The UFC returns to Houston this Saturday with a middleweight rematch that will hopefully be a bit more compelling than the original. “The Last Stylebender,” Israel Adesanya, who just reportedly got paid even though no one really knows how much, defends his middleweight strap against Robert Whittaker, the former champ who’s clawed his way back to a title shot and looked outstanding in his latest outing.
The rest of the fights on the card aren’t getting our attention so let’s jump right in to the headliner.
Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) not let one huge or horrible performance dominate the data. See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker
It’s been two-and-a-half years since Whittaker was dethroned by Adesanya. In an almost entirely standup affair, Adesanya tagged seven more power shots to Whittaker’s head in the first round – along with a knockdown – and easily took the frame with 97% Robojudge probability. He went on to close Whittaker out in the second.
Since that day, Whittaker’s steadily performed statistically better and better with three straight wins including a 61% dominance measure versus Darren Till, 71% against Jared Cannonier, and most recently a 96% undoing of Kelvin Gastelum last April.
When looking at their alternative stats, both fighters spend around 4:30 of every five minutes standing up in some fashion, mostly operating at distance. In that open space, Whittaker tends to be the more active fighter, especially with jabs, while Adesanya’s the more unpredictable one. Whittaker throws 20.6 head jab attempts per five minutes in the position (P5M) to Adesanya’s 10.0 and out-lands his opponents with a +5.1 differential (-0.6 for Adesanya).
When it comes to power strikes, they both throw similar volume but Adesanya changes things up more and targets 38% of his shots to the body or legs to Whittaker’s 28%. While 28% is just slightly smaller, it disguises the fact that Whittaker only lands 46% of his power strikes to the body (61% middleweight average, 69% for Adesanya). Connecting with every strike isn’t always the most important factor, especially with combinations, but it’s still a glaringly low number in Whittaker’s otherwise impressive distance statistical striking game.
In the power department, Adesanya’s been anywhere from 16-133% better than Whittaker in the three knockdown metrics and is still yet to be dropped. His two most recent opponents, Jan Blachowicz and Marvin Vettori, put Adesanya on the canvas seven total times, but they were all takedowns. Blachowicz is the only person to ever control Adesanya on the ground for five or more minutes in a bout while Vettori twice controlled Adesanya for around two minutes, but lost each time. Other than that, no fighter has ever put more than 45 seconds of ground control on Adesanya in a UFC bout.
Should Whittaker be able to put Adesanya on his back, keeping him there hasn’t been easy for middleweight opponents. This shows not only in Adesanya’s standup rate but also the fact that he takes such little damage from bottom position. A typical middleweight eats 16.3 power strikes P5M while being controlled on the ground (88.0 for Whittaker). But Adesanya’s opponents are often so concerned with keeping him horizontal that he only ends up absorbing 8.9 power strikes P5M.
As Blachowicz showed, Adesanya can be vulnerable on his back, when combined with selective strikes. But judges are tasked with scoring damage, not takedowns or control, so if Whittaker wants to mix in a wrestling element to Saturday’s rematch, he’ll need a plan for impacting Adesanya’s face with his fists and elbows to get maximum value.
While Whittaker tends to be the controlling fighter on the ground (86% of the time), the clinch and ground games haven’t been a huge part of his repertoire even though he’s had some clinch takedown success. Whittaker’s only landed 10% of his distance takedowns, but that number shoots up to 55% when first grappling to the clinch. He doesn’t do a ton of net striking damage from that position, with a -3.5 power differential P5M, but he’s had some clinch takedown success in the past. Can he add Adesanya to the list this time around or at least dirty things up from a straight kickboxing match? And if he clinches against the cage or gets Adesanya to the ground, can he do enough follow-up damage?
I can’t wait to find out. Bring on the glorious fights!
Statistical Notes: Strike attempts are per an entire five minute round in each position (P5M) and are categorized as jab or power. A jab is just a non-power strike. Strikes are documented based on where they land or are targeted (head, body, legs), not the type that is thrown (punch, elbow, kick, knee). Knockdown rate is per five minutes at distance or in the clinch off the cage. Knockdown percentage is per power head strike landed while standing. It’s really hard to knock someone down if they’re already on the ground. Knockdown/Damage round percentage is the percentage of rounds with at least one knockdown or busted up face, respectively. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back.
Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also an ABC-certified referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.
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