MMA observers expected Israel Adesanya’s jiu-jitsu skills to be tested by Paulo Costa after the Brazilian showed up to the final faceoff of UFC 253 wearing his black belt. But “The Last Stylebender” didn’t need his grappling to defend the middleweight title in September.
Months after improving to 20-0 with a second-round TKO of Costa, the Nigerian star was promoted to purple belt in jiu-jitsu by legendary grappler Andre Galvao after spending a few weeks in California.
“I promoted him to blue belt in 2017, and I would have to promote him to purple this year,” Galvao said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “The fact that he stayed here with us [for five weeks] was great because I could adjust some mistakes and develop his technique. And not only that, he trained with all of my students. That helped him a lot. He had a big improvement; it was almost a mini jiu-jitsu camp here. He said he’ll be more active in jiu-jitsu now, training with the gi — he trains no-gi more often.”
Galvao, who leads Atos Jiu-Jitsu in San Diego, started training Adesanya in 2016. The UFC champion lives in New Zealand, where he works with some of Galvao’s students “under the Atos JJ methodology,” Galvao said.
Of course, one major reason Adesanya’s grappling skills haven’t been tested much in the UFC is his striking – he’s stopped four of nine opponents by knockout.
Galvao is a multi-time IBJJF world champion and ADCC gold medalist, defeating some of the world’s best grapplers in Felipe Pena, Alexandre Ribeiro, Romulo Barral and Braulio Estima. Galvao has also beaten MMA’s Chael Sonnen, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, Rafael dos Anjos, Rafael Lovato Jr., Rousimar Palhares and Vinny Magalhaes in grappling competitions over the past 15 years.
All that experience after decades spent on the mat and Galvao sees promising talent when Adesanya decides to grapple.
“He’s very skilled and learns really fast,” Galvao said. “But not only that, he also has an open mind. He always wants to learn — that’s essential for an athlete that seeks evolution. He’s gotten better during this time with us, training twice a day. It was his first time spending some time in our San Diego gym, but he plans on coming back more.”
Galvao was impressed by Adesanya’s attempt to triangle choke Kelvin Gastelum during their epic five-round war in April 2019, and he sees “no one” in the middleweight division as capable of threatening him on the ground.
“He’s slick,” Galvao said. “Everything changes with punches, kicks and elbows allowed. He already hurt him bad before someone gets to his legs to take him down. It’s complicated because his striking is very good. He has great muay Thai and boxing, and moves really well, aside from his great footwork and phenomenal distancing.”
A former Strikeforce and DREAM welterweight back in his MMA days, Galvao has been part of Anderson Silva’s camp in the past and sees many similarities between the 185-pound greats.
“They are very talented and like to learn and appreciate the art,” Galvao said. “And they learn fast. They have a lot in common, not only the technique, but also the personality. They are always smiling and joking around. They are always very happy, and I think that’s great. There are no bad days with them — and if there are, it’s only positive. They came from nowhere and reached the top.
“Anderson Silva built his story and no one will be like him. He’s unique. No one will do what he’s done. It’s his story. Every person has its story and Adesanya is building his now. Everything indicates a very successful and happy future. Adesanya’s goal is to become the best and he’s working every day for that.
“He really loves what he does, just like Anderson did. The difference between them is time, age, but, other than that, they have a lot in common. Adesanya really can do something very surprising in MMA.”
The UFC has yet to announce what’s next for Adesanya, who could move up to 205 pounds to challenge recently-crowned light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in 2021.
Meanwhile, Galvao doesn’t rule out competing under MMA rules again if the offer is tempting enough.