UFC 236: Israel Adesanya defeats Kelvin Gastelum to win interim middleweight title

Kiwi Israel Adesanya has claimed a slice of New Zealand combat sports history, prevailing over Kelvin Gastelum in a captivating co-main event clash at UFC 236 in Atlanta on Sunday (NZ time).

In a back and forth contest for the ages, a battered and bruised Adesanya came through in the decisive fifth round to earn the nod on all three judges' scorecards and have the interim middleweight belt wrapped around his waist by UFC president Dana White.

The victory makes Adesanya New Zealand's first-ever UFC champion, although he'll still need to beat the recovering Robert Whittaker later this year to become the division's outright king.

Visibly emotional as he spoke to UFC commentator Joe Rogan immediately post-fight, Adesanya dedicated the win to his coach and long-time mentor Eugene Bareman. He laid the belt on the mat and the two embraced as they kneeled on the canvas. 

The 29-year-old moves his undefeated record to 17-0 - including a staggering six consecutive UFC wins in just 14 months - and further legitimises his mantle as one of the sport's brightest stars.

Relatively untested in his UFC tenure to this point, Adesanya was forced to reach deep against Gastelum, displaying an exceptional level of fortitude in overcoming some early adversity to produce a stellar performance in the pivotal final round.

Adesanya embraces coach Eugene Bareman post-fight.
Adesanya embraces coach Eugene Bareman post-fight. Photo credit: Getty

The hard-nosed Mexican fighter was aggressive from the outset as he looked to counter his significant height and reach disadvantage with a gameplan built on pressure and an effective jab. 

The approach paid dividends for Gastelum. He caught Adesanya with a glancing right hand early that staggered the Kiwi and won him the opening round.

Adesanya then found his rhythm on the feet and the momentum swung back his way. He landed consistently with counter shots as Gastelum chased the killer blow, using his head movement to evade danger - at times, by mere millimetres.

That trend continued into the third, when the variation and unpredictability of Adesanya's striking looked to be taking its toll on Gastelum.

But Gastelum recaptured control in the fourth round behind courtesy of his trademark left hook, catching Adesanya clean and sending him stumbling to the fence, where he chose to shoot for a takedown rather than chase a fight-ending blow.

The enthralled State Farm Arena crowd rose as the final round began, well aware what was on the line, and Adesanya and Gastelum did the moment justice.

UFC 236: Israel Adesanya defeats Kelvin Gastelum to win interim middleweight title

Ultimately the Kiwi came out on top - twice sending Gastelum to the canvas courtesy of a pair of searing right-hands, then threatening with a triangle choke that almost found its mark. Referee Marc Goddard hovered, but Adesanya couldn't quite force the referee to step in and bring the fight to a halt.

Regardless, as the final hooter sounded there was little doubt which fighter would have his hand raised in an early contender for the UFC's Fight of the Year.

White later awarded both Adesanya and Gastelum a $US50,000 ($NZ73,940) performance bonus for 'Fight of the Night'.

In the card's main event, Dustin Poirier upset Max Holloway via unanimous decision to win the UFC's interim lightweight title in another scintillating duel.