As Israel Adesanya prepares once again to defend his middleweight throne, he is set to meet a familiar opponent inside the octagon at UFC 271. Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker, was the man whom Adesanya dethroned for the title three years ago, and after climbing his way back to a title shot leaving three contenders in his wake, Adesanya must be ready for a better version of his old foe.
While Adesanya holds the win from their first fight over Whittaker’s head, it’s unlikely the rematch will resemble the last, both Whittaker and Adesanya have improved, and bolstered new skills in the fights they’ve fought since. In anticipation of a more mentally prepared, and better tactical approach from the Reaper, Stylebender must utilize the full spectrum of his martial arts skill to defend his belt.
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Strengths of the Stylebender
Israel Adesanya is by far one of the best examples of a specialist within MMA. While there is something to be said about the value of a well-rounded game, the particular advantage that Adesanya brings with him into every fight is the knowledge that few, if any, middleweights can match his striking prowess if he can keep the fight in this area.
He is tall and lengthy, and even more importantly, he is essentially ambidextrous, meaning he can exploit openings from all and any limb and from both stances. Often you will see him land in a stance change after a strike in order to vary his combinations from both sides. He is also a master of feinting, the most common look Adesanya gives is from the outside, feinting the jab and lifting the knee to draw out reactions for the kick. Against Jan Blachowicz, he was unable to capitalize on these reactions to the fullest extent because the size disadvantage made it difficult to enter as often as he would have but at middleweight, he has higher confidence when entering range and capitalizing on his feints.
He will create patterns, such as consistent kicks to the legs and body, in order to set up the question mark kick up high. He does this with both distinct attacks but also his mannerisms, looking at false targets to set up the unexpected and using the finest details to his advantage in controlling his opponents on the feet.
One of the key factors in Adesanya’s success is his ability to adapt to scenarios split second. He has fantastic reaction time which allows him to evade and counter easily, and because he trusts himself to do so, it allows him to use a low guard and punch from tricky angles. Believing in his head movement and distance controls allows for his limbs to attack as weapons with freedom. This is also possible because Adesanya typically uses a stance with equal weight distribution. Whittaker uses a long narrow stance with a heavy front foot which allows him to burst forward with tremendous speed, but more easily down a single line. By staying equally balanced, Adesanya may not have the burst but it allows him to move back, forward, and side to side, cutting angles to counter with relative comfort. This will allow him to evade Whittaker’s bursts almost like a bullfighter sidestepping the bull.
This was one of the key elements leading to his first win that he should look to go back to, often Adesanya would step to the inside of Whittaker’s stance and lean away from the looping right hand, in doing so he caught Whittaker in a square stance to himself leaving Whittaker vulnerable and off-balance as he ate the subsequent short hooks.
While Adesanya’s victory over Whittaker the first time around was decisive, there are lessons he can take from it. Although mostly in control, Adesanya allowed himself to sit back and fall behind on activity, knowing he would be able to capitalize on Whittaker’s aggression late. This is purposeful but also a gamble, should Whittaker make the proper adjustments, Adesanya has to take care not to allow Whittaker to get too far ahead on the numbers as it could cost him on the potential scorecards.
We’ve also seen Adesanya struggle since their first fight in the form of Jan Blachowicz, and while the light heavyweight’s style is a far cry from Whittaker’s, it would be surprising if Whittaker did not take note of where Adesanya struggled. Out in the open Adesanya was relatively easy prey by the championship rounds when it came to takedowns, this is because with his long limbs, going to the overhook is more natural than pummeling for the underhooks in the clinch. This is fine against the cage where his base can spread but out in the open it only allows the downward pressure to build. This means that as the two men fight for octagon control, Adesanya should look to maintain a decent distance with the cage should Whittaker begin to look for takedowns.
Off his back, Adesanya is a reactive grappler, and less proactive. This may come as a surprise as he is a slippery grappler and a scrappy one and seems to always move, but his tool kit at this point is limited and going back to basic bridging techniques tend to work out for him better if his opponent is attempting a transition. The problem with this is, while Adesanya may be able to shrimp, shoulder escape and wall walk as Whittaker tries to pass the guard, he may find difficulty should Whittaker choose to stay in a position and control him rather than advance. In which case it is imperative that Adesanya look to tie him up and look for a stand up or attack from the bottom. His sharp elbows will still be a tool off of his back and he threw up an impressive triangle attempt against Kelvin Gastelum which we are yet to see since. But what he cannot do is wait ideally or go back to failing sweeps if Whittaker is committed to sitting in top position with low-risk ground and pound.
Style Bending Techniques
Israel Adesanya has a wide arsenal of tools, but even more impressive is his creativity used to chain them together in unique and unexpected ways.
Reactive knee – Adesanya holds a height advantage over most middleweights, which is why his knees tend to do a lot of damage and connect with less effort. Often he looks to weigh on the back of his opponent’s neck with his forearms, breaking their posture so the knee can come up to the head. Whittaker’s habit of dipping into his gazelle punch already puts his head at kneeing height should Adesnaya be able to time it, so utilizing it as Whittaker dips will be a key technique, especially because the wider Whittaker angles for the hook the more open the center channel will be.
Feint knee to opposite low kick – Once again, the way in which Adesanya uses his mannerisms to manipulate his opponents is something special. In a 25 minute mixed martial arts fight, it’s difficult to stay tense and on during every second, so looking for moments to untense is a challenge to every fighter in the cage. On the flip side if you can draw out moments of complacency and relaxation and time your attack relative to them it’s already an upper hand and Adesanya uses a particular tactic to expose this. He will fake the high kick by raising the knee but abandon it and slug it off, only to lazily step forward and land the explosive long low kick from the opposite leg. By stepping forward lazily, Adesanya breaks distance without giving his opponents much reason to react hastily, and his reach advantage often sees the long low kick land from further than expected. Whittaker fights from a great distance and he leans heavy on the front leg, so both braking distance and landing to the leg with this combination are important.
Right sidestep, lean back, counter right hook – Against anyone like Whittaker who typically utilizes a karate style burst down the middle, angles are key to defense. Adesanya was able to sidestep to the right and inside Whittaker’s stance in the first fight, leaving Whittaker square and exposed, as well as attempting to swing back around in order to face Adesanya. This adjustment gave Adesanya the opportunity to land both inside right hooks and inside left hooks, short and crisp as Whittaker attempted to adjust and will be a key technique in the rematch as well.
Keys to Success
Overall, Adesanya has to recreate the circumstances of the first fight against a far better and more prepared version of Whittaker. He has to draw out the aggression of Whittaker by opening up his opportunities with feints on the back foot. By doing so, and not leading too far out into the open, the cage will act as a tool should he have to go to his takedown defense. If this is unsuccessful he has to be proactive on his back and give Whittaker a reason to try advancing or transitioning in order to find his openings to scramble to his feet.
Adesanya must utilize angling footwork to counter the linear blitz of Whittaker, but also snipe through the center channel with knees when he feels Whittaker is about to crouch or dip. This fight will largely be a battle of discipline as I expect a more patient and composed Whittaker, but for Adesanya, it’s about maintaining his ground as the calculated counterpuncher and drawing out Whittaker’s reactions to fight his fight.
You can order the UFC 271 PPV on ESPN+ here to watch Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2 and the entire fight card live this Saturday, January 12 in the United States.
Braeden Arbour is an aspiring journalist out of Ontario, Canada. He is a recent graduate of Trent University, with a black belt in Karate and a blue belt in Judo. He has also been an avid fan of MMA for the last decade.