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‘Inside a special movie’: What it’s like fighting Israel Adesanya

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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.

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1:31

Check out highlights from Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya. Order UFC 253 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.

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.

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On Uniocking Victory, Dominick Cruz breaks down how Israel Adesanya uses footwork to avoid the power of his opponents and to create offensive opportunities.

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.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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