As the long-anticipated rematch between former UFC middleweight king Robert Whittaker and the man who stole the belt from him three years ago, Israel Adesanya grows nearer, the debate as to what “the Reaper” can do to avoid repeating history circulates amongst the MMA community.
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Since losing the belt in 2019, Robert Whittaker has amassed three impressive contender victories, cementing himself as the true #1 contender in the division and building the idea that he and only he may be the one to rival the seemingly unstoppable style bender. Between these three fights since, he has also demonstrated strides in his game and adjustments which may very well make all the difference once the two meet again.
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Strengths of the Reaper
Robert Whittaker, even going into the first fight against Adesanya brought with him elements of the fight game that are unique to him. With a background in karate, Whittaker excels in a wide stance that allows him to bounce in and out, with one of the fastest bursts in the division and the reaction and timing to do so at the right moments. His ability to deliver attacks in a point style manner that also maintains impressive power is a rare trait amongst most fighters. What allows Whittaker to land such damaging strikes is his ability to time exactly when his opponents plant into their stance and shift their weight. He looks to bounce which acts as almost constant fainting as his constant motion hides the moment he may burst forward. The resulting anxiety this creates causes his opponents to bite on Whittaker’s movements, at which point Whittaker intercepts their attack as they’ve committed, making it extremely difficult to defend against Whittaker’s flurry. You often see him work on the outside of the octagon’s perimeter in order to get his opponents to come forward to make this easier, and his innate speed advantage over most fighters is also a reason he is able to implement this so well.
He is always on the balls of his feet whether he is stationary or not, which is why he is able to throw his kicks in a snap fashion rather than the typical Thai style kicks. This avoids telegraphing and while this style does not pack the same amount of power behind the attack, it doesn’t take much for a headkick to do the intended damage.
Adjustments to make from the first fight
While Adesanya will be coming into the rematch with the confidence knowing he already holds a win over the former champ, Whittaker does also have one distinct advantage from their first fight. Looking back at UFC 243, Whittaker can see what he did wrong and make the adjustments, it’s on Adesanya to anticipate what Whittaker will do differently in order to right the wrongs he made the first time around.
Robert Whittaker spoke after their first time meeting in the cage, on having gone into the fight already at a mental disadvantage. He said he hated Adesanya and that exhausted him, plus the weight of the belt, the brightness of the lights in the moment, etc. All of this materialized in a version of Robert Whittaker we rarely see, he was over-aggressive, over-zealous, and seemed to take risks he wouldn’t normally do. While Whittaker’s preference to work moving forward or counter on the backfoot changes fighter to fighter depending on the game plan, at his best he typically does the latter, yet against Adasanya who also likes to counter-strike, Whittaker constantly bursts into range and finds himself prey to his own tactic.
Robert Whittaker, typically bounces along the edge of the cage, forcing his opponent to react to his constant footwork and range, and times their commitment in order to hit them flat-footed with their weight moving forward. This allows him to land very accurately, much due to his insane speed and reactive timing. When Whittaker is the one trying to initiate the exchanges without baiting his opponent into a position of vulnerability, it’s far less successful. Adesanya does a similar thing, he creates patterns to draw out certain reactions of his opponents, feints, and then counters their reactions, but both fighters depend on being able to sit back and influence their opponents to create openings. However, for the most part, one person has to play this game more often and in their first fight, it was Adesanya who sat back and forced Whittaker to try to bridge the distance and build bad habits.
It will be key for Whittaker to not play into this the second time around, he has to be patient and force Adesanya to take risks so that he can intercept and counter as he prefers to do. One of the ways that Whittaker can do this is by utilizing his jab on its own. In the first fight, he was able to land the jab consistently but failed to land the following power shot behind it. He threw in combination every time he entered and Adesanya was able to dodge the second blow and make Whittaker pay for it every time. If Whittaker can land the jab and exit, he can start to build on Adesanya without taking unnecessary risks, which will force Adesanya to try to get it back at which point the power shots will be more available, but what Whittaker cannot do is throw big looping punches behind the jab every time and be too predictable.
Another way he can mix things up against Adesanya and get him to fight on Whittaker’s terms is to mix in the grappling. Whittaker has difficulty committing to the power doubles and singles but has a very educated outside trip. This form of takedown may actually be more effective against Adesanya, who has a habit of immediately looking for the overhook or whizzer in clinches, which will allow Whittaker to get hold of the double underhook body lock needed for this takedown. The opportunity will come when the two clash, in their first fight, Whittaker found himself bursting too far, landing the jab but crashing into Adesanya afterward, rather than adjusting the striking range, transitioning into grappling will be a better strategy.
