Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya headlines UFC 243 on October 5, 2019 at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.
One sentence summary
David: Come for the main event, stay for the…eh, just come for the main event
Phil: Antipodean assailants bring the thunder down under
Record: Robert Whittaker 20-4 | Israel Adesanya 17-0
Odds: Robert Whittaker +102 | Israel Adesanya -112
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Whittaker is fresh (err, cold) off his two fights against Yoel Romero. Both fights probably took fifty years off his life. Most people would lose their entire life, fighting Romero twice. Especially having to fight Third Round Romero twice. It’s no wonder he’s been out of commission for so long. It is a wonder how he got so far. He wasn’t a spectacular fighter coming out of TUF, but he figured the fight game out quick, and never looked back.
Phil: Robert Whittaker! Remember him? He had the best fight of the year in 2018 when he fought Yoel Romero, and then an amazing fight before then. He’s the kind of affable action fighter that the UFC should love as a champion… if he could stay healthy. His guts exploded, his foot fell off, and I think his fist disintegrated, maybe? Beyond this, he’s mentioned struggles with depression. It does seem like the middleweight division has been peculiarly configured to eat up and chew out promising athletes, and at 28 years old, people are already justifiably a little worried about B Knuckles, Esquire.
David: Adesanya’s rise to UFC stardom is something I always approached with caution. I mean, come on. If you’ve been following the sport this long, you know that every scintillating kickboxer is packaged as the next Cro Cop, but they invariably end up being the next Che Mills, complete with commentary about how great their potential is AS they get pummeled into ground beef. So I was never too sure about Adesanya. It always felt like a matter of time before somebody laid on top of him for 15 minutes. Or embarrassingly knocked him out. Instead Adesanya has made a seamless transition from kickboxer to mixed martial artist. And he’s done it with a swagger befitting of someone with a real vision of his success.
Phil: Israel Adesanya does not seem like he’s older than Whittaker. Partially it’s his relative youth in the sport. No-one outside of kickboxing enthusiasts and the true hardcores knew who he was before he started knocking on the UFC’s door. He sprinted to a title shot in what must be close to record time for a debuting UFC fighter (in the modern era anyway, your Spiders and your Lesnars obviously don’t count). It’s also just because he seems like a young, carefree guy, even in comparison to the slightly more earnest Whittaker. While he hasn’t become the McGregor-esque star that some (notably the UFC brass) hoped for, he’s still been one of the most fascinating stories to watch in recent memory, culminating in that FOTY candidate against Kelvin Gastelum.
What’s at stake?
David: An Adesanya win is easy to market. He has the kind of style and flair that encapsulates the image of a “new era.” Conversely, Whittaker has always had that “how did we end up here?” presence you know the UFC can’t wait to ditch. Yes, he’s been in absolute barnburners and you’d think that would make him more marketable, but raw, drama-filled pugilism was part of what the UFC desperately wanted, then John Lineker would still have a job in the octagon. Sorry; am I venting?
Phil: Adesanya has talked about going up to fight Jon Jones, and while I feel like that would be a… well, a very weird match if nothing else, I honestly hope that they just run it back or have a Borrachinha fight after this one.
Where do they want it?
David: Whittaker has honed his skills in a very linear way. His movement isn’t dynamic or anything, but he makes efficient forward progress by sticking to a piercing jab behind a forcefully chambered right. His grimy style makes him sound like a bowl of gruel. But his open stance gives him unique options while making him hard to defend against despite his blue collar ethic. One thing he has in common with this weekend’s opponent is that both men conceal their weapons while. While Adesanya doesn’t telegraph his projectiles with pivots and feints, Whittaker keeps his punches and kicks in a tight chamber, allowing his near-plodding style to create the illusion of dormancy. In reality his offense is merely gradual. Defensively he’s better at using head movement to setup counter strikes than defend against sustained offense (though it’s there). Cracks frequently show in his quest to win via attrition but the guy’s so damned tough it doesn’t matter.
Phil: Whittaker is perhaps the best example MMA has to offer of the “karate-boxer” archetype, with the possible exception of Kyoji Horiguchi. Quick snapping kicks, straight punches and the covering of distance are blended with more responsible work in the pocket behind a counter left hook and a selection of slips, rolls and parries. There are still some seams between the two styles: the entry point where Whittaker blitzes into space can still be hit with same-time counters (as he found against Wonderboy Thompson). It’s also a notably front foot-heavy style, and kicking games have often troubled Whittaker for this reason. To counter them he has his own array of kicks, which tend towards push kicks, the oblique stomp, and a tricky head kick which he hides behind his right hand. He has an active lead hand, and can play nicely with the jab and a left hook which serves as both counter and lead. In general, Whittaker has demonstrated superb adaptability, toughness and pace in his fights: even when they’ve gotten ugly, he’s always fighting back. He’s also been someone who has shown something new in almost every fight, from his steadily blossoming counter wrestling, to the clinch elbows he showed off against Romero in their second fight.
