The main event of UFC 271 of Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker is a great example of why the UFC should hold off on making immediate rematches. When Adesanya wrested the middleweight title from Whittaker, there wasn’t a huge outcry for an immediate rematch. Instead, Adesanya defended the title on several occasions while Whittaker went out and proved he really is the top contender for Adesanya’s title. There was no guarantee the rematch would happen, but the process of Whittaker earning his way back ensured that fan interest would increase.
If only the UFC would take this approach more often. Did we really need TJ Dillashaw to score two consecutive KO’s of Cody Garbrandt? Or have Rose Namajunas secure two consecutive wins over Joanna Jedrzejczyk? Or Weili Zhang for that matter? Garbrandt hasn’t been able to climb back into the title picture and it’s a hard sell to pit either Jedrzejczyk or Zhang against Namajunas at this point… and they look like the top strawweights in the division outside of Namajunas. Alright, I’m done venting. Onto taking a close look at the main event.
For my early prelims preview, click here. For the televised prelims, click here. For the rest of the main card, click here. For an audio preview, click here.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker, Middleweight
The dynamic of this fight has completely changed… and not in the way most would expect. In the first contest, Adesanya was the anointed one. It was his destiny to claim the title. Whittaker was the one with something to prove, despite being the champion. This time around, Adesanya is the one with something to prove. Given the one-sided nature of their first fight, Adesanya needs to win in impressive manner. The fact he’s the one with a loss on his record since the last time they fought only adds to the pressure on Adesanya. Sure, he has defended the middleweight title three times since then, but two of those were unimpressive defenses and most would attribute the dominance of his win over Paulo Costa to Costa looking like a shell of the guy who fought his way to challenging for the title. For Whittaker, he has admitted he was worn down by the pressures of being the champ and needed some time away from MMA. He took that time and looks refreshed, even looking like he enjoys his job again. That makes a world of difference.
At first glance, Adesanya shouldn’t have any issues defending his belt. If he isn’t the best pure striker in the sport, he’s in the conversation at the very least. Even when a fighter is labeled as being a stance switcher, they usually have one side they are stronger from. It’s impossible to state definitively which side Adesanya is strongest. Throw in that he switches stances seamlessly, often in the middle of a combination, and it makes the case ever stronger. Even though Adesanya isn’t a powerhouse striker, his technique is so crisp, he is more than capable of turning out the lights of his opponent. And I’m not just talking about a kick to the head either.
So, what can Whittaker do to overcome Adesanya’s striking superiority? I’ve heard many suggest Whittaker take a wrestle-heavy approach. Whittaker isn’t an elite wrestler, but he does look improved in that area from the first time they met. However, Marvin Vettori, who found success with his wrestling in his first fight with Adesanya, wasn’t able to keep Adesanya on his back for long in their rematch. So can Whittaker keep Adesanya down? And even if he can, is the energy expended worth it? If Whittaker expends his gas tank early in pursuit of takedowns, he’ll probably be a sitting duck late in the fight.
While the first contest was ended early, it wasn’t as one-sided as most would remember. Whittaker had some success with his jab and scoring low kicks. However, he was also overaggressive, running into power shots from Adesanya, which is why he was dropped twice. If Whittaker can concentrate on scoring on openings for his jabs and kicks – and perhaps mixing in the occasional takedown to keep Adesanya guessing – he could keep the fight close. Especially if Whittaker can find openings to dirty things up. If Kelvin Gastelum can find ways to hurt Adesanya, I have a hard time believing Whittaker can’t.
I expect this fight to be more competitive than their first fight. Whittaker being in a better place mentally alone should make for a better fight. However, I still think Adesanya is going to emerge victorious again. Adesanya’s timing and control of distance is still the best in the business. Throw in the fact that Whittaker has long been vulnerable to low kicks – remember he had his ACL blown out in his first fight with Yoel Romero – and Adesanya will probably find more success in that department, even if Whittaker looks to make it a point of his own. Perhaps Whittaker can find success with a power punch Adesanya doesn’t see coming or oblique kicks to change the dynamic of the fight in that manner, but it would be foolish to count on that. Adesanya via decision
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