So, when a little over two years ago, a flashy kickboxing champion embarked on the journey of transferring his skills from a ring to the octagon, all while embracing the nickname “Stylebender,” you had to know my interest was further peaked.

To a certain degree, Israel Adesanya can be looked at as a kind of modern day, competition version of Bruce Lee. Where Bruce Lee interpreted and developed his art of Jeet Kune Do to be ‘a style without style’ where the artist would ‘use no way as the way,’ and he would be/should be willing to adopt any technique or movements which would be needed to fit the problems presented by the opponent in front of him, Israel Adesanya is built off of a similar mode of stylistic adaptability.

As Bruce once famously stated (that I have quoted here on Football BTS before), “The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is the result of your technique. My movement is a result of your movement.” As I study Adesanya, this is the very essence of his Form of Life and his fighting ‘style’: to be in such a hyper adaptable state, ready to ‘be like water’ and seamlessly morph into an expression of movement skill off of what is simultaneously unfolding in the world. In other words, rather than being fixed and rigid, his movement skill execution is truly emergent (though it’s still calculated). More on what makes Adesanya’s movement behaviors tick below.

But, in true ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ fashion, we must still ‘respect the problem’! This is more true if Israel Adesanya is going to be going bending his style in the moment once he enters the octagon Saturday. So, when it comes to respecting the problem, we obviously must start with the opponent which Adesanya must couple his movement behaviors from: Yoel Romero.

The Style Challenge from the Challenger

Romero 2

What we get in Romero is a scary, explosive, gifted athlete of an individual who relies on bursts, flurries, and unpredictability. He’s a truly decorated wrestler (an Olympic medalist) but he seems to use these skills only when absolutely needed. He’s a limited striker really (from a diversity of strategies or nuance within them) but because of the unpredictability and sheer explosiveness/power of his attacks (lead kick, jumping knee, overhand, etc), he doesn’t actually need much diversity or nuance. Instead, he relies on huge amounts of explosive output because with just the smallest slip in the opponent’s perceptual attention, it can lead to a guy going sleepy time in a hiccup if they’re not careful.

Romero knee

Romero is obviously a thick, muscular, physical specimen. He’s 42 years old but no one would ever guess it from looking at him (or his back-flip done in jeans during the press conference a few weeks ago) though that extra muscle on his frame can lead to some decreases in energy efficiency especially over the course of a five round fight (as opposed to the normal three rounds he’s used to). What you will likely see from Yoel Romero will be body shots which seem to be bouncing right off of him while he also lets relatively clean-looking shots roll off of him with ease. Additionally, though not to Adesanya’s level, Romero can change his style on a whim throughout a fight where he eventually will walk a guy down and get into range with his elbows up to get inside even while absorbing shots, and then simply explode with some sort of unorthodox attack seemingly out of nowhere.

Who would fight this monster (if they didn’t have to!)?

The thing is, Israel Adesanya did not have to fight this creature. Instead, he wanted to. As he put it, he didn’t feel his legacy would be complete unless he fought all of the best of this era in his weight class (and possibly beyond…ah hem, Jon Jones?!). In fact, even though Romero is on a couple fight losing streak at the moment, he is still arguably the most dangerous fighter in the entire class.

Styles make fights they say (in a similar way to styles often resulting in Movement Plays of the Week here on our blog). And, those across the fight game have (probably naively) felt that Israel isn’t as good as some make him out to be or that he just hasn’t been exposed to a high level wrestler yet. However, never-mind the fact that he has shown pretty solid take-down defense over the years, but I digress. Thus, whereas other Champions shy away and duck certain fights who present extreme challenges and dangers, I just get this sense that Israel Adesanya (and his coach and team at City Kickboxing out of New Zealand) knows what he’s in for and wants to test and challenge himself in this way especially because he’s been in the fire with such a wide range of opponents throughout the years and it’s actually here that he thrives.

As Adesanya himself says in this video below, “If you can make this look easy, it makes you legendary.”

How easy can he make this one look though will be the question? Besides, its a fight after all. Like any NFL team can be beat on any given Sunday, every opponent (at these highest of levels) is appropriately dangerous and representing of a challenging puzzle to solve. If this is the challenge that Adesanya wants…let’s get an idea if his style really can bend to put the Romero puzzle together! So, what is it that we can look for on Saturday, as Movement Aficionados, that could be a rather intriguing case study in sport movement behavior? Well, here’s where my lens will be focused:

The Stylebender’s Style Without A Style

1. Feints, feints, and more feints

If you’re new to MMA or combat sports, or even thinking about the nuances of offensive skill players behaving in football agility, a feint can be thought of as an individual acting as if one will punch or kick (or act in a certain fashion in football agility) without the true intention of actually throwing that action in completion. This is done mainly because it’s being used just to get a response/reaction from the opponent. Unless you watch his fights in slow-motion, or if you are actually a sensitive perceiver yourself who has tons of contextual ring time, you won’t even see some of the subtle nuances of Adesanya’s feints.