David: Adesanya is probably one of the most fluid, forward-moving fighters I’ve seen in some time. He doesn’t have to throw a punch to threaten you. Instead he links multiple movements (shoulders, hips, head, etc) together to threaten with what an opponent expects, and then beats them with that they don’t. And vice versa. He doesn’t have one-hitter-quitter power, but he comes in with such speed, fluidity, and accuracy that he doesn’t need to land many to force the opponent on the backfoot. He’s selective with his combinations. Sometimes he’s full throttle with a punch sequence. Sometimes he breaks his own rhythm to position for heavy singular strikes, like a kick to the body. Along the way he does a lot of computation. This was evident in the Gastelum fight, where the timing of the right hand paid dividends in the final round, resulting in an assault that was worse than most fights that get stopped. He’s also answered questions about his grappling. Though it’s not a strength, he has super keen awareness: he knows when to treat the ground as a place to reset, defend, or threaten. It won’t be a factor in this fight, but it bodes well for him if he endures a sustained run.
Phil: It’s always interesting watching converts from other disciplines coming over to MMA. The rules for success in transition are rarely explicitly written, and it’s typically something that you can figure out in retrospect moreso than you can at the time. I think that one of the things which feeds Adesanya’s success in both the kickboxing and MMA arenas is that he is a particularly handsy fighter. He reaches out, feels strikes, pushes aside, and pushes and prods. Not for him the classical Dutch style with the jab, hook to the body, low kick combination. Instead Adesanya likes to feel the shot before he responds. I think this works nicely in the transition between the sports- he’s doesn’t feel like he needs larger gloves to block shots, and instead is happy to reach out and grab and manipulate. Regardless of the reason, he’s an incredibly adept clinch fighter in MMA (yet to be bested there against some very powerful and threatening clinchers) and shows wonderful grip awareness and a great sense of priority in ground exchanges. One of the interesting questions is whether his unique style is better suited to take on Whittaker: I think a leg kick attack would actually be fairly tough for Whittaker to deal with. Instead Adesanya is more likely to play with the leg kick to set up attacks to the body and his question mark to the head.
Insight from past fights
David: It’s been so long, I think it’s more useful to go back to his “recent” fights, but one place where I expect Adesanya to exploit Whittaker is in the way he backtracks. Whittaker defends reasonably well in the pocket. But when he’s trying to circle out, his movement is narrow, and it’s how Romero was able to simply dash for the killshot on several occasions. Adesanya doesn’t have the kind of gap pressure Romero has, but structurally he has the same ability to catch Whittaker in these retreats.
Phil: Kelvin Gastelum fought the fight of his life against Adesanya, and while there was no doubt who won the fight at the end, it was notable that two things troubled the New Zealander: Gastelum’s ability to close space quickly tended to leave Adesanya backpedalling and looking flustered, and when he shifted to southpaw Gastelum was able to hurt him. It’s also notable that Gastelum was able to hurt Adesanya badly with a head kick hidden behind punching combinations. Whittaker is good at both of those things, and honestly probably quite a lot better than Gastelum.
David: Just the usual. Whittaker isn’t just coming off a layoff. It’s a layoff preceded by two absolute wars against a fight beast. For Adesanya, I could see a little bit of Looking Past His Opponent syndrome, but I think this matchups favors him too much for that factor into the fight.
Phil: Gotta be Whittaker’s list of injuries. It’s hard to know exactly when the middleweight division ate the primes of two other injury-prone middleweight champs in Rockhold and Weidman, but they are quite clearly shells of their former selves.
David: I’m going Adesanya. Part of my issue with Whittaker is this: the dude never takes a round off, but it sometimes seems like his body is. Moments of fatigue slip through the octagon cracks with the way he’s slow to bring back a punch, or pivot out of danger at times. Israel will capitalize on these moments. Whittaker poses his own set of threats, but unlike Gastelum, his style is not to dart in with big power. I think Gastelum’s speed and momentum carried him through some of those exchanges, and that’s something Whittaker doesn’t have in his grab bag of pugilism goodies. Israel Adesanya by TKO, round 4.
Phil: A very difficult one to pick. Whittaker has an obvious advantage early over the somewhat slow-starting Adesanya, but his struggles with kicking games and the potential for Adesanya to lace him with a counterpunch will grow as the fight goes on. In general what tilts me back towards him are Adesanya’s own slight vulnerabilities to blitzes and kicks, and a belief that while the ground isn’t somewhere that either man is likely to take the fight, that it’s a terrain which favours the champ. Should be a great one, whatever the result: a genuinely can’t-miss clash between two teak-tough, brilliant, fearless technicians. Robert Whittaker by unanimous decision.