This Sunday, UFC 271 will host one of the most highly anticipated rematches in promotional history, when Israel Adesanya (21-1) makes the fourth defense of his Middleweight title against Robert Whittaker (24-5).
In their first meeting in October of 2019, Adesanya took the title off of Whittaker in a very one-sided encounter. But in three fights since dropping the belt, the Aussie has looked better than ever, clearly rejuvenated and motivated to get the title back.
With many improvements to Whittaker’s game, the rematch is predicted to be a lot more competitive.
Whittaker vs Adesanya 1: One way traffic
At UFC 243, Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya fought for the first time in front of a record-breaking 57,127 people at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium.
Most people were anticipating one of the greatest Middleweight title fights to date, however it was anything but as Adesanya cruised to an easy knockout victory in the second round.
To a majority of MMA fans, Whittaker did not look himself. On many occasions, he charged in recklessly, making it easy for Adesanya to telegraph his attacks.
Whittaker’s head was often on the centre line and his darts inside became predictable. Time after time, Adesanya countered him with short hooks on many occasions.
In the dying seconds of the first round, Adesanya dropped Whittaker with a short right hook after being grazed by an overhand right. This proved to be the beginning of the end for ‘The Reaper,’ who was knocked down again mid-way through the second round, before being stopped soon after.
Adesanya has since gone on to establish himself as one of the best pound for pound fighters in the sport. Since capturing UFC gold, ‘The Last Stylebender’ has defended his title three times and even moved up in weight to unsuccessfully challenge Jan Blachowicz for the Light Heavyweight title.
The road back: Whittaker’s win streak
Whittaker on the other hand, took a long layoff after the defeat, admitting he was suffering from burnout. Ever since he has come back, he has looked better than ever with impressive wins over Darren Till (18-4-1), Jared Cannonier (14-5) and Kelvin Gastelum (17-8-0-1).
Darren Till – 26 July 2020
The Darren Till fight showed that Robert can hang with a strategical striker. Despite being dropped with an elbow in the first round, Whittaker looked relaxed throughout the entire fight as he often used feints and an outside leg kick to dictate Till’s movements.
As highlighted by UFC Commentator Paul Felder during the fourth round, Whittaker used his feints to see where Till’s weight was going to be, whether that be the front or back leg.
If Till moved backward, Robert would throw a calf kick as the threat of being caught with a counter left hand was eliminated by the retreating southpaw.
This strategy worked to perfection, as he landed 30 of his 31 leg kicks and even injured Till’s knee with a stomp. This high output in leg kicks is very interesting, given the fact that no fighter has ever attempted more than 20 leg strikes against Adesanya in the UFC.
Although the fight was competitive, Whittaker looked in control, scoring a unanimous decision win.
Jared Cannonier – 24 October 2020
Just three months later, Whittaker fought number two ranked Jared Cannonier. In this encounter, we all saw the Whittaker of old, fighting light on his feet and creating awkward angles.
His biggest weapon in this contest was the jab, signified by the American’s eye completely shutting after the fight. On the defensive side of the bout, Whittaker’s head was constantly moving instead of consistently sitting in one place.
In fact, the head movement of Whittaker greatly troubled Cannonier, who only landed 17 of his attempted 46 strikes to the head.
In the third, Whittaker was able to make reads of his opponent’s tendency to lean to his left. Less than a minute into the round, a sneaky, one-two punch into head kick combination, which sent Cannonier to the ground.
Although he didn’t get the finish, Whittaker again won the decision in what was a surprisingly lopsided affair.
After this victory, MMA fans around the world turned their heads as they started to wonder what would happen if Whittaker and Adesanya met again.
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Kelvin Gastelum – 17 April 2021
Whittaker’s latest performance was his most impressive to date. In a bout awarded “fight of the night” honours, he outclassed Kelvin Gastelum to win 50-45 on all three judges’ scorecards.
