There are certain matchups that just… deliver. When those matchups are made from a pairing of the two best fighters in a division, viewers can be forgiven for foaming at the mouth, just a little.
Holloway and Volkanovski. Figueiredo and Moreno. Whether or not Colby Covington is actually the second best welterweight in the UFC remains an open question–but he certainly has what it takes to get a thrilling fight out of Kamaru Usman whenever the two cross paths.
And then there are Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker.
Not only is this one of the clearest examples of two fighters sharing a division in which they both stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack, but the first matchup between them was easily the most thrilling and violent clash of Adesanya’s championship reign, if not his entire MMA career.
It was also the first loss Whittaker suffered since 2014, and the most punishing of his career. Despite competing well, Whittaker was nearly knocked out when, with no more than a second or two remaining in the first round, Adesanya floored him with a counter right hook. He recovered well, starting round two with renewed ferocity, but soon enough Adesanya’s counters found him again. He was hurt, then hurt again, and then knocked out for real.
In the time since, Adesanya has defended Whittaker’s old belt three times, while failing in an attempt to add the light heavyweight belt to his collection; and Whittaker himself has racked up three meaningful wins. Thanks to those seven fights, our picture of both men has crystallized. We have a clearer understanding of the kinds of things an opponent can do to make Adesanya look less than superhuman.
And it is hard to argue that they are not, necessarily, the kinds of things Robert Whittaker does particularly well. It is, in other words, a rough style matchup for Bobby Knuckles, which only makes their rematch at this weekend’s UFC 271 all the more compelling.
Looking back over Whittaker’s entire career, we can divide his opponents into two broad categories:
1) guys who stand there
2) guys who don’t.
Members of the former category–Yoel Romero, Jacare Souza, Jared Cannonier, Kelvin Gastelum–usually end up on the receiving end of Whittaker’s all-time best performances. Whether slow of foot or simply uninterested in giving ground, these fighters present a constant target for Whittaker’s superb jab, and many opportunities for crisp counter punching.
Members of the latter group–Darren Till, Uriah Hall, Stephen Thompson, Israel Adesanya–make Whittaker supremely uncomfortable. It is notable that, of the four men listed here, the two Rob managed to beat are clearly less skilled, or at least less consistent than the other two.
The other two knocked him out.
The problem is pathological in nature. On the feet, Whittaker is what you might call a boxer-puncher: he is a very skillful striker, more than capable of flitting around and neutralizing an opponent from long range–but when it comes down to it, what he really wants to do is punch people in the mouth.
Give Bobby Knuckles an opportunity to knock some teeth out, and he’ll have a hard time passing it up. Hit him, and he’ll want to get it back. Make him swing and miss, and he’ll enter the next exchange thinking of nothing except how many more punches he needs to throw and how much harder he needs to push to rectify the mistake.
Thus, his kryptonite, the latter group: tall, rangy strikers who, faced with an aggressive opponent like Whittaker, are more than happy to melt away into the breeze, until at last Whittaker becomes so focused on finding a home for that fifth leaping punch that he runs face-first into a fight-ender.
This is what people mean when they say that “styles make fights.” Fighting is a very stressful business. Those crazy enough to make that business their business, therefore, tend to go about it in whatever way feels most natural to them. That’s what a style is: a way of fighting that, at the very least, lets the athlete pretend to be comfortable. Some fighters are patient, some aren’t; some want room to run, some prefer a phone booth.
Styles have less to do with body type or schooling than with personality. Like personalities, styles are intrinsic, pathological, and difficult to change. Tamper at your peril.
Which brings us back to Robert Whittaker, and his second shot at Israel Adesanya.
There are two ways Whittaker go about tackling this tough stylistic matchup.
He could try to change things up completely—to fight against type. Instead of chasing ever-riskier combinations and getting countered hard, he might opt for a more cautious, outside approach. If fear of Izzy’s counters isn’t motivation enough, then the number of solid jabs Whittaker landed might be enough to justify such a radical change.
The other option would be to tinker with his gameplan without trying to alter his style. To fight like himself, only… better.
First, let’s talk about fighting against type.
Have you ever seen what happens when a reckless, aggressive fighter suddenly decides to become… technical? The candidate is usually a genuine physical specimen, the kind of fighter who rockets up the ranks without ever having to develop much depth of skill. Sooner or later, virtually all of them run into a wall. Self-doubt arises and, close on its heels, the urge to make a long-overdue change.
Take Alexander Hernandez (who fights on the main card of UFC 271), for example. Hernandez shot into the spotlight after knocking out top welterweight Beneil Dariush in his UFC debut, then ran afoul of the veteran of all veterans, Donald Cerrone. He’s been struggling to work out a comfortable process ever since, and the results have been… mixed. Essentially, he’s been beating the guys who are clearly worse than him, and looking completely flummoxed against the good ones.
Or how about Johnny Walker. Like Hernandez, Walker ran through his early UFC competition, right up until he reached a level of competition that refused to be run through. Walker changed camps and attempted to transform himself. Unfortunately, he went from being the type of guy who either lives or dies by the sword to the kind who isn’t sure which end of the sword you’re supposed to grab onto. Walker’s last outing was a timid performance, in one of the worst fights you will ever see.
Now, Robert Whittaker isn’t a hotheaded brawler, nor is he a fighter who relies almost entirely on his (not inconsiderable) physical gifts. Unlike Hernandez and Walker, Whittaker had access to a deep well of techniques long before the loss to Adesanya. He was and is a flexible, adaptable fighter.