Adesanya Whittaker kick

However, with Adesanya, these feints, whether they are stemming from the shoulders twitching slightly to imply a punch is coming, or the hips quickly swaying to present the appearance of a kick, will premise and comprise much of his offensive attacking skill. It’s like he’s taking JJ Gibson’s words ‘perceive to act, act to perceive’ to heart because each time he does this, he’s just detecting information to set something up to come later on (whether that set-up is conscious or if it’s more implicit and subconsciously gained from experience and exposure).

To sell these feints to an opponent, one must be relaxed in order for them to be believable. Additionally, if they’re too mechanical or exaggerated, they become shots that are easy to perceive while also just wasting energy.

2. Clear eyes connected to the world

When you watch Israel Adesanya closely, you will see he’s a masterfully skilled perceiver truly detecting information at a high level at all times. Fight analysts say one is “downloading information” though I prefer not to use the word “downloading” (because our brains and perceptual systems are not computers, after all) and instead would rather think of the ideas of resonating or connecting to the information. But because of this perceptual attunement and resonance, he’s able to truly ‘understand’ what affordances his opponent has, what the opponent’s intentions are, and what affordances Israel himself has because of that behavior. Behavior (of another) affords behavior (of one’s self).

Adesanya Whittaker 3

When studying Adesanya, we should remember that he had something like 80 kickboxing fights where he was frequently required to face an opponent with a significant difference in style…this is what allows him to be the ‘Stylebender’ that he is at such a high-level. Thus, when doing so (facing a variety in opponents), he’s able to search the perceptual-motor workspace and organize his holistic movement solution based off of what he’s detecting because that perception is just that damn accurate and fast. He’s connected closely and directly to the world!

3. Form of Life/honestly expressing one’s self

Bruce Lee once said (as I reiterated in my piece from the training theme for 2019), martial arts is really about “honestly expressing one’s self.” From his walk-outs to his knock-outs and then all of the way to his celebration, Adesanya is all authenticity and individuality. Of course, there’s a certain creativity and freedom that comes when someone is in a state of that type of honesty to who they want to be and are so comfortable acting as they please.

4. Trap setting through trickery

Using an extension of his feint craft, he will show the initial look of certain shots that were thrown earlier in the fight, entice or lead the opponent to think that it’s coming again, and then throw a completely different attack. This deception and disguise in his attack is truly skillful and is arguably, again, built off of the tremendous experience kickboxing at a high-level. For me and my sport of American football, think of it as analogous to a wide receiver setting up a cornerback over the course of a game…just waiting to give the corner a double move that can leave them grasping for air and playing catch-up. One of the most deceptive tools in his arsenal will come through the use of his ‘question mark kick’ that he has made famous. He will start this kick from the same spot, and it can literally end up going just about anywhere. Often, opponents will ‘bite on’ where he threw it earlier in the fight (often lower to the legs or body earlier in the fight)…and then…BOOM!…the next thing you know it’s wrapped around the neck, ear, or jawline.

Adesanya question mark

5. Pressure is an acquired taste

Adesanya celebration 2

After his last fight in October, where he became the undisputed Middleweight Champion of the World, Adesanya uttered a statement that I too have said repeatedly over the years, “Pressure is an acquired taste.” For many lesser skilled individuals, pressure will negatively influence the movement behaviors which emerge, often negating the skill that one really possesses, and relegating it to that of a much lower level of performer. This is why they usually suffer from fixed or frozen degrees of freedom across any or all of the dimensional levels of the movement system (perception, cognition, or motor DOF). Israel, on the other hand, like other great performers across sports, is able to shine brightest when the lights are the hottest. This is why things like the dancing in his walk-out, or him seemingly showboating before, during, or after the fight, actually allows him to thrive and remain so sensitive to the constraints that the moment brings.

6. The Matrix

In what has become Yoel Romero’s tagline to Adesanya for this fight, “See you soon boi,” Romero continues to taunt Israel in a way. And, to Romero’s credit, once they lock the doors on that cage, there is nowhere else to go and he usually ends up finding the head on his opponent’s body. However, Israel Adesanya has proven more than once that he is a different kind of animal that can just disappear on someone who is attacking him. You think you have him dead to rights, his head scoped out, you throw a sure-to-land (on anyone else) attack, and then “poof”…he’s no longer there. You can’t see him…he’s gone. Because of his high perceptual skill, he’s able to come into and out of range with resourcefulness and with ghost-like nature.