The Sydney sider put on a striking masterclass to which Gastelum simply had no answer. When the final bell rang, it was clear that he was one step ahead wherever the fight went.
Whittaker used his lead hand to dictate the fight from the outside. Whether that be his stiff jab or lead hook, these punches were used to set up even more powerful attacks, such as the right cross or high kick.
When Gastelum pressed forward, Whittaker stayed calm behind his jab, created multiple angle changes and even threw teep kicks to the body to keep him at bay.
When discussing this fight, Gastelum has stated that it was the first time he ever felt outclassed by his opponent.
Whittaker more than doubled Gastelum’s output, as he landed 150 significant strikes to Gastelum’s 62. This fight was also the first time Whittaker had landed double-digit body shots (13) since his second fight with Yoel Romero, where he landed 23.
Blueprint or false hope?
When you reflect on Whittaker’s past performances, you can easily see how this next fight with Adesanya could turn out much different from their first meeting.
In previous interviews, Whittaker has admitted that he didn’t feel himself, stating that the stakes of the fight, as well as Adesanya’s pre-fight antics got into his head. With all of the pressure relieved, it is safe to say that Whittaker will be much more focused on avenging his loss.
With that said, most pundits have said that Whittaker’s best route to victory is to use his improved wrestling game to take Adesanya to the mat. However, that is easier said than done as Adesanya is tied third amongst active Middleweights for takedown defense rate (83.3%).
Whittaker has a takedown accuracy of 29.6%, which is the 11th highest among active Middleweights. If he tries to desperately shoot takedowns from the get-go, he will most likely exhaust himself or run into a knee.
What Whittaker may do instead is be patient on the feet, use feints and strike to the body and legs before mixing the wrestling later on.
In his four fights since his victory over Whittaker, Adesanya’s opponents have had an average of 79.5% striking accuracy in terms of body shots. Moreover, the last three have averaged 88%.
The aforementioned Jan Blachowicz fight was a prime example of how the blueprint could be laid out. The Polish native landed 29 of his 33 body attacks, most of them occurring when Adesanya was moving backward.
In the final two rounds, Blachowicz was able to secure a takedown and claim top position at the centre of the octagon. This proved to be crucial to achieving victory.
In this fight, Blachowicz averaged 2:22 of control time in the rounds a takedown was scored, and even had a total of 7:06 worth of control time over the Nigerian-born New Zealander.
Despite being a weight class above Whittaker, Blachowicz walks around only five pounds heavier than the Australian (220lbs and 215lbs respectively). This small difference could play a major role in top control if Whittaker is able to score a takedown on Adesanya away from the cage.
Repeat or revenge?
However, no matter what the game plan is, it is safe to say that Whittaker needs to be perfect throughout all five rounds if he wants to dethrone Adesanya.
The long layoff and a renewed love for the game have contributed to Whittaker’s motivation to grow as a martial artist, and with the relieved pressure, many fans can expect a rejuvenated fighter in action.
As outlined, he has also showcased an improved skillset since the pair’s first meeting and may prove to be a much more dangerous threat to Adesanya.
The main question of this fight though, is how to approach the striking range. A stand-up fight with the former Glory kickboxer can be described as picking your poison – stay on the outside and get picked apart or rush in and get countered.
Whittaker then, needs to be as calculated, accurate and active in his approach as he has in his recent win streak.
Having trained with hall of fame boxing coach Johnny Lewis in the weeks leading up to the fight, Whittaker’s hands seem to be as sharp as ever.
According to Lewis, he is “punching extremely hard and not missing the target.”
The fight this Sunday will host what could be one of the most important fights for not only Oceania but in the history of the UFC’s Middleweight division.
The evidence suggests that Whittaker will enter the contest in peak form, with all the tools required to pull off the upset. I guess we will find out if he has what it takes to reclaim the title he once called his.
UFC 271 goes down on Sunday 13 February and can be ordered via Kayo, here.
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