Israel Adesanya has beaten Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision to lift the UFC middleweight interim belt in a fight of the year contender.
The 29-year-old was on the brink of stopping Gastelum in the final seconds of the fight in the co-main event of UFC 236 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
The victory means Adesanya remains unbeaten in the UFC with a 6-0 record and sets up a dream trans-Tasman unification bout with reigning middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. Whittaker took to Twitter immediately after Adesanya’s win to congratulate him on the victory and signed off with: “See you soon”.
Whittaker was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia as a young child.
Adesanya becomes the first New Zealand based fighter to win a UFC belt.
At the end of the five rounds, all three judges scored the fight – that was closer than many expected – 48-46 in favour of Adesanya. Both fighters finished the bout with blood smeared faces.
The fight lasted 25 minutes for Adesanya’s 17th win without a loss in the UFC.
“I was ready for war,” said Adesanya, also known as the Last Stylebender.
“I was willing to leave it all and give it all.”
Although Adesanya, 29, scored the first hard kick to the midsection in the first round of the five-rounder, Gastelum showed gut to knock him to the fence with a punch to the head in the opening.
Gastelum also rocked him with a kick to the head in the third round.
But Adesanya, already spotting a cut, bounced back with an inspired finishing that saw him knock bloodied Gastelum down three times in the last round.
“I kept on saying in my mother tongue Yoruba, ‘Aya bi ekun’ ’cause I have got a tattoo of Nigeria [map] with a lion on my chest.”
Adesanya is the second Nigerian to emerge champion in the UFC in recent weeks.
In March, Kamaru Usman became first African-born fighter to win a UFC title after pummelling Tyron Woodley in a one-sided bout at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The 31-year-old Usman, a Nigerian-born Texan and former NCAA Division II wrestler, broke into the UFC in 2015 on its long-running competition reality show.