With two titles on the line and the first UFC pay-per-view event exclusively on ESPN+, UFC 236 was destined to be a night where history was made.
And the main event and co-main event delivered in thrilling fashion, as Dustin Poirier defeated Max Holloway to win the UFC interim lightweight title, and Israel Adesanya outdueled Kelvin Gastelum to win the UFC interim middleweight title in instant classics on Saturday night at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.
Moments after Poirier had been announced as the new UFC interim lightweight champion, he walked past the media table cageside with the belt around his waist and roared to the scribes in his vicinity, “I told you! I’m the champ! I told you!”
It was Adesanya and his fight with Gastelum, however, that UFC president Dana White was particularly beaming about afterwards.
“Israel became a star tonight,” White said at the press conference, comparing the “Stylebender” to Conor McGregor.
Adesanya and Gastelum put on an unquestionable Fight of the Year candidate in the co-main event that had the State Farm Arena on their feet, only to have Poirier and Holloway put on a memorable battle of their own that kept the crowd in a frenzy.
In a rematch from seven years ago that Poirier won by first round submission, Poirier was able to out strike Holloway throughout but “Blessed” landed many big shots as well, and from the 2nd round on it appeared Poirier was battling fatigue. The “Diamond” was able to turn it around, however, and finish strong. The final five seconds of the fight saw both competitors bloody and slugging it out in the middle of the Octagon.
“I felt like the fight was slipping away but I had to dig deep,” Poirier said. He sent a message during the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan to the lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who he’ll be facing next in a lightweight unification bout.
“Like Daniel Cormier said it best, get your shit together, we have a belt to fight for,” Poirier said
In a battle that White called “one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen,” Adesanya and Gastelum went toe-to-toe for five rounds, with both fighters landing strikes and hurting each other. Gastelum was successful on a couple of takedowns during the fight but Adesanya was able to pop right back up the first time, and nearly caught Gastelum in a triangle the second time. Later, Adesanya thwarted another takedown attempt with a tight guillotine that Gastelum had to fall to the mat and spin out of to escape.
Adesanya ended up in top position at the end of the 4th round – which may have been round of the year – and then landed a heavy elbow that nearly had the fight stopped. The beginning of the fifth round looked like a scene out of a movie, with the roar of the fans deafening the arena as the fighters stared across the cage at each other.
“I was ready for a 5-round war, but it is not what I expected,” Adesanya said. “I have to take a shower to gather my thoughts, re-watch the fight before I say too much about the fight, but what I will say is Kelvin did well to land the jab. That was unexpected and I was surprised to let him get that jab.
“I was able to touch him whenever I wanted. You need fights like that in your back pocket, but like I’ve always said destiny is an understatement – the next fight… I will make it memorable.”
According to White, next up for Adesanya is a unification bout with the middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in Australia, while Poirier will fight a unification match with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, likely in September.
Other highlights from the night included: Khalil Rountree dropping Eryk Anders four times in the second round en route to a unanimous decision victory; in the other “rematch” on the main card, Nikita Krylov avenged an earlier loss to Ovince St Preux with a second round submission win; #5 ranked flyweight Alexandre Pantoje TKO’d Wilson Reis in an upset, and Khalid Tata won by TKO over Boston Salmon in 25 seconds.