Robert Whittaker may secure a shot at UFC Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya with a win – so does The Reaper represent the greatest threat to the champ?
Despite losing pretty handily to him in their first fight back in October 2019, the answer is almost definitely yes.
With this in mind, here are three reasons why Robert Whittaker is the biggest threat to UFC Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya.
#1 His loss to Adesanya was his first UFC fight after a year away
The biggest reason why Israel Adesanya would be a huge favorite in a rematch with Robert Whittaker is obviously the fact that The Last Stylebender knocked Whittaker out easily when they fought in 2019.
However, that fight – the main event of UFC 243 – was Whittaker’s first visit to the Octagon in well over a year following some serious injuries.
Whittaker defeated Yoel Romero in an absolute war at UFC 225 in June 2018 and was then scheduled to fight Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 in February 2019.
However, a horrendous sounding injury – an abdominal hernia complete with a twisted and collapsed bowel – sidelined him.
And that meant that by the time his fight with Adesanya rolled around, The Reaper had been on the shelf for a total of 16 months.
It’s not impossible for a UFC fighter to succeed after returning from a long layoff – Dominick Cruz and Georges St. Pierre both did it, for instance.
However, it’s also true that to succeed at the highest level of the UFC, most fighters need to get into a groove and carry some momentum with them.
Octagon rust is almost certainly real. And Whittaker – who looked almost panicky against Adesanya and tried to force his offense to work – was almost certainly suffering from it.
But assuming he beats Gastelum this weekend, Whittaker will have three wins in the UFC under his belt in just nine months. That’s the strongest schedule he’s been able to keep since before winning the UFC Middleweight title in 2017.
Basically, if Whittaker rematches Adesanya later in 2021, he’d almost certainly be ready for him this time around – meaning he’d have a far better shot at winning.
#2 He’s looked improved in his recent wins
Robert Whittaker’s loss to Israel Adesanya at UFC 234 was his first in over five years. In fact, The Reaper hadn’t lost in an impressive nine fights, dating back to February 2014.
However, the nature of the loss was somewhat alarming. Adesanya was notably the first pinpoint striker that The Reaper had faced since Stephen Thompson.
And of course, not only was Wonderboy the man responsible for that February 2014 loss, but he knocked out Whittaker in similar fashion to Adesanya.
Essentially, it looked like for all of his success, Whittaker hadn’t improved when it came to facing a sharp kickboxer.
However, since his return in July 2020, The Reaper has looked markedly improved, meaning that a fight with Adesanya may well go differently.
Whittaker’s run to the UFC Middleweight title was largely defined by his ability to beat monstrous grapplers like Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza.
But against Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, The Reaper showed that he’s very much capable of succeeding in a pure striking battle. And against Till, he deployed a more patient style that we hadn’t really seen from him in the UFC before.
If this patient Whittaker were to show up in a rematch against Adesanya, it’s unlikely that The Last Stylebender would simply be able to snipe at him as he did in their initial meeting at UFC 243.
Instead, we’d probably be treated to a much more even stand-up battle, and that could well play into the hands of Whittaker, given Adesanya likely wouldn’t expect it.
#3 He may be able to take some cues from Jan Blachowicz
Perhaps the most telling difference between Robert Whittaker’s first fight with Israel Adesanya and a potential rematch later in 2021 is what’s happened to Adesanya since.
The Last Stylebender followed up his title win against Whittaker with big victories over Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa. The latter win took his overall MMA ledger to 20-0.
At that point, Adesanya looked unbeatable.
However, since then, the UFC Middleweight champion has suffered the first loss of his UFC and MMA career. A failed attempt to become a double champion saw him suffer a defeat to Jan Blachowicz at UFC 259.
And so not only does The Last Stylebender no longer have an unbeatable aura around him, but the Blachowicz fight may also have given other potential foes a blueprint to defeat him.
Essentially, Adesanya didn’t look too hot at all when Blachowicz took him down and worked him over from the top.
Admittedly, Robert Whittaker isn’t anywhere near as big as Blachowicz and wouldn’t enjoy the kind of size and strength advantage that the Polish fighter had over Adesanya.
However, The Reaper is a highly underrated wrestler who is more than capable of taking an opponent down. Given that Adesanya’s takedown defense didn’t look great, it could well prove to be an Achilles heel.
If Whittaker were to work his wrestling game then, there’s every chance that he might be able to wear Adesanya down in the same way that Blachowicz was able to.
Granted, Yoel Romero – an even better wrestler – could not do this to Adesanya, but it’s also worth noting that Romero didn’t really try to.
And so what if Whittaker looks to use his takedowns on the champion in a rematch? It’s very possible that he could reclaim the title he lost at UFC 243.