Robert Whittaker poses with his UFC Middleweight Championship

Robert Whittaker has unfortunately settled into the position of being MMA’s most underappreciated champion, at least with respect to his accomplishments and raw skillset; where his wins over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero are largely acknowledged in knowledgeable circles as among the most impressive wins MMA has ever seen, the promotion has entirely failed to engender that admiration in the public.

The UFC has historically done a decent job giving the bigger characters in MMA the room to make the best of the media’s addiction to drama, but they’ve historically done an awful job promoting the cream-of-the-crop fighters simply with the appeal of being the best fighter in the world; Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson were great examples of that, and Whittaker is increasingly fitting that same mold, especially due to his persistent injury issues (most of which stemmed from the damage he sustained in his last two fights).

A win in Australia probably won’t remedy that situation, considering that his tremendously gutsy performance in the Romero rematch wasn’t enough to get Whittaker the respect he deserves; that said, defeating Adesanya will cement “The Reaper” as a top-3 pound-for-pound talent if not higher, and leave him in position to bolster his legacy in a weight class that has suddenly found a well of new talented contenders (Costa, Cannonier, perhaps Till).

Adesanya is the opposite of Whittaker in many ways. Where Whittaker sustained a few losses finding his own style as a fighter, Adesanya’s record is sterling and he entered MMA mostly a finished product in his primary area; where Whittaker hasn’t put much work into promoting himself to the public, Adesanya has been trying to become a household name since the beginning of his UFC career; where Whittaker has struggled to stay active amid injury issues, Adesanya has fought six times in fourteen months; where Whittaker faced a Souza at the peak of his career to earn a shot at the interim title, Adesanya faced a well-past-prime Silva to earn the same.

It isn’t to say that Adesanya got an easy path to the belt (even if he had, the fight against Kelvin Gastelum gave him enough difficulty for a lifetime), but he’s loudly shot up the rankings, where Whittaker’s rise was a much slower burn that only the people paying close attention saw coming. The UFC seems fairly open in who they want to carry the middleweight belt into the future, promoting Adesanya as the next big thing; if he brings that to fruition, “The Last Stylebender” will not only have an all-time great name on his resume, but also an opportunity to become an all-time great himself.

Yoel Romero of Cuba (R) attempts to take down Robert Whittaker of New Zealand (L)
Yoel Romero attempts to take down Robert Whittaker (Source: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The Reaper

There’s not much to say about Robert Whittaker that wasn’t shown in his last fight, a war that likely took years off both his career and that of his opponent Yoel Romero; Whittaker gave everything he had at UFC 225, in a fight that he didn’t even really have to take (after Romero missed weight), and displayed not just the skillset of a champion but the fortitude and the intelligence of an all-time great. It’s been over a year since that fight, though, so the public can be forgiven (to a point) for perhaps letting the greatness of Whittaker take a backseat to the emphatic rise of his opponent in the meantime; UFC 234 is Whittaker’s chance to force himself back into the spotlight as much as he can, at the expense of Israel Adesanya.

Whittaker’s boxing being built on blitzing raids has generally distracted from one of the smarter and more defensively-sound striking approaches that anyone in MMA has shown; Whittaker makes great use of his rare athleticism in the unique style that he uses, but also isn’t as heterodox as many believe. Fundamentally, his game is to pick at his opponent from the outside with his jab and his kicking game, and build from that with the reads he makes of his opponent’s reactions; what elevates Whittaker’s approach is not just the speed of his movement and the power in his strikes, but just how much nuance he introduces to that style.

The fight against Souza was probably the best example; Whittaker’s jab was wonderful, and won him the bout more than anything else. Against a genuine (if limited) counter threat, Whittaker’s darting jab drew the right-hand fairly reliably, and he started playing with Souza’s expectations; jabbing in before shoulder-rolling the counter or angling off, feinting the step-in to convince Souza not to commit to a counter every time, and using Souza’s expectation of the jab to fire left hooks around the parry and uppercuts as he dipped.

Eventually, he started to play with right-hand leads (cutting angles and moving his head proactively in the pocket as Souza fired back, using that to set up left hooks), and used that to herd Souza into the head kick that ultimately ended the bout. It was an exceptionally educated performance that showed Whittaker’s essential process at its best: playing with his opponent’s guard with his rhythm and shot selection, making the reads to utterly defuse them there (between his fantastic defense and his offensive depth), and finishing them soon afterward.

The Romero fights showed the depth of his adaptability, but also his skillset on the outside more than in the Souza fight; between a leg injury hampering Whittaker’s boxing in the first fight and Romero’s spectacularly dangerous counterpunching in the second, Whittaker’s kicking game was showcased heavily, and it turned out to be almost as sharp as his boxing.

Whittaker’s kick defense is probably his most notable flaw considering how much trouble Rafael Natal gave him by kicking his leg, but offensively, Whittaker is one of the best kickers in MMA; he used a front kick the way he usually does a jab to keep Romero at bay in the first fight, exhausting him and obstructing his bursts, and used a low-line side kick to work him over early in the rematch (linking it with the front-leg teep that he used extensively to intercept Souza, as well as the jab).

He’s just a genuinely intelligent fighter with some of the strongest defense MMA has ever seen, and even when an offensive threat smart enough to cause it problems arises (UFC 225), he’s as tough as they come. Whittaker’s takedown defense is as fantastic as his boxing defense, but it isn’t particularly relevant to his bout at UFC 243 against a pure kickboxer in Israel Adesanya.

