Post-Fight Thoughts: Robert Whittaker -vs- Israel Adesanya
While UFC 243 may have, on paper, looked like an exceptionally weak UFC card banking on a main event fight carrying fan interest into the event, it ended up being one of the more entertaining shows the promotion has put on this year. Local talent turned in mixed results, but the fights were all entertaining and produced quality battles that went to decision as well as violent finishes. The capstone, however, was the main event and it managed to live up to the hype as well. The fight itself unfolded differently than expected, but produced a new MMA superstar in Israel Adesanya.
I anticipated a much more tactical battle, but Robert Whittaker ended up employing a very aggressive gameplan. The defending champ came out of the gates strong and immediately tried to pressure Adesanya with a lot of kicks and punches. There wasn't even a single attempt at a clinch of takedown, Whittaker was trying to blitz Adesanya and flurry him quickly. That ended up not working so well, as Adesanya's footwork and head movement kept him safe from the vast majority of Whittaker's strikes. As Whittaker became more predictable, Adesanya adjusted and began to land more and more shots of his own, including one that dropped Whittaker in the final second of the first round.
It looked like Whittaker was committed to his plan of attack, as he kept rushing Adesanya just as he did in the first, even though he was having less and less success with each entry. It didn't take long before his face was busted up and blood was leaking from his mouth. Then, he bull rushed yet again, only this time he was viciously countered with a left and right hook combination that sent him reeling. A completely disoriented Robert Whittaker staggered back and fell to the canvas, with Marc Goddard rushing in to wave the fight off and sparing the fallen champion further damage.
It was an impressive showing from Israel Adesanya, dismantling one of the best middleweights in UFC history with relative ease. It was shocking to behold; both Whittaker's insistence on trying to rush a dangerous counter striker, and his aversion to anything other than a stand-up attack. In my Pre-Fight Thoughts (link), I didn't expect much countering as I figured Whittaker would vary his attack so as to keep Adesanya guessing. Staying at range wasn't going to end well, but opting to make the same predictable entry over and over again doesn't seem wise in theory and in practice is looked even worse.
I'm not going to spend much time second guessing Robert Whittaker's strategy, maybe he didn't feel the energy investment in shooting for takedowns — even just enough to allude to the threat of one — was worth it. Maybe it just didn't feel right for a forward-moving swarmer; it's easy for someone like me to gameplan in a vacuum, saying things like "just wrestle him" — as if it's just that easy. Hanging back would have played into Adesanya's game even more, so I am quite fine assuming that Whittaker pursued the best path to victory relative to who he is as a fighter. Also, this was always a tough style match-up for Whittaker given the challenger's striking pedigree and natural aptitude. The outcome was by no means guaranteed, but I think, in hindsight at least, this was not as close of a fight as I thought.
So, middleweight has a new champion now, and a very daunting task for whoever he fights next. It seemed like Paulo Costa is next in line, and he was present at the event; Adesanya joked at the post-fight press conference that "I want to get him before USADA does," which was a solid burn. I would have prerred to see Yoel Romero get another shot, but since he lost — albeit very controversially — to Costa in his last fight, that won't be happening unless something like an injury or test failure comes up. I heavily favour Adesanya if he fights Costa next, it should be a good fight but it's basically the Whittaker fight but with a less crafty opponent for the newly crowned champ.
As for Whittaker, he seems to be written off as shot, at just 28 years old, but a lot of people. I will admit, I am one of those people who has concerns about his overall health, but I am not going to go so far as to say that his best years are behind him. He's had bad luck, illnesses and injuries, but he's also reinvented himself in a new weight class and has shown a tremendous amount of mental fortitude to come back from his various setbacks. I don't know whether he will hold the middleweight title again, but do think he has many years of competing at the top level of MMA ahead of him. I'll need significantly more evidence before I buy into the notion that Robert Whittaker is washed — I think that is an extreme position to say the least. As for his next fight, I think he should take some time off to recover and reflect and see what the top of the middleweight rankings look like in a few months.
Meanwhile, the UFC has a newly birthed star on their hands; Israel Adesanya won an undisputed UFC title — and an interim belt before that — in under 2 years. This is a historic career already, and he's just getting started. There is a lot of potential for Adesanya to carve out a truly legendary legacy, and he's off to an incredible start. Thus far he has passed every test put in front of him, and with flying colours. The worst performance he's had was when he beat Anderson Silva but didn't destroy him — likely more out of respect than a lack of ability — and that's hardly a mark of shame. Adesanya came into the UFC with a lot of hype from the serious kickboxing folks I talk to and he has exceeded my wildest expectations. I can't wait to see what's next for Israel Adesanya, it's been an incredible journey to watch and it's only just begun.
Published: October 6th, 2019.