Preview: UFC 243 ‘Whittaker vs. Adesanya’ - Whittaker vs. Adesanya

By: Tom Feely
Oct 2, 2019

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 243 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

The biggest fight in Anzac MMA history finally looks set to take place in Melbourne, Australia, but everyone is waiting on this card with bated breath and not just because of how great the headlining middleweight tilt looks on paper. Robert Whittaker has been forced to pull out of his last two slated fights on Australian soil, and given that this is essentially a one-fight show, nobody will relax until he faces off with Israel Adesanya inside the Octagon on Saturday at UFC 243. Beyond their blockbuster battle, the co-main between Al Iaquinta and Dan Hooker is a solid fight, and while there is not much else of note, the Ultimate Fighting Championship at least did well to put together some fun fights featuring some local fighters, even if nothing is particularly relevant.

Now to the UFC 243 “Whittaker vs. Adesanya” preview:

UFC Middleweight Championship

Robert Whittaker (20-4) vs. Israel Adesanya (17-0)

ODDS: Whittaker (-110), Adesanya (-110)

Since Whittaker became Oceania’s first UFC champion in 2017, the promotion has kept trying to put him atop a pay-per-view card in Australia. Hopefully, the third time is the charm. The first attempt -- at UFC 221 in Perth back in early 2018 -- at least fell through early, with Yoel Romero getting the call to replace Whittaker against Luke Rockhold. Whittaker thankfully came back in short order to win an absolute war in a rematch with Romero, which set up another attempt at a headlining spot Down Under, this time against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234. Up until the day of the fight, it looked like all systems were go, only for Whittaker to pull out due to a severe abdominal hernia just hours before the bout was slated to take place. It is a shame that Whittaker has not had his big hometown moment as returning champion and also a shame that he has not been more active in general, as he has quietly rounded into one of the best all-around fighters in the world. Not much was expected after Whittaker won “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” in 2012, and his welterweight campaign quickly hit a wall with losses to Court McGee and Stephen Thompson. In response, Whittaker moved to middleweight, and the rest is history, as he has not lost a fight since. Whittaker took all his power up to 185 pounds and then some, and his relative speed became a boon on offense and on defense, as he outboxed opponent after opponent without much trouble. After starching Derek Brunson to get into the mix at the top of the middleweight division, Whittaker truly arrived with a 2017 win over Ronaldo Souza, as he flashed a suddenly elite wrestling game and survived the Brazilian grappling ace before eventually halting Souza in the second round. Since then, Whittaker has only fought about once per year, but “The Reaper” has made it count, as both his interim title win and subsequent rematch against Romero were among the best fights of the last two-plus years. Whittaker survived a ton of damage and gutted through just enough to take the scorecards from his Cuban counterpart. The time has now come for a fresh challenger and for Whittaker’s middleweight reign to hopefully get started in earnest, as Adesanya steps in to try and complete one of the quickest rises in the sport’s recent history.

It is still a bit jarring to think of how quickly Adesanya made his way up the ranks, since he was not even on the greater MMA radar when Whittaker first took over as middleweight king. Adesanya did not make his Octagon debut until UFC 221, and he was far from a sure thing to reach championship contender status. Coming over from kickboxing, Adesanya is capable of some beautiful violence on the feet, but after mostly relying on his athleticism to get out of trouble on the regional scene, there was some question about how he would fare against the more controlling wrestlers the UFC has to offer. Initially, those fears were well-founded. Adesanya got stifled early by Rob Wilkinson before coming back to score the finish, and Marvin Vettori managed to apply some pressure and keep things close. However, by the time Adesanya reached a headlining spot against Brad Tavares -- just five months after his promotional debut -- he had already started filling in those holes, and by November, he managed to survive early and knock out Derek Brunson without much trouble. After beating Anderson Silva in a weird bout, Adesanya laid claim to interim gold against Gastelum in April, answering a number of questions in the process. That bout was a back-and-forth war that proved “The Last Stylebender” could dig deep and bounce back from a tough test. Now, less than 20 months after he first appeared in the Octagon, Adesanya is primed to go from championship-level fighter to just plain undisputed champion.

This should be an absolute corker, but this also looks like Whittaker’s fight to lose. For all of Adesanya’s kickboxing prowess, the reigning champion might still have the advantage in a straight-up MMA striking match. A lot of that comes down to defense. At 185 pounds, Whittaker has typically managed to avoid danger from everything short of Romero’s outlier-level bursts of violence, while Adesanya has not seemed to show much concern about what his opponent has to offer -- a tendency that finally started to bite him a bit against Gastelum. It will be interesting to see if Adesanya shows that he has learned those lessons. Throughout his career, he has shown a willingness and an ability to patch up the weaknesses in his game. With that said, Whittaker figures to win a lot of the striking exchanges in this fight, particularly since Adesanya prefers to fight from a range where the champion can see his strikes coming. The wrestling phase is also interesting. Whittaker flashed his skills against Souza, but that was mostly on defense, and Adesanya is the first opponent in a while against whom Whittaker might be able to mix up his attack and grind out a win if he needs to. The big concerns here for the champion are twofold. One is if Adesanya continues his rapid rate of improvement and looks even better after a six-month break, and the other is if the two fights with Romero have taken such a toll that Adesanya manages to end it with a few big blows. If Whittaker shows up near his peak form, he should be able to show the difference between an elite fighter and an all-time great. The pick is for Whittaker to start picking up steam as the fight deepens on his way to a fourth-round stoppage.

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