For UFC 243 headliner Israel ‘The Last Stylebender’ Adesanya, the dynamic striker has experienced one of the most impressive rises to stardom and Octagon success in recent years. The interim middleweight champion has rivaled the polarizing Conor McGregor’s timely route to triumph and fan appeal. Since February 2018, Adesanya has featured six separate times in the Octagon, scoring six straight victories.
The former GLORY kickboxing ace is on the precipice of undisputed gold this weekend in Melbourne, as he meets Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker in a unification clash at 185 pounds. Adesanya has dispatched middleweight icon Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva, Kelvin Gastelum, and Derek Brunson of note during his siege of the throne, conquering Gastelum to take the interim championship in a matchup for the ages in April this year.
In a five round unanimous decision win, Adesanya displayed some of the most impressive angle cutting, counter striking and distance management we’ve seen since the aforementioned Silva’s lengthy title reign. Scoring four knockdowns over the twenty-five minute meeting, Adesanya outpointed the incredibly dangerous Gastelum, who before the matchup, had toppled former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, and former Strikeforce middleweight gold holder Jacare Souza.
The Kiwi-Nigerian not only remains undefeated in his seventeen fight professional-career, but he also carries over a highly decorated kickboxing resume to boot. The former GLORY middleweight champion and King in The Ring cruiserweight and heavyweight best is one of the most threatening forces at middleweight today, due to his polished standup.
The well-traversed striker had finished a whopping twenty-six opponents via strikes. Against Whittaker, the standup battle presented in quite intriguing. South Auckland born Whittaker has survived a brutal fifty minute onslaught against Cuban power-puncher Yoel Romero, refusing to be finished in both the initial clash and the rematch.
On paper, Adesanya holds more tools than Whittaker in terms of natural striking talents, with his Taekwondo and kickboxing background, ultimately edging him ahead. Whittaker, a naturally gifted boxer with heavy hands, has a highly proficient snap right high kick from the conventional stance in his arsenal.
In his victory over the previously mentioned Souza, Whittaker setup the eventual finish with the kick as the Brazilian circled away. Against Olympic wrestling ace Romero, Whittaker survived a third round assault and launched the right head kick, which would have folded anyone on the middleweight roster, not named Yoel Romero.
Adesanya’s counter striking offensive and in particular, a straight right hand may prove dividends against Whittaker, who started quick out the blocks against Romero in both meetings. The sheer damage Whittaker sustained against the Florida based wrester in truly career altering so we must consider that factor when analysing this pairing. Saturday night also marks the first time The Ultimate Fighter victor returns to active-competition in a staggering sixteen months.
When Robert Whittaker meets Israel Adesanya in an attempt to unify the middleweight championships in Melbourne in the early hours of Sunday morning, the South Auckland native will step foot inside the Octagon for the first time in sixteen months.
We last witnessed Whittaker tussle with Yoel Romero in an instant classic rematch last June, and despite suffering a broken hand early in the bout, the 28-year-old managed to edge out the Cuban with a majority decision. Paired with then number-one contender Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234, Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the headlining spot on fight day, due to an abdominal hernia and collapsed bowl.
Whittaker, who is unbeaten since his move to 185 pounds back in 2014, has trumped the likes of Ronaldo Souza, Derek Brunson, Uriah Hall, and maybe most impressively, has twice scored wins against the previously mentioned Romero. In both fights with the Olympic silver-medallist, Whittaker was put through the absolute ringer. Spending a greulling total of fifty-minutes inside the Octagon with the explosive striker, the experience Whittaker has gained from facing somebody like ‘The Soldier Of God’ not once, but twice, has to be astronomical. We’ve seen huge improvements in the Aussie’s defensive wrestling and grappling, and sheer heart and will to continue in both contests.
When paired with the stance-altering Adesanya, Whittaker meets a striker who shares some similarities with the last man to defeat him at welterweight, ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. Granted, the karate style of Thompson is not as planted per-say as Adesanya, but the constant hop from conventional to southpaw alters the rhythm of a fight. In recent showings, Whittaker himself has imposed the early fight direction and pace, particularly in his Fight of The Year with Romero last summer.
The use of oblique kicks or front leg kicks has mitigated lateral movement, which ultimately led to the slaying of Jacare Souza. The Brazilian was pinned against the fence and was met with a snap right high kick, reminiscent of T.J. Dillashaw against Dominick Cruz or his initial clash with Cody Garbrandt. Badly hurting the wily grappler, Whittaker went on to finish with strikes, earning his first world championship tilt.
When we dissect the ever improving kickboxing of Robert Whittaker we must take into consideration the use of that right high kick. Throwing from orthodox, the technique is incredibly clean with little if any telegraphing. Against Derek Brunson. Whittaker threw the jab, stepped to his left, before launching his right leg upstairs. In his rematch with Romero, Whittaker once more set up the high kick with a jab and step to the left. If Romero’s chin wasn’t impeccable, I’m comfortable with the fact that we would have witnessed almost certain stoppage.
Adesanya may have the larger and considerably more dynamic striking tools in his repertoire but the pressing-style of Whittaker will force circling from Isreal and a reset within kicking range. The slick hands of a fresh Kelvin Gastelum forced some issues for Adesanya early and late in their April barn-burner, particularly counter hooks. In the majority of his fights, Whittaker sets up exchanges with a feint, usually a feint of a conventional jab and then swings with a left hook, which will prove pivotal to close distance against the longer Adesanya.