Pre-Fight Thoughts: Robert Whittaker -vs- Israel Adesanya
The UFC returns to Australia for UFC 243, a fight card of questionable quality, which is capped off with a middleweight title fight between hometown champion Robert Whittaker and New Zealander Israel Adesanya. While I question the UFC's decision to construct a pay-per-view card supported by exactly one fight — which features a notoriously injury-prone Robert Whittaker — the MMA gods seem to have granted us a small reprieve from their shenanigans. Both fighters made weight and the fight is going ahead as planned, so the one concern I did have has been mooted. With that concern out of the way, let's consider the actual fight.
Right away, I will say that I do not have a strong pick in this fight at all. Every time I try to make a case for the superiority of either Whittaker or Adesanya, I am talking myself out of it before I'm done articulating my point. This is a very close match-up — exactly the sort of thing you would expect for a title fight. At a basic level, this is a battle between the primarily (though not exclusively) boxing-based attack of Robert Whittaker and the kickboxing style of Adesanya. Obviously both have more nuance to their respective skillsets than that sentence conveys, but, regardless, I'm expecting this fight to be contested almost entirely on the feet.
I am very curious to see how this plays out; Adesanya usually needs a bit of time to analyse his opponents and figure out their tendencies. Once he does this, his attacks are precise and merciless. I don't know how much counter-striking to expect, my instincts say very little, rather the winner will be determined by whoever is the more effective aggressor. I'd say Adesanya's head movement and footwork are roughly equivalent to Whittaker's own defensive prowess — and vastly improved durability at middleweight — so neither has a clear deficit to be exploited. Both have shown tremendous championship-level resolve in their most recent fights, both of which were incredible bouts to witness — Whittaker defeating Yoel Romero for a second time and Adesanya waging a Fight Of The Year war with Kelvin Gastelum to clinch his interim title.
Whittaker can't come in wild and aggressive, Derek Brunson's extremely quick loss to Adesanya is a good illustration of that, and Adesanya just doesn't fight that way. I see this fight slowly building over the course of the first 1-2 rounds, as they test the watters and see what openings are presented and what entries work / don't work. There's always a chance of a quick KO, but I would rate the probability of one as miniscule. Someone would have to be having a really bad day for this to be a fight that ends quickly, I am expecting a very cerebral battle. I'd say a decision could be the very likely outcome here, even if this is pairing of two strikers.
The only concern I have for Whittaker is his overall durability; he has shown a much sturdier chin at middleweight but he has been sidelined with an array of injuries and illnesses, so it's always a wonder when the wear-and-tear will start to degrade performance. I don't have any reason to think now is when the wheels start to fall off, the problem is that you don't know until it happens. I won't give that much weight here, and we will assume that Robert Whittaker is as close to 100% as a fighter can be. Israel Adesanya had better be taking the same approach as well, or he's in for a rough night.
If anyone is going to deviate from a pure kickboxing match in a cage, it will be Whittaker, and I think it would be wise for him to try and mix up clinches and takedown attempts so as to keep him constantly guessing. Sure, easier said than done, but the alternative is to try and out-strike an incredibly slick, clever, and dangerous kickboxer. Sure, things are different with 4oz gloves, inside a cage, and Whittaker does have excellent MMA boxing, but why take that risk? I don't have a strong assessment of Adesanya's takedown defence, and Derek Brunson took such sloppy, reckless shots that their fight yielded no useful data, but it's absolutely worth exploring.
If Whittaker spends too much time waiting on Adesanya, or becomes too tentative, then the fight probably slips away from him. The outcome of the fight, in my estimation, hinges on whether or not Robert Whittaker can stifle any momentum Israel Adesanya starts to build. If Adesanya finds openings and starts landing more and more shots, then he's on his way to victory. On the other hand, I think Whittaker needs to slow the fight down, vary his attacks, keep it awkward and pick his spots — keep Adesanya from getting into a groove. The sheer talent of these two fighters makes it all but impossible for me to guess which scenario happens. I think Adesanya is already a star, and he may be on the verge of becoming more than just a young, flashy UFC champion, and his ability to handle pressure up to this point has been remarkable.
Based on nothing more than weak intuition, I am picking Israel Adesanya to prevail over Robert Whittaker. I don't know the last time I was this lacking in confidence to pick a UFC title fight. Regardless of the outcome, I think we're in store for an incredible battle and the winner will stake a further claim to greatness — whether it's Whittaker retaining his long-held title or Adesanya becoming undisputed champion in just 16 months. I am looking forward to this fight so much; middleweight is a division I bash (deservedly) quite often, but this match-up is overloaded with talent on both sides. I can't wait.
Published: October 5th, 2019.