Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker will stand toe-to-toe once more when they meet in the main event of UFC 271 this weekend.
Adesanya, the champion, claimed the title when he defeated Whittaker by knockout in October 2019. Whittaker worked his way back up to a title shot after three consecutive victories and is now faced with the challenge of doing something no one in the middleweight division has done: beating Adesanya.
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Adesanya vs. Whittaker odds
- Adesanya: -290
- Whittaker: +230
Adesanya vs. Whittaker staff predictions
In one of the most anticipated rematches for the middleweight title in UFC history, Robert Whittaker has a chance to steal back the belt he lost to Israel Adesanya three years ago. In order to do so, he has to find a way to engage in the kind of fight that suits him but this is easier said than done because both men like to work at a distance with feints and calculated set ups in order to intercept and counter their opponents. The fact that both men do this, albeit in different fashions, means that the fighter who is more patient and is able to get the other to bite on their setups will be a step closer to victory. For Whittaker, he needs to poke and prod at Adesanya, he is better at moving directly in and back with his whipping style kicks and quick jab, by picking apart Adesanya he may be able to draw out the counters and capitalize on Adesanya as he advances. If he can do this, the clinch trips will be a big tool for the Australian.
For Adesanya, he has to use his range and angles to force Whittaker to blitz forward, so that Adesanya can cut the inside angle and counter Whittaker’s big explosive movements with tighter crisper shots. Adesanya is good at scrambling but sometimes settles on his back in half guard, so defending the takedown will be a smarter battle than trying to work from his back, the best way he can do this is keep his back to the outside of the cage and use the fence to his advantage.
I think that we see a far more competitive fight this time around, with Whittaker taking a more cautious approach and finding his opportunities to take Adesanya down. I also see Adesanya being able to create space and get to his feet especially if he is able to wall-walk and although I think Adesanya makes out slightly better in the striking exchanges, it’s competitive enough that Whittaker’s takedown attempts have the potential ability to even things out. That being said, while Whittaker’s more well-rounded toolset give him a chance at adding points to the bank in control, I think that Adesanya has more the ability to land the cleaner damaging strikes, and so in a close fight Whittaker comes out worse for wear by the end and even maybe gets stopped late.
Prediction: Israel Adesanya to win
A lot of the narrative surrounding the middleweight main event is how Adesanya and Whittaker are both different fighters compared to the first time they matched up. I disagree. While both fighters have more experience and have added layers to their game, fundamentally, they are the same as they were back in 2019. Adesanya is still an elite kickboxer, likely the best in the UFC. His stance switching style still allows him to defend and evade shots at an impressively high rate. And, still, Adesanya’s precision and cerebral approach to fighting places him a cut above the rest.
I’m not concerned about Adesanya’s takedown defense or that Blachowicz finally discovered the blueprint to beating Stylebender. The blueprint, taking Izzy down and holding him there, has always been apparent to fighters. Standing and trading with a kickboxer of Adesanya’s pedigree is a bad decision. So, fighters have tried to pressure him, collapse the distance, and get him to the mat. Fighters have known that for a long time, Blachowicz was just the first and only one to be able to implement it because of his size advantage. Therefore, I still see Adesanya in a similar light to his first matchup with Whittaker: a deadly fast, precise, and intelligent kickboxer with the movement and fundamentals to keep the fight at his range and pace.
Whittaker, too, is fundamentally the same fighter. I do recognize that mentally, the challenger did not seem to be himself when he first faced Adesanya. But, since that fight, Whittaker has not evolved in a significant way. He is still an incredibly high-level striker who can box with precision and power, who can kick with speed and variety, and who can fight from range and the pocket. He has a stone jaw and is willing to take a strike to land several of his own. Whittaker continues to pile up the volume as the fight progresses and seems to improve as the fight enters the later rounds. Further, while Whittaker is primarily a striker, his grappling game is fundamentally sound; and, just like his striking, relentless when he pressures. Ultimately, Whittaker, even on a three-fight win streak after his first shot at the title, is fundamentally the same fighter: a high-level striker, a strong grappler, and a fighter with the cardio to continue his high volume attack for five rounds.
I feel Whittaker falls into the Max Holloway and Colby Covington camp. If it weren’t for the current champions being so dominant in their respective weight classes, Holloway, Covington, and Whittaker would likely all be holding the belt. They’re that great. Whittaker is a pure mixed martial artist who, until he faced Adesanya, looked unbeatable. The issue, though, is Adesanya is a slight step ahead. I see this fight being close, with a few more grappling exchanges than the first matchup; but, ultimately ending the same: Adesanya winning. Because of the likelihood of more grappling, I like Adesanya to win a decision.
Prediction: Adesanya by decision
Adesanya is perhaps the most impressive striker in the UFC. What makes his striking so impressive is how he integrates cerebral savviness with elite natural kickboxing skills. This tactic of using intelligence to successfully implement physical talent can result in Adesanya having “boring” fights, given he will not deviate away from what makes him so talented – technical striking that is inherently built on countering-attacking his opponent. Building off the idea of having boring fights, I often find counter-striking as a non-sustainable success tactic for anyone not named Adesanya, given output is often less for the counter-striker compared to the one initiating the exchanges.
For the champ, his output is indeed a mild concern, however, his next-level ability to land damaging strikes with insane precision has proved to be negate this believed concern throughout his dominance over the middleweight division. When Adesanya went up to the light heavyweight division, Jan Blachowicz was able to outsize him that resulted in Jan securing a wrestle-heavy victory. Although Jan showcased a clear pathway to beating the middleweight champ, no current middleweight has been able to have significant success in implementing the Jan Blachowicz game plan. The question will be if Adesanya can combat the technical takedowns of Whittaker and if he can land as cleanly as he did in the first matchup, thus mitigating the output vs count-striking concern.
Whittaker is, at the moment, the unequivocal clear challenger in the middleweight division. As a former champion himself, Whittaker has separated from the rest of the middleweight’s since his loss to Adesanya in 2019, having gone 3-0 quite easily against Till, Cannonier, and Gastelum. In fact, his only loss as a middleweight has been to Adesanya – Whittaker is 11-1 in the middleweight division. His historical dominance, against highly-respectable opponents, illustrates his high-level talent is as a fighter. This talent is primarily built on his striking, as he is extremely fast, fluid, and powerful from start to finish. In the grappling department, he is extremely technical with an underlying understanding of how striking transitions into securing a takedown and vice versa. All in all, Whittaker has no clear flaws beyond being in a division with a historically talented striker in Adesanya. Given Whittaker’s tactic in their first bout was to negate distance by rushing in with a lead hook did not prove effective, the question will be if Whittaker can find an alternative attack to negate said distance, and then, if Whittaker’s wrestling can prove effective against the sneakily good takedown defense – 80% – of the champ.
This fight can go in many different directions. The path to victory, for both men, has been laid out in past performances. For Adesanya, the exact way he won the first bout against Whittaker will be the key to victory – maintain distance and land effective counter-strikes. For Whittaker, following the Jan Blachowicz plan will be the key to victory – patiently cut down distance, to then, land takedowns. Although Adesanya has overcome a bevy of strategies at the middleweight division, I am electing to back Whittaker in this matchup. The rationale for doing so is fully believing Whittaker is a top 15 pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, as such, the probability of successfully implementing an alternative game plan as he did in his first matchup against Adesanya is likely greater than the implied probability of Adesanya winning as the odds suggest. Thus, the disparity in believed probability creates value on Whittaker, and for this reason, I am to back the former champion, “Bobby Knuckles”.