Adesanya Gastelum 1

Talking about his perceptual attunement and sensitivity, he’s able to connect to the specifying informational variables from his opponent’s movement behaviors like a tackler in the open field on a shifty and scatty running back. However, whereas the tackler’s perceptual gaze is often fixated or at least scanning for changes occurring oriented around the hip, it seems as though Adesanya’s visual perception gravitates towards the center of his opponent’s chest which allows him to take in the necessary information accordingly, only potentially moving that gaze when the opponent is committed to a certain strike and may put Israel into harms way. However, it’s at times like this that he can often be found going full-out matrix-mode, extremely leaning away from punches and kicks to not only get away from the danger at the end of that weapon (sometimes by the hair of his chin), but also being better able to detect affordances for action for himself to counterattack accordingly.

Adesanya matrix

7. Sophisticated and diverse striking

The feints and deceptive trap setting I discussed earlier would not be possible if he didn’t possess tremendous abundance (aka degeneracy) in his movement solutions and attack strategies. Additionally, you can’t hardly be considered the ‘King of Adaptability’ in the ‘Stylebender’-sense if you didn’t posses an abundance of weapons yourself. I’ve heard Adesanya say in the past, “there’s levels of this game,” and I believe this is one of the areas that he is implying this is the case…his versatility and variability through his calculated striking behaviors (with equal outcome potential…aka accurate and precise landing of those attacks).

Adesanya Gastelum elbow

8. Octagon control/space control/distance management

His length and his intentions oriented around going ‘matrix-mode’ allow him to keep guys where he wants them in space…which is usually at the end of the range of his weapons. However, he has the ability to get tight in boxing range and knows when to choose to occupy this space versus when its too dangerous to do so. As with many layers of his movement toolbox and its dynamics discussed throughout, this likely also comes from the years of kickboxing experience as well where he has accumulated quite a lot of time where guys are exchanging very violent and threatening shots with high-level attacks in this space.

Adesanya pic 1

Anytime an opponent attacks forward, one of the nuances of Israel’s game is in well-calculated, finely controlled movement on his part. Depending on the nature of the attack (remember, this is a mutual, reciprocal system interacting at-play here), he could exit straight-back (to get just out of range knowing that he could lean backwards into the matrix) or he could take a lateral or pivoting step to bring the opponent in on a string for a series of now in-the-pocket body-shots or uppercuts from Adesanya. With a guy who likes to explode and lunge forward with pressure like Romero, look for plenty of opportunities for Adesanya to play matador in this way.

9. Stance switching

This octagon control is made possible through finely coordinated stance switching as well as a relatively low and wide base of support (especially for a longer, lengthier guy) which allows him to use his locomotion to set up attacks as well as appropriate defensive strategies. These qualities, in this fight especially (against a world class wrestler who can explode forward on you at any moment), could be the difference maker in how Israel finds a path towards victory. Against the former champion, Robert Whittaker, Romero utilized a kick to the lead leg to try to get Whittaker off and away from him as well as open him up for potential take-downs. This is a strategy he could try to employ again versus Adesanya Saturday night. So, Israel’s ability to move in and out of range of that lead kick fluidly could prove itself to be important while also allow him to move intermittently from a southpaw to orthodox stance just coupling his perception (of information about peculiar affordances) with his actions (to adapt his actions to).

10. Composure to finish

When many fighters are smelling blood in the water, have a guy rocked, and are close to ending the show early, they start to lack control and then precision, as well, and just begin to bombard the opponent with chaotic and sometimes frantic attacks. This is not the case for Israel. He remains calm, cool, and collected, and in no rush to end the night until it’s truly the most opportune time. Crazy things happen in fights, so guys can rebound quickly or they can catch you when you jump the gun too haphazardly. This is especially the case with a tank like Romero. So, if Adesanya damages him and has Romero stumbling throughout the fight, don’t expect him to rush anything. He will be calculated and continue to look for perfect openings (i.e. affordances for action) to hurt him further and attempt to come out with a knock-out victory.

UFC 243: Whittaker v Adesanya

Conclusion

There you have it. My first foray into mixed martial arts movement skill analysis hopefully wasn’t a complete debacle and you could take something from it. Obviously, I am far from an expert when it comes to this sport, but I believe that many of the concepts that we frequently discuss here at ‘Football Beyond the Stats’ will correspond to this environment of mixed martial arts at the highest level, as well. No matter what, if you love movement skill and behavior in sport as much as I do, I am positive that Saturday night’s UFC 248 match-up between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero will be a must-see.

May be the most masterful movement skill win!

If the ideas contained in this blog post were up your alley, I selfishly want to invite you to check out a movement skill education endeavor that I am part of entitled EMERGENCE. My colleagues and I there have put together a number of educational resources which unpack many of the theories related to understanding movement behavior within sport and their practical applications within movement skill acquisition. Check us out at http://www.emergentmvmt.com and take the dive deeper into these ideas!

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