Nevertheless, he would have to be very careful not to change things too drastically against a fighter like Adesanya. A more cautious approach, for instance, would mean long periods at long range, where Adesanya is perhaps the best attritive kicker in the sport. And Bobby has never been particularly good at dealing with kicks, unless he can simply dash forward and punish the guy throwing them.
How much time could Whittaker spend in that uncomfortable space, at the mercy of Adesanya’s kicks, before old habits returned?
Another example for comparison: Colby Covington, another pathologically aggressive fighter, tried very hard to be Technical in his rematch with Kamaru Usman. To be specific, he backed up more and threw calf kicks.
The results were disastrous. Usman beat ten shades of shit out of Covington, who spent two rounds looking scared and getting hurt, until, finally, he was forced back into his old ways. Funnily enough, the old ways worked remarkably well (perhaps in part because Usman is a fighter undertaking his own, awkward Technical journey). But after trying and failing to do something completely new, Covington couldn’t throw himself into the fray with the confidence he used to have. And by the time he rediscovered the way he actually likes to fight, it was too little, too late.
For Whittaker, getting picked apart at range would be disappointing, but it would at least be something new. Getting picked apart at range and then getting knocked out like he did last time would be tragic.
So that’s fighting against type.
Who knows? It could work out. Whittaker is a sharp, intelligent fighter, and a tremendous athlete. Adesanya can be frozen by patient fighters who simply refuse to give him the fight he wants, though they have to find some way of stopping his kicks for that to work. But hey, if there’s one phrase that describes this sport, it’s this: shit happens. It could work, because anything could work in MMA.
Still, the other option seems simpler, safer, and a lot more fun for Robert Whittaker. Like the host of some corny after-school special, I’m here to urge Robert Whittaker to be himself.
You could say that Whittaker was too aggressive against Adesanya in their first fight. That’s one way of looking at it, but maybe the perspective isn’t quite right. What if he was merely aggressive in the wrong ways?
Whittaker was perfectly able to touch Izzy with his initial jabs, but Adesanya was always looking past that first layer, trying to suss out a bigger, clumsier swing coming behind it–and, because this is Bobby Knuckles we’re talking about, there usually was a harder punch following the jab. Izzy avoided them, swaying and shifting out of the way. The more Adesanya evaded, the more Bobby needed to land a big shot. It became a sort of tunnel vision.
Even after Adesanya starting turning his evasions into counters, Whittaker couldn’t stop headhunting. The first punch that hurt him was a sort of backwards shifting right hook. Adesanya found the same punch several times. Halfway through the second round, though, Whittaker was beginning to anticipate it. His entries didn’t change, didn’t get any less predictable, but he had a mind to draw out Adesanya’s counter and counter him right back.
In the final exchange, Whittaker succeeded in drawing out that venomous right, succeeded in blocking it, and proceeded to wind up the left hook that would end it all.
It might have worked–but he was playing Izzy’s game. Whittaker’s left hook might have finished Adesanya, if Adesanya’s left hook hadn’t finished him first.
So, what was the fatal flaw here? Whittaker was more than capable of initiating exchanges on his own terms. He kept that pressure up well, too, surprising Adesanya with a few choice counters of his own when the challenger took the lead. He was even able to pick up on Adesanya’s adjustments, and come up with adjustments of his own.
Whittaker’s real problem was simply that he let Adesanya lead him around by the nose. Whittaker wanted to punch Izzy in the face. Izzy knew Whittaker wanted to punch him in the face. He was, in a word, predictable.
Here’s a rule of thumb all fighters should follow: take what’s available. Don’t go chasing waterfalls, Bobby. That’s the lesson here.
What I’m advising is an approach that will allow Robert Whittaker to fulfill his pathological need for aggression, to keep the pressure on a guy he probably can’t afford to stay away from for too long at a time. The solution isn’t to lose the aggression, but simply to channel it more effectively.
Let’s go back to Adesanya’s defense. He evaded many of Whittaker’s punches by leaning back. In truth, he was putting himself in some pretty risky positions by doing so. Maybe that’s why Robert couldn’t resist swinging for the chin. But while Adesanya’s swaying head movement may compromise his ability to absorb a punch that does land, it is timed to prevent that exact thing from happening. Why try to surprise him with the one thing he is quite clearly expecting?
What if, instead of following his jab with a salvo of reckless punches, Whittaker simply takes the target that Adesanya isn’t actively defending? What if–and I’m going to use a technical term here–he kicks the shit out of his legs?
It’s a timeless tactic. Any time a fighter prioritizes head defense by backpedaling or leaning away, he leaves his legs behind. When Adesanya leans back, Whittaker should simply give up on checking his chin and take what’s available.
Another way of following up without walking into the same counters: takedowns. Now, Adesanya is not typically an easy man to outwrestle. Quite the opposite. And Whittaker isn’t exactly known for taking opponents down and holding them on the ground.
But Adesanya can be taken down, and the opening is essentially the same as that for the low kicks: leaning back in response to Whittaker’s initial strikes. Jan Blachowicz may be a good bit bigger than Bobby, which no doubt played a role in his ability to outwrestle and outgrapple Adesanya in their light heavyweight title clash, but his takedown entries were relatively straightforward. He drew Adesanya’s attention with the hands, got him to either lean back or commit to a counter, and then grabbed his legs while he wasn’t ready for it. It wasn’t supreme wrestling skill that made it work, just good timing.
The entries are there for Robert Whittaker. He can dictate exchanges with his jabs and feints in a way that no other middleweight can. And he doesn’t have to do anything so dramatic as altering his entire approach to MMA to make those entries count more than they did last time.
It’s a tough matchup. But Whittaker can win it, just by being a smarter version of the fighter he’s always been.
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