Israel Adesanya of Nigeria punches Anderson Silva of Brazil during their Middleweight bout during UFC234
Israel Adesanya punches Anderson Silva during their middleweight bout at UFC 234 (Source: Getty Images AsiaPac)

The Stylebender

Maintaining kickboxing-level activity since his UFC debut in early 2018 and turning himself into a star with his first post-fight interview, Israel Adesanya’s rise has been nearly unrivaled in terms of quickness (at least in a division worth talking about). In retrospect, it’s hard to find a point at which he was obviously rushed; He got to top-15 gatekeeper Brad Tavares fairly quickly but absolutely schooled him, and the booking against Derek Brunson was suspect (given the kickboxer’s obvious stylistic weakness of the athletic wrestler) but he wiped out Brunson in a round. With his win over Kelvin Gastelum, Adesanya’s claim to an undisputed title shot was cemented, and he gets it against Robert Whittaker; a win would bring the undefeated Kiwi to the peak of the sport as a top pound-for-pound talent, with a menacing Brazilian waiting for him in the wings.

Adesanya’s game is the sort of switchy-kickboxing that has generally been lauded as the “new style” whenever it shows up in a fighter, and to his credit, he does it about as well as anyone ever; Adesanya is equally viable from both stances, against southpaws and orthodox fighters, and he (usually) switches in a way that doesn’t leave him out of position. Against his last two opponents, southpaws, Adesanya generally fought from orthodox to facilitate his rear-leg kicking game and play it off the straight (basically the mirror of what fighters like Mirko Filipovic did to his opponents from southpaw), but he has a strong jab and a good leg-kicking game from the closed-stance as well.

What ties his game together, like Whittaker’s, is constant feinting and building off his looks; even beyond the double attack mentioned earlier, Adesanya’s game is built on misdirection like almost no one else, with his feints not only numbing his opponent to his actual moves but also drawing attention so he can strike elsewhere (such as his windmilling of his rear hand to surprise with the jab). Adesanya’s game is generally active, but even more of his effort goes towards disorientating his opponent and pulling out their reactions to use later; against Derek Brunson’s one note-rush, for instance, Adesanya intercepted it with a knee, and against Gastelum reaching hard with his rear hand, Adesanya started going to clean pull-counters as Kelvin threw himself out of position. Adesanya has a number of unique looks to mix up his approach within that essential framework, including punching off kicks (which he does fairly often, throwing the rear hand through his opponent’s block as it widens to catch the kick), and he’s a genuinely damaging clincher.

If there’s been a consistent weak point for Adesanya, it’s been his defense in the pocket. Adesanya’s defense isn’t terrible or even bad in an overall sense (the way one can describe the pocket defense of Jon Jones, for example), but his last two opponents exploited it consistently, showing a lack of depth if exchanges last long enough; Adesanya’s defense is often the frame to cover his exit, and it works decently considering that he can slip and duck the initial shot before using it to keep his opponent from running him down, but Gastelum was able to land across the top of it or double up on the right hook to catch him moving backwards.

Anderson Silva also found success just windmilling forward to convince Adesanya to give a lot of ground, and both Gastelum and Silva were able to land clean jabs that they mostly got for free in trying to pressure Adesanya (who didn’t really seem comfortable sitting in the pocket and counterpunching Gastelum unless Gastelum committed as hard as he could to throwing himself off-balance). Of course, both lost the fight, but it raised some questions on whether anyone could consistently exploit those weak points to beat “The Last Stylebender”.

Robert Whittaker celebrates after his victory over Yoel Romero
Robert Whittaker celebrates after his victory over Yoel Romero of Cuba in their interim UFC middleweight championship bout during UFC 213 (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Conclusions and Capping

A very close fight between two of the best strikers in MMA, but it’s fairly difficult not to favor Whittaker here; both were in draining and punishing bouts their last time out, and while Whittaker’s probably took more out of him (which is a genuine concern going into this fight), Adesanya’s is a lot more telling given who he’s facing next.

Adesanya’s struggles with Gastelum are likely to be seen again, but this time against a more deeply-skilled boxer who’s much more adaptive than Gastelum, who can draw out the frame and work around it more effectively (cutting angles around it, consistently cross-countering it), and show an actually-developed game around jabbing Adesanya back and landing lead hooks where Gastelum couldn’t. Gastelum’s pivotal moment in round four came with a head kick thrown at the end of a combination, and Whittaker’s far more adept at doing that sort of thing, and he also has a better understanding of pressure than Gastelum does (where Gastelum just generally looks to push his opponent back with his hands, and he did so late in the fight against Adesanya to decent success, Whittaker has moments like walking Souza into a head kick that show that he’s perhaps more versatile than he’s given credit for).

While Whittaker’s approach isn’t the sort of relentless pressure (i.e. Paulo Costa) that can theoretically exploit Adesanya’s most troublesome tendencies, he’s adept enough in the pocket to where he can generally be trusted to manufacture the exchanges that favor him, and press his advantages. Adesanya could give Whittaker trouble with his kicking game, but that’s contingent on either Whittaker consenting to an outside-kicking fight or Adesanya keeping him on the outside, and given that he couldn’t keep Gastelum from crowding him at points, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the fight transpires that way; the sort of crushingly dangerous pocket exchanges that hurt Whittaker and convinced him to be careful entering against Romero at 225 aren’t really Adesanya’s game, so if Whittaker can extend the exchanges and deal with the frame, there’s no telling what Adesanya’s response will be. Combined with Whittaker being the better athlete with more power and speed, Adesanya has an uphill battle to keep his 0 and wrest the belt from the Reaper.

Prediction: Whittaker via KO2. This writer caps Whittaker at -160.

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