Adesanya is very difficult to takedown against the fence, his overhook tactic makes level changing difficult and his long limbs allow for a wide base along the cage, however out in open space it becomes exponentially easier to take him down. Whittaker, if he can work more on the backfoot and leave that space behind style bender, will have these opportunities.
Even if Whittaker cannot complete the takedown, exiting after entering will force Adesanya to sprawl or defend which may then open up an easier target for his power punches and kicks, so whether he completes them or not attempting takedowns will make a huge difference either way. Mixing up the game will be key for Whittaker.
Along with this, having the discipline to continually go back to it is important. Whittaker doesn’t have the wrestling background to always hold his opponents down, what we’ve seen in the past is Whittaker’s ability to stay in half guard and control but allow his opponents to turn their back and either get up or give up their back, but flattening his opponents out has never been Whittaker’s strongest suit. Adesanya has a history of giving up his back in order to wall walk, so even if he is able to escape, the points earned from taking him down is money in the bank for Whittaker and he has to find the discipline to understand he may lose position but he needs to go back to it more than once.
Ultimately, Whittaker needs to be patient, not play into the counterstriking of Adesanya and make him take initiative. He needs to utilize his point style to make Adesanya take risks in return and mix in the takedowns to force Adesanya to defend in the realm of MMA he is less adept at. By doing so, Whittaker can win rounds on effective grappling exchanges, frustrate the champion and open up striking opportunities in grappling transition and takedown threats. He has to be wary of letting Adesanya bait him forward, and allowing Adesnya to use the fence as defense puts Whittaker at a disadvantage.
Robert Whittaker has a unique arsenal of striking and grappling techniques which he will have to take full advantage of against Adesanya
The Gazelle hook – Robert Whittaker utilizes a unique punching method made famous by the classic boxer Rocky Marciano. He dips into a crouched posture and hops forward with the lead left hook from below. One of the issues with Whittaker’s is that he came around too wide and allowed Adesanya to punch through the middle in the first fight, but with a tighter punch, the Gazelle hook can be devastating, as evident when Whittaker knocked out Brad Tavares.
Fake Gazelle Hook to lead low kick – Missed by most and even maybe Whittaker himself, at one point in the first fight it became clear that Adesanya felt he had a read on Whittaker’s left hook. However, he wasn’t prepared when Whittaker hopped into the crouched position ready to unload the punch but instead shifted into a lead leg low kick. This is effective because, Adesanya’s typical reaction to hooks is to lean back out of range but in doing so he has to plant his feet, leaving himself vulnerable to this kind of kick. It allowed Whittaker to land the low kick cleanly but he did not go back to the technique before the end of the fight.
Right straight, right side step to left hook – Robert Whittaker has a great combination he often goes back to, throwing the right straight down the middle in a lunging stance, sidestepping with the rear right foot which opens up the angle for his left hook to come while he is not in place to be hit with the counter. The reason this may be an effective attack against Adesanya is that Adesanya often slipped to the inside of Whittaker, which means Adesanya stepped left. By sidestepping right mid combination, Whittaker cuts off Adesanya’s exit strategy and may lead to the clinch and then takedown.
The Can Opener – an old-school wrestling move in MMA, probably most famously used by Georges St. Pierre, the can opener is when the top position fighter goes to essentially a Thai clinch on the ground and stacks his opponent. This forces the guard open and gives the space to pass. Whittaker has been known to use this to get to half guard, a position where Adesanya seems to allow himself to settle on the bottom-most. The can opener is also more effective on taller opponents who have less the luxury of working in tight suffocating grappling positions, but excel in guard when they can use their limbs to their advantage. It will be key for Whittaker to look to pass to half guard if he manages to take the fight to the floor.
Keys to Victory
Ultimately it comes down to Robert Whittaker fighting his style of fight and taking advantage of his more well-rounded prowess. Both Whittaker and Adesanya are chess players, who bait and counter, but Adesanya was the one who was able to lay the more effective bait in their first match. This time around Whittaker has to be patient, and force Adesanya to take the risks and initiative, he can create openings by mixing his striking and grappling to keep Adesanya guessing